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How to Best Work in the Manual Mode of your Camera

Take a giant leap of faith: Shooting in manual mode

Mastering how to shoot in the “scary” manual mode is the ultimate objective of buying a DSLR. If you always found excuses not to switch the mode dial to ‘M’, now is the time to face your fears. It is like the first time your driving instructor tells you that he is going to giving you the controls and you will be in charge. It is intimating no doubt but is also a lot of fun.

Your DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera is a very powerful optical tool. It can shoot breathtaking images if you know how to wield it.

The only way you can bring out the best that your camera can do is by switching to manual mode and controlling the exposure yourself!

Understanding the manual mode

Photographer by Marketa
Photographer by Marketa

The thing about the manual mode that intimidates beginner photographers (like yourself) is that they are unable to assess what should be the right exposure value under a given lighting condition.

Most beginner DSLR users find the auto mode to be convenient because they can simply zoom, compose and click the shutter release, gleefully accepting what the camera calculates as to be the right exposure for the scene.

In the manual mode, they can precisely set the exposure values as they want. But therein lies the problem. They don’t have to worry about the exposure details (shutter speed and aperture). This has some major drawbacks.

Related: Learn about Exposure

Lack of control over depth of field (disadvantage of not shooting in manual mode)

E.g.; when you shoot in auto mode you cannot control the depth of field for a scene. The camera decides that for you by selecting the aperture value. That means if you want to specifically shoot with a big depth of field (landscape, cityscape) you may not get the desired results.

I am sure some of you may have seen the many different scene modes such as snow, beach, portrait, backlit and so on in your camera. These basically

These basically tweaks different combinations of shutter speed and aperture to give you an approximate exposure value as well as the desired depth of field based on the scene that you select.

You may argue that these scene modes should take care of the different situations you shoot. Yes, they do. But only to an extent. For true freedom and absolute control, you will need to manually select the exposure. I will give an example to elaborate.

33/366 - Portrait of Live, with scarf by Andreas Øverland
33/366 – Portrait of Live, with scarf by Andreas Øverland

Let’s say that you are shooting portraits in broad daylight and you want a shallow depth of field. Normally your camera will look at all that brightness in the scene, light reflecting off of the skin of the subject, the leaves, buildings and anything else in the scene.

All that brightness will result in the built-in light meter assessing that the camera needs to dial down the exposure. That will automatically result in the camera reducing the exposure. It will use a smaller aperture or use a faster shutter speed (or a combination of both) to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. You will have no control over those values if you shoot in auto mode.

It will use a smaller aperture or use a faster shutter speed (or a combination of both) to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. You will have no control over those values if you shoot in auto mode.

Having said that, some degree of control is there if you choose to shoot in aperture priority, shutter priority or programmed auto mode. But even then one of the aspects of exposure (shutter speed or aperture value) will be selected by the camera. This freedom comes in the form of exposure compensation.

However, true freedom will come from only manual mode. Because only in manual mode you can control the depth of field, exposure, white balance and anything else that you need for a workable RAW image for further processing.

Lack Of Control Over Shutter Speed

The second major advantage of shooting in manual mode is obviously the degree of control over shutter speed.

In certain situations, you would want to shoot at faster or slower shutter speed. The camera’s built-in metering mode may look at the scene and feel that the scene requires a different shutter speed. You could switch to shutter priority mode which would be an easy way out, but that will mean a lack of control over depth of field.

Fireworks by baron valium
Fireworks by baron valium

Let’s say you want to shoot a fireworks display at the backdrop of a cityscape at night. To ensure that everything in the frame is sharp you’ve got to use a small aperture. Normally if you shoot in aperture priority the camera should compensate for the small aperture by using longer shutter speed.

In this case, since most of the frame wouldn’t give you a point of reference, the meter wouldn’t be able to give you the right shutter speed.

Related Post: How to shoot the perfect lightning pictures

The option would be to manually set the shutter speed. You know how long the exposure should be so that you can get a good light trail of the bursting fireworks with the illuminated city at the background.

The metering system of your camera and when to override it

With manual mode, you will need to understand something else and that is how the metering system of your camera works.

You see, all digital cameras are designed to look at the world as if everything is 18% gray (or middle gray or average reflectance). All built-in light meters and smartphone light meter apps work on the concept of reflected light theory.

So, the darker color is, the less reflective it would be and that means the camera will increase the exposure to bring it up to average reflectance.

On the other hand, the brighter color is, the more reflective it would be and that means the less light it would need in order to make a proper exposure.

Belly sledding in a black suit, big hill, record snow day, Gas Works Park, Wallingford, Seattle, Washington, USA by Wonderlane
Belly sledding in a black suit, big hill, record snow day, Gas Works Park, Wallingford, Seattle,
Washington, USA by Wonderlane

This sounds quite logical except there is a major flaw. If you have ever shot a snowy scene or photographed a person wearing all black against a predominantly dark background you will know that the reflected metering system isn’t always the right way to go!

In the first instance the snow would have appeared gray and in the second instance, the black dress would transform magically into gray as well. This happens because the camera sees too much brightness/darkness respectively and thus dials down / up the exposure to make it something that is of average luminosity.

Related Post: Understanding gray cards

If you have to master shooting in manual mode you will need to master how to meter using your eyes. This you can do by manually over or under-exposing a scene depending on the scene.

  • If the scene is too bright you can bet your bottom dollar that the camera will underexpose it. In such circumstance over-expose the scene by about a stop or even two.
  • In the other instance, under-expose the scene by one or two stops to ensure that the final result looks right.

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