Why you NEED to learn Manual Mode!

Are you scared to make the switch to manual mode? Or maybe you just don't see the point of moving away from the AUTO functions on your camera, after all, your camera can do it all for you - can't it?!

Not to put to fine a point on it, if you only ever use your high-quality DSLR quality on one of the automatic modes, you would have been just as well buying an inexpensive point and shoot camera.  Sure, your camera may luck out from time to time and snag you a decent photo, but more often than not, all you will end up with is middle of the road images that lack any real impact. Relying on a bunch of wires and sensors in your camera is no way to make a good photograph! 

It's only when you take FULL control of your camera and are able to plan out your images (and what you need to do to get them) that you will get consistently good images. 

If you feel a little bit overwhelmed by the thought of you making all the decisions rather than the camera, don't be! 

Guess what? It's not THAT hard. I promise. 

Shooting in manual mode is simply a whole lot easier than you probably think it is! After you understand the fundamentals of exposure (which you would have to learn to shoot in any other mode other than AUTO anyway) all that is stopping you from going to full manual control is practice. Yes, it takes a couple of weeks until it feels more natural, and yes, you will stuff up a couple of times, but every time you shoot in manual mode you build in "muscle memory" - your fingers begin to naturally find their way to the buttons and dials that change your ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture, until you could almost do it in your sleep!  In fact, I'm quietly confident that within a month you'll wonder why it took you so long to make the leap. 

With the change you'll get several advantages over your AUTO loving friends - the first being that you get to decide how light or dark your image is (and what areas you want light or dark!)  

In other words YOU decide the optimal exposure

Your camera is simply a piece of equipment - wires and sensors and receptors - that cannot see and react to the light in a scene the way we do.  All it can do is aim to go for the "middle of the road" and hope it hits the right exposure.  In theory this might be technically correct,  but that varies GREATLY from an artistically correct exposure of the exact same scene. 

This is the best thing about shooting in Manual - YOU get to decide what to expose for, based on how you want the scene to look. Want a bright light airy image when you are shooting with the light behind your subject? Let MORE light into the camera than your camera might think is technically correct.  Or you could go the other way entirely, and go for a silhouette - setting the exposure for the background not for the subject, so that your subjects are dark and under-exposed - darker than what your camera would have chosen. Too much better choices than what your camera would give you, which is a not-quite-properly exposed subject and a not-quite-properly exposed background.  Middle of the road, I tell ya! 

Setting exposure yourself is the only way to get images to look the way you want them to (And there's a full tech tutorial on this in Auto to Awesome). But that's not all.....

You also unlock the other camera's settings 

If you are still shooting on AUTO, then many of your camera's other features are locked in, meaning it's not just your exposure that you don't have control over. One of the important features that you are going to want to unlock is taking control of your focus.   When in AUTO mode, the camera decides the focus point for you, but you don't want that, for several reasons:

  • Worst case scenario - your camera gets it's totally wrong, and focuses on the background instead of your subject, so your subject is a total blur.  It happens from time to time, but what is more likely is: 

  • It will sometimes get it just slightly wrong. Let's say your subject is wearing a hat - often times your camera will focus on the thing closest to the camera, which in this example, would be the hat, giving you an image of a person that has slightly soft facial features, and not the tack-sharp eyes you want! 

  • The camera needs to try to figure out if you subject is moving or stationary, and use the correct mode.  Honestly? It's kinda guessing, but of course it does have a50/50 chance of getting it right :)  If you take control you get 100% chance of getting it right. 

Even if you don't go the whole hog and learn manual mode, this is a great reason for moving away from the AUTO modes in the your camera, and at least using one of the "priority" modes such as Aperture Priority Mode or Shutter Priority Mode. 

However, If you use Aperture Priority you're already halfway there 

Here's the thing, to shoot in AV mode, you still need to learn EVERYTHING that you need to learn to shoot in Manual Mode. You still need to know which shutter speed to use, which aperture to use, and which ISO to use - the only difference is that the camera is going to balance these for you instead of doing it yourself.  Which is why, it really is just a hop, skip and jump from one of the priority modes to shooting in full manual mode.  I definitely recommend starting out by just controlling one aspect of the camera yourself, say aperture, and letting the camera do the other two, before building up to setting two yourself, before taking the plunge into full manual mode, but full manual mode should be your end goal.  

Here's why: 

There are some scenes when it is actually slightly MORE difficult to shoot in Aperture Priority mode rather than Manual Mode. Let's take my previous example of shooting into the light and creating a silhouette. In Manual Mode, you meter for the sky, plug in your Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed exactly how you want them, maybe metering a little under,  and shoot away to your heart's content. 

In Aperture Priority mode, you need to meter for the sky, then set your Aperture,  and your camera will set the other one or two elements to get the exposure correct. Sounds simple right? Except for one thing: you'll still need to keep an eye on these other settings to make sure you are not shooting with too slow a shutter speed (which means you will get motion blur) or crazy high ISO's (and get digital noise). So even although the camera is setting it for you, you still need to be AWARE of these two settings and be ready to change if need be!  But there's more :) 

You'll then need to select exposure compensation and set it to shoot a little under. You'll THEN need to "lock in" that exposure since when you move the camera to frame your shot correctly, the camera will start to re-meter and change your settings for you. After you've done that, you get to take your picture, but in many cases your exposure lock is removed after you have pressed the shutter to take the picture, so you need to start the whole process again! 

Now, wouldn't this particular shot have been easier to take in manual mode? 

The above sequence varies from camera to camera, so it can be a little easier than I have outlined here, but in essence, when you start to shoot creatively, it simply becomes easier to shoot in manual mode.  

Once you have learnt Manual, you can choose when to shoot fully in manual, or when to switch to an semi- automatic mode 

I know I just said it was easier to shoot in Manual Mode, but I totally get that there are times when shooting in one of the priority modes makes more sense. But just because you know how to shoot in Manual Mode doesn't mean you always have to use it! Do I sometimes shoot in Aperture Priority Mode? Yes! (but only very occasionally)

It can be useful for times when you are constantly moving - for example, if you were in Disneyland and walking around a lot and you just want to be able to snap away a little more quickly, but still with some control of your settings.  Knowing how to shoot in Manual Mode actually helps you shoot better in one of the priority modes too - and YOU get to choose when to use which. 

When you have a little more time, or want that perfect shot, you can switch to manual mode instead.   Knowing both means you get the best of both worlds! 

And you can take all the credit! 

There's more to getting a great shot that simply balancing your exposure.  When you move away from AUTO and into shooting with control over your camera, that's when you start to get the images you see in your head. You'll be able to expose creatively, plus get tack sharp images, and you'll also be able to use composition more to your advantage, since you can change focus points at will, and decide where in the frame to have your subject. In essence, it puts you in full creative control over your images, rather than hoping for some lucky accident because your camera happened to get all the factors right.  Getting even a few shots right in manual mode - and getting them to look they want you wanted them to - is a huge, huge confidence boost!

So, what have we learnt here today?!

Well, we now know that there's more value than meet's the eye about shooting in manual mode, and that when we use it, we can then start to strategically use ALL the features of our camera to help us get all the elements that make a technically and artistically sound image successful.  If you fancy the idea of following a step by step program to get you there, then check out my Auto to Awesome ecourse - it does what it says on the tin! You'll be shooting in manual mode and know EXACTLY where to meter from, and why, and be in control of all the other aspects of your camera too.  You can check it out here. 

So, what are you waiting for?! The only thing standing between you and getting the images your dream of is ACTION.  Go switch to manual mode!