Shooting in Manual Mode – Easier Than You Think

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The biggest stumbling block for up-and-coming photographers is the fear of the dreaded manual mode.  I believe the fear stems from the days before in-camera light-meters.  Actually, it wasn’t all that long ago that in-camera metering was not commonplace – a relatively recent reminder of the days where mistakes could be made wasting precious film.  But if you want to learn how to shoot in manual mode, now is the time to do it.  Two key ingredients are in place to make shooting in manual mode easy:  Internal Metering (which is available in most, if not all, SLR cameras on the market) and cheap, instant film (thanks to the digital world).  Mistakes don’t hurt the pocket, and you can learn many times faster.  I would go so far as to say that capturing the shot you want is actually easier in manual mode than any other mode. But before I get into exposing the manual mode secret, I should discuss the myth of the perfect exposure.

Perfect Exposure – The Myth

When speaking of exposure, we’re speaking about how the subject casts it’s image on the film or sensor.  The perfect exposure is a goal: We want the subject to look just as bright on film as they do in real life.  Personally, I think the term “perfect exposure” is misleading.  It causes many to believe that there is exactly one perfect combination of the three elements of the exposure triangle:  ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed.  There is in fact a number of combinations that work equally well.  The difference between the combinations is in the depth of field and the motion blur.  The myth, therefore, is that there is a perfect exposure.  There is not.  Photography is a creative and subjective art form.  There is only the exposure you want, and you will need to tailor accordingly.  You may want more depth of field or more motion blur, and again…you will need to tailor your shots accordingly.  But again, this is much easier than you think.

The Secret of Manual Mode in Three Easy Steps

So here’s the secret…Manual Mode is as simple as setting up your tripod.  Like the tripod, each leg needs to be set properly, but it’s not difficult to do.  It’s as simple as three easy steps:

  1. Pick the Shot – Visualize the shot and determine which you want to control:  Motion Blur or Depth of field.
  2. Set the Fix – Set your aperture for depth of field control, set the shutter speed for motion blur control.  This is the fixed control.
  3. Balance – Using your in-camera light meter, adjust the “balance control” – whichever control is not fixed.

Your Camera is now perfectly set up for the shot.

Typical Light Meters for Canon and Nikon

Typical Light Meters for Canon and Nikon

If you’ve never used the light meter before, you should consult your camera’s manual.  Worry not, it’s not that difficult to use.  You just should know exactly how it works.  While camera manufacturers tend to stick to carry a theme across all their cameras, every camera is different.  My film camera (albeit, it’s old) shows recommended numerical shutter speed s or apertures (depending on the mode) on the right side of the viewfinder.  My digital camera is a much simpler meter (see the example to the right) which is easier to use.  Again, every meter is different.  But to give you a rough idea, here’s how mine works.  The goal is to set the “balance” so that the meter reads zero.  If shot will be overexposed, the meter fills in to the left; underexposed and it fills to the right.  Canon’s metering system is very similar, except flipped.  So in Step 3 above, you’ll adjust the balance control until the meter reaches zero.

Why It Works

Every time I try to teach this simple technique, the first question arises:  Why not use a program mode?  Isn’t that simpler?  It is simpler, yes.  But there are two things you’ll sacrifice:  Control and Accuracy.  Control is important because your camera cannot predict how you want the shot to turn out.  The minute you let the camera decide for you, you give up creative control.  As for accuracy – program modes aren’t inaccurate – but your camera is going to compute the exposure on the fly.  That means it’s making hundreds of calculations per minute, even if you don’t want it to.  Re-frame the shot, and the camera will compensate.  It will probably mess it up.  Manual mode allows you to meter off of the subject, set the shot, and forget about it.  Re-frame the shot, and you likely won’t need to adjust the shot unless you change perspective.

In and of itself, it would not appear that Manual Mode improves your shooting experience.  With practice, you’ll be able to shoot as fast as a program or priority mode.  But it is not a significant increase in efficiency – at least not during the shot.  The biggest benefit to shooting manual is in the back-end – throughout the post-processing.  Shooting manual means that a higher percentage of your shots will be correct “in camera”.  That means less time messing with exposure settings trying to fix a bad exposure.  It also means that you’re not losing detail to bad exposure (blown highlights, underexposed shadows).

So go out and experiment in manual mode.  Practice the three easy steps – Pick the shot, set the fix and balance – and learn how simple manual mode really is.  Play in manual mode long enough, and you’ll wonder why you ever considered anything else.  Because once you have that much control, you just can’t go back.  Welcome to the tinkering world.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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