Some Benefits of Shooting in Manual Mode

By Ryan Pastorino on November 4th, 2011   |    Posted in:  Photography 101   |    1 Comment

Lets face it. That big M on our DSLR’s mode dial is pretty scary, right?  If you don’t agree with that statement, chances are there was a time when you did. For most, DLSR cameras are intimidating, especially when new to photography. We assume the camera is smarter than us so letting it participate in the thinking will increase the likelihood of achieving good results.  At least, that’s how I used to think.  I thought I had years of learning and experience before I’d be ready to take on that big M. I suppose I was right because after almost 5 years of owning a DSLR, I have finally given manual mode a chance, shooting in manual more and more often.  DSLR cameras have great automatic and semi-automatic modes to make life easier for us when starting out, but they have their limitations.  One of the greatest advantages of shooting in manual is consistency.

Have you ever taken a series of shots in aperture or shutter mode and had exposures vary from one frame to the next? That is because before each exposure, the way the camera has metered has changed due to the conditions, subject or the camera moving/changing. Unless keeping the exposure lock activated, the camera will reevaluate the scene each time you take a shot based on the metering mode selected and what the camera is metering off of.  This is great if your environment or conditions are changing drastically in a short period of time but even if nothing has change, this can create a lot of variance from one frame to the next.  Manual mode doesn’t depend on the camera’s internal meter. If you are shooting multiple frames of the same general area, and dialed in a perfect exposure for one shot, every exposure should come out perfectly exposed.

With manual mode, you set the parameter and they don’t change until you change them. A big drawback of the semi-auto modes is that the parameter controlled by the camera, i.e. shutter speed in aperture mode, can change drastically from one frame to the next. How frustrating is it to take a series of shots and suddenly the camera chooses a shutter speed much too slow to get a good shot. What happened? The shot before and the shot after were fine. Again, it comes down to the way the camera metered. If for some reason the camera metered on a area of shadows, it’s going to recalculate the exposure and want a slower than desired shutter speed.  The same goes for shutter priority mode…the aperture can change from one frame to the next causing changes to the depth of field which can be very problematic if you’re trying to maintain depth of field.

I have found that manual mode really shines in the most challenging conditions.  This might sound counter-intuitive.  It might seem that in challenging conditions it’s best to leave the camera to do the hard work, but it turns out that’s not true. Take, for example, dark rides (or any dark environment). Again, the camera is going to use it’s internal meter to get a proper exposure.  But what is a proper exposure, especially in the case of a dark ride? The exposure the camera is aiming for might not be correct to what our own eyes see. The camera will be trying to achieve a technically correct exposure. I have found this to mean that in dark environments, it wants a much brighter shot than what is true to the scene. With the harshly varying levels of light in  dark rides, this often results in a lot of blown highlights. That means we have to tell the camera to underexpose.  The way we do this in the semi-auto modes is to set a negative exposure compensation value to get a darker image.  I hear a lot of talk about exposure compensation.  It’s a term used a lot. Exposure compensation is simply a tool to tell the camera to underexpose or overexpose. If in aperture mode and you want a darker image and a faster shutter speed, you set negative exposure compensation to tell the camera, “I want a faster shutter speed, please!” I realized one day that I was dancing around with varying EV values trying to force the camera to behave the way I wanted.  Then I realized…if I want the camera to behave a certain way, why don’t I just switch to manual and set exactly what I want? Plus, it can speed up operation as the camera doesn’t have to do any calculating before focusing and taking the shot.  The camera’s meter is still important to manual shooting.  Using visual cues in the viewfinder, it gives us a starting place from which to adjust.  I still use the semi-auto modes quite often, especially when I’m walking around the parks taking quick shots here and there. I’m not saying that since I have discovered many benefits of shooting in manual that I now frown upon using any other setting.  I’m simply trying to show that manual mode isn’t all that scary and that there is a lot to gain from learning to use it. The semi-auto modes are great, but they can become a crutch. The biggest thing is becoming confident that you know what you’re doing and that you actually know more than your camera does.  I hope this article was informative and that it inspires you to give that M a try (if you haven’t already).  If you have any thoughts, or if I have skipped over some important details, please leave a comment.  I would like to hear your thoughts.  I had always heard more experienced shooters preach that manual mode is the only way to go.  I thought, yeah yeah I’m comfy with my semi-auto modes. I didn’t fully understand the benefits until I actually started experimenting.


1 Comment

  1. Katie Marino   |   Nov 4, 2011

    Great post, Ryan. Maybe one of these days I will have the courage to try!



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