Manual Mode: the REAL advantages for photographers making the switch

Metering from a dark area

You can never say you’ve mastered your DSLR until you can shoot in manual mode. But relax, it’s easy! In this tutorial we answer all of the common questions about shooting in manual mode, as well as the advantages it can give you.

Manual Mode: the REAL advantages in making the switch

When there’s a lot of light and dark contrast in your scene, using Manual mode can help get the best out of your picture. Image by Frans Lemmens

Common questions about using manual mode

Manual mode – that’s when I have to make all the decisions?

Sort of. Manual mode is an exposure mode similar to Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, but unlike those semi-automatic options, you have to set both the aperture and the shutter speed by hand.

The camera won’t make any changes to the exposure, although you will still be guided to the ‘best’ exposure by the metering system, and all the other key shooting parameters such as focusing, white balance and ISO can be set automatically if you so wish.

OK, so explain to us how Manual exposure actually works?

Once you’ve selected Manual mode, you’ll need to decide what is most important to the success of the picture: the depth of field (how much appears sharp) or the duration of the exposure (how movement is rendered). Doing this allows you to work out which setting to adjust first.

If control of depth of field is crucial, such as when you’re shooting a landscape (where a greater depth of field is required) or a portrait (where a shallower depth of field may help to blur the background), then set the aperture first.

Small apertures (such as f/16 and f/22) increase the depth of field, whereas wide apertures (such as f/2.8 and f/4) decrease it. If the length of the exposure is essential, then choose the shutter speed first. Fast shutter speeds (such as 1/1000sec) can help you freeze motion, whereas slow shutter speeds (such as 1/10sec) will blur it.

Now what’s the next step?

Once you’ve set the first parameter, you can set the corresponding shutter speed or aperture to produce a suitable exposure. Although the exact combination will change according to the situation, the principle remains the same: small apertures let in less light and require slower shutter speeds to make an exposure; wider apertures let in more light and enable the use of faster shutter speeds.

As you make the adjustment, keep an eye on the exposure scale in the viewfinder – this will indicate if the subject being metered for is being exposed as a neutral mid-tone, or if it’s being either under or overexposed. You can, of course, adjust the ISO setting to change the exposure, too.

The ISO essentially controls the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. Choosing a higher ISO setting makes the sensor more sensitive to light (so less of it is required to make an exposure), while a lower ISO setting makes the sensor less sensitive (so more light will be required to make the same exposure).

This gives you the freedom to select a more suitable combination of aperture and shutter speed for a given situation – such as using a high ISO to enable the use of both a small aperture and fast shutter speed when shooting landscapes in low light, for instance.

So what’s the point of Manual mode when my camera is automated?

Having to dial in both the aperture and shutter speed settings can indeed slow you down. Manual mode isn’t designed for grab shots in situations where the light is changing, as you’ll need to keep making adjustments to compensate.

The camera does this for you in the automatic and semi-automatic exposure modes, tweaking the aperture, shutter speed or both in order to maintain a consistent exposure.

However, the fact that the aperture and shutter speed settings stay locked in with Manual mode is its chief advantage. This is particularly true when it comes to active subjects: as long as the lighting conditions are constant, you can set an aperture, shutter speed and ISO combination for the subject and be sure that they’ll remain perfectly exposed, even if the background changes.

Why would the background cause the exposure to change?

Normally, the exposure will be automatically adjusted according to a range of factors, such as the quantity and quality of light, the metering mode being used, the spread of tones throughout the frame and the size of the subject relative to the background.

This can produce perfectly usable results in many situations, although you may need to dial in some exposure compensation to ensure the subject isn’t underexposed or overexposed as a result.

For example, imagine you’re taking a sequence of pictures of an airplane taking off on a cloudy day; as it taxies along the runway, the exposure is likely to be fairly neutral overall.

However, as the plane lifts off, the expanse of bright sky is likely to fool the camera into reducing the exposure (remember that the camera wants to try and average out the picture close to a neutral mid-tone).

The result? White clouds that look grey and a plane that’s now a silhouette. To bring back the brightness level and restore detail in the aircraft, you’d need to dial in some positive exposure compensation.

By switching to Manual mode, you could set the exposure at the start of the sequence and ensure that the plane is accurately exposed throughout.

Couldn’t I just use the Exposure Lock button on my camera?

Yes, you could shoot in Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and press Exposure Lock to maintain the same combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, but it’s just another thing to think about!

Using Manual mode enables you to forget about the exposure and focus on the trickier aspect of composing a good picture.

So when should I switch to Manual mode?

As we’ve mentioned, Manual mode is often the perfect choice for photographing moving subjects in constant light, but you can use this exposure mode for any subject. If you want to get your head around exposure, Manual mode is the perfect learning tool. It’s also a good choice when you use flash, allowing you to balance the ambient and flash light precisely.

PAGE 1: Common questions about shooting in manual mode
PAGE 2: How to set manual exposure
PAGE 3: Why metering matters in manual mode
PAGE 4: Working in stops
PAGE 5: The real advantage of using manual mode


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