"Manual mode (M) and
learning to use it on your D-SLR is one of the best ways to help take
your photography to the next level"
It’s actually quite simple to use, and once you’ve learned it you’ll be
taking spectacular pictures that were not possible using the automatic
Many photographers, including myself, use manual virtually 100% of the
time. I actually find it much easier to use this mode than any of the
So what exactly is Manual
Manual is the setting on your camera that allows you to choose the
exact shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for the photo.
In any of the other automatic modes, like "Aperture
Priority" (Av), "Shutter Priority"
(Tv), or "Program" (P), the camera is
choosing at least one of those settings for you based on a guess as to "what
it thinks" you like. The end of that last sentence provides
a hint as to why Manual mode is often the best choice...
Why is Manual mode the
best choice in many situations?
It’s because in any of the automatic modes, the camera is taking a
guess as to what you want the picture to look like. Every time you
press the shutter button, it takes an educated guess at the exposure
based on what the camera is pointed at.
This guess is based on what the "meter"
inside the camera sees. (I’ll explain more about the meter later on in
this article, and exactly how it works.)
If you don’t like the guess the camera makes, you can begin to try to
override it using things like "Exposure Compensation",
but once you start doing that, you’re practically using Manual mode at
that point, except you’re fighting the camera’s decisions.
This is why I stated above that I find it easier to use Manual mode in
the first place. Here’s a simple analogy I like to use:
Which is easier?: Driving a car where you
control both the steering and the gas pedal (or) Driving a car where
you control the steering and a friend controls the gas pedal, and if
you don’t like the speed your friend chooses, you have to start
communicating with them to slow down or speed up and hope they get it
I think most people would just rather control both! Just because you’re
controlling both the steering AND the gas pedal while driving, doesn’t
make it harder...it actually makes it EASIER.
The same holds true for using Manual mode on your camera.
What does the Meter do?
Let’s talk a little bit about the camera’s meter. The meter is the part
of your camera that looks at the scene you’re photographing and guides
you to what it believes is a proper exposure.
In the automatic modes, it sets the exposure for you by choosing the
shutter speed and/or aperture.
In manual mode, you can "look at" the meter by looking in the
viewfinder to see the camera’s guess at the exposure, however the
camera will not actually change the settings for shutter speed or
aperture. Here is why the automatic modes are not the best modes to use:
When you take a picture on Auto mode, the computer chip inside a camera
(the meter) measures the light in order to determine how bright to make
the photo, but it has no idea what it is looking at. It takes a guess.
The computer is specifically set to take all pictures at a "medium
brightness" level because "most" scenes we encounter are taken in
medium lighting (not too dark, not too bright). So it automatically
selects a shutter speed and aperture that will result in a
While this may work in some cases, it definitely does not work in all
cases. If you always used Auto mode for every photo you took, there
would be many photos incorrectly exposed.
The two classic examples use to illustrate this are the polar bear in
the snow and the black cat in the coal mine.
If you used automatic mode and tried to take a picture of a polar bear
in the snow, the meter would say "wow, this scene is
extremely bright and I need to make it "medium"-brightness, so I better
darken the photo" and what you wind up with is a photo of
gray snow and a gray polar bear, rather than white.
Similarly, if you tried to take a picture of a black cat in a coal
mine, the meter would say "OK, this scene is very dark, and
I need to make it "medium"-brightness, so I will brighten up the photo"
and you wind up with a gray cat in a gray coal mine.
These are of course two silly examples used to illustrate the point,
but they do apply to you every time you take out your camera.
For example, many people wonder why when they take a sunset photo, they
can never capture the true beauty or deep colors of the sunset.
The reason is because of the "black cat" example above. During a
sunset, the sky can actually go fairly dark, except right where the sun
is. The rest of the sky may be a deep blue with some beautiful oranges
The camera’s meter says "this scene is very dark, I’d better
brighten it up to make it "medium"-brightness" and that’s
how you lose your beautiful sunset and wind up with a very bright
picture of a white/gray sky rather than the incredible sunset in front
How does Manual mode solve
It’s simple – YOU choose the shutter speed and aperture that results in
a beautiful photo of the sunset colors.
You completely ignore the meter and set the camera in a way that
records the sunset properly. Sure you can use the meter as a starting
point if you like, but you’ll ultimately wind up choosing settings that
are likely drastically different than what the camera would have chosen.
That’s a good thing, because now you will have the photo you want.
Once you’ve chosen the settings that work for the photo, you can leave
the settings for the entire duration of the sunset, and you know you’ll
get an accurate representation of the whole event over time.
If your camera was on automatic, every picture might look almost
identical, even as the sun continued to set – here’s why:
Let’s say you used the automatic mode "Aperture Priority" and set it to
F16 for the sunset. It’s 5pm and the sun starts to set. The camera
chooses a shutter speed of 1/100th second.
Several minutes later, the sky is darker because the sun has set more.
Now the camera adjusts its shutter speed to 1/50th of a second to
brighten it up – remember, its goal on Auto mode is for a medium
brightness photo every time.
Several minutes later, it’s even darker and the camera takes the
picture at 1/25th second. When you’re done, you’ll have three virtually
identical shots with the sun in a different position.
In real life, the sky would have gotten a beautiful deep purple, as the
night fell, yet in your pictures, none of this would be reflected.
You’d have three identical pictures of medium brightness. Probably not
what you want.
Many people would say that Exposure Compensation
is the way they get around the problem of the "medium" brightness
dilemma. While this may help for one single photo, it is not a solution.
Exposure compensation is simply "offsetting" the camera’s guess by a
certain amount – you’re still saying to the camera "take a
guess for me, but then make the photo a little darker (or brighter)
than your guess."
Either way, you’re still basing your photo on the camera’s guess. In
our example above of the sun setting over time, you’d still wind up
with three identical photos of the sunset, as the camera adjusted the
shutter speed over time to compensate for the darkening sky.
Now that you’re starting to develop a deeper understanding of the
camera’s meter, and hopefully a feel for why manual mode may be better
in many cases, let’s talk a little about some specific types of
photography and how Manual mode can help.
Night photography is one of the great
examples of when to use Manual mode. When taking pictures at night of
city skylines or stars or night scenes, your camera’s meter has very
little use and does not work well.
Attempting to take night pictures on your camera’s Auto modes will
almost always result in frustration, blurry shots, photos that are too
This is the perfect time to pull out the tripod (or rest the camera on
something steady), put the camera on Manual mode, set an aperture
appropriate for the scene, and then adjust the shutter speed until the
exposure is correct and the brightness is just right.
If depth-of-field is not critical (for example, when taking a photo of
a distant skyline), I suggest a starting point of ISO 100, an aperture
of F5.6, and a shutter speed of 3 seconds. Take a test shot, see how
bright or dark the photo is, and then adjust the shutter speed
Sports, action, or wildlife
photography is another type of photography where you
might want to use Manual mode.
This can be helpful when you’re trying to achieve consistency from
shot-to-shot, when taking multiple shots in a row.
For example, let’s say I’m photographing some birds. The exposure /
brightness of the bird itself may be what’s most important to me,
regardless of the background.
I might set an aperture of F4 and a shutter speed of 1/1000th to
capture the bird and freeze its motion. The F4 will ensure a nice
blurred background, and 1/1000th will result in a good exposure for the
Using this setup, the bird can fly or move around anywhere in the
scene, and I can continue taking pictures knowing that the bird will
look exactly the same in all the shots – perfectly exposed. That’s what
If however, I had used Shutter Priority mode, I might get different
exposures for the bird from shot-to-shot, which for me personally, is
not what I’d want. Here’s why:
Let’s say you used Shutter Priority and set a shutter speed of 1/1000th
of a second to freeze the movement of the bird. The bird is in front of
some trees, and the camera chooses an aperture of F4 to expose the bird
A few seconds later, the bird moves a little, and instead of being in
front of some trees, the bird is now in front of some bright flowers.
The camera’s meter sees the bright flowers, thinks the scene is too
bright now, and closes down the aperture to F8.
Now, not only do you have a picture of the bird that is two full-stops
darker than the previous picture, but the depth-of-field of the whole
photo has changed because the aperture has gone from F4 to F8.
Once again, this is probably not what you wanted.
Similarly, if you’re taking a series of photos of a football player
running down a field, if you use shutter priority, the exposure of the
football player will vary from shot-to-shot as he passes in front of
various different backgrounds (maybe in one shot he’s in front of the
crowd, and in the next shot he’s in front of a bright billboard).
The only way to achieve consistency is to use Manual mode. While there
is intelligence in the meter that is supposed to help determine what
you’re photographing to account for these problems, it is not always
On the other end of the shutter speed spectrum, perhaps you’re shooting
You could use manual mode to choose a shutter speed of 2 seconds to get
some beautiful blur on the water, and then choose an aperture to
achieve the correct brightness.
If you used an automatic mode, like Shutter Priority, the aperture
might change from shot to shot depending on whether the sun was peeking
through the clouds at that particular moment when you took the shot.
If the scene got darker, the camera might open up the aperture so much
that you’d lose the appropriate depth of field and wind up with a
I prefer the consistency of knowing exactly what I’m going to get. You
can discover more about Landscape photography and realize your creative
abilities at Digital Landscape Photography Adventure.
So when might you want to
use one of the automatic modes?
You may want to use an auto mode when time is of the essence. If an
incredible scene quickly unfolds in front of you, you simply may not
have time to adjust the shutter speed and aperture appropriately.
In those cases, it may be worthwhile to just spin the mode dial to "P"
and hope to get a decent exposure. Similarly, if you need to take
several shots very quickly of a scene which has varying brightness
levels, setting the camera to aperture priority with an appropriate
aperture will allow you to take several shots quickly.
For example, if you’re with a group and have only a few moments to
capture several images of a landscape from a hilltop, you may want to
use aperture priority to snap several shots of the landscape from
various angles, without having to set the shutter speed individually
for each shot.
Except for these types of situations though, I almost always prefer the
consistency of Manual Mode.
Hopefully this article has shed some light on the benefits of using
Manual Mode. Give it a try on your next outing and you too may see that
you find it easier to use than the Automatic modes, and you’ll get
better pictures as well.
For more tutorials and tips, please feel free to visit my blog and ask
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