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4 minute read

Using Manual Exposure Mode

Manual mode might offer photographers the ultimate level of control, but it’s not always the right choice. Let’s look at when to photograph in manual and when it’s best to stay in auto

There is a common misconception among beginner photographers that advanced photographers always use manual exposure mode. This is definitely not the case – most of the time even professional photographers rely on auto modes to get the images they want. But manual mode does have its uses. The key to making the most of it is knowing when to use it, and when not to.

Manual mode is good when you want to take complete control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. You can even engage manual focusing, too, if you like. But this is only a successful strategy if you have the time to take that control in the first place. Let’s have a look at some of the reasons for using manual mode, and some instances when you shouldn’t.

Because It Slows You Down…

All photographers have found themselves in that situation where they’ve just made too many pictures of the same subject! Digital photography makes it easy to blast away without really thinking about which aperture or shutter speed is being selected, but switching to manual mode slows you down and forces you to take a more considered approach to your picture making.

Using Manual Exposure Mode

Photo © Daniel H Bailey

The result is quality over quantity. By considering carefully which shutter speed best conveys the movement in your scene, and which aperture gives you the right depth-of-field, you will end up with fewer pictures, but these pictures will look like you want them to.

When You Need Consistency

Small changes in composition or the position of objects in the frame can cause automatic exposure systems to make small adjustments in camera settings. Even a third of a stop change in aperture or shutter speed can make a noticeable difference to a picture’s brightness, which can be a problem if you need consistency between frames. You might be creating a sequence of pictures that all need to look the same. Or you might be creating frames that will be merged together later as a composite or multiple exposure.

In this case, set aperture, shutter speed, and ISO using manual, so the values won’t change even if you slightly recompose.

When Using Studio Flash

If there is one time when you don’t want your camera to go changing shutter speed, aperture, or ISO without you noticing, it’s when you’re using studio flash. This is because the ambient light detected by the camera bears no resemblance to the light that will be produced by the flashes. It’s best to manually set a shutter speed, aperture, and ISO that suits the flash power you’ve set.

When Photographing Moving Subjects

This is one time when – generally speaking – you’re better off steering clear of manual mode. If the light changes as you’re following your subject, then you could end up with photos that are badly exposed. Leave the adjustments to your camera by choosing an automatic or semi-automatic mode instead.

When You Need to Concentrate on What’s Happening

Again, this is a situation when manual mode can be more of a curse then a blessing. You might be able to make adjustments to changing conditions yourself, but when doing so means you are paying less attention to your subject, you might be better off with a semi-automatic mode like Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority. A good example is portraiture, which relies more on interpersonal skills and forming a connection with your subject than being in full control of camera settings.

When You Need to Sharpen Your Skills

Every now and again it’s good to photograph something in manual mode, simply for the experience. Remind yourself of the purpose of apertures and shutter speeds by making a choice about them without assistance. It will make you a better photographer – even when you’ve switched back to automatic!