When to Shoot on Manual

All but the most inexpensive digital cameras have a manual mode. That’s where the exposure controls are completely in the hands of the photographer, rather than set automatically by the camera. I’d bet, however, that the vast majority of pocket cameras have never even once been used in manual mode. And that’s a shame.

Pentax_K1000I learned photography with a manual film camera. For 15 years, the only pictures I took were with a venerable Pentax K1000, an all-metal workhorse camera with no auto-focus and no auto-exposure; only a simple light meter needle in the viewfinder.

I’ve always felt that working with a manual camera is a purer form of photography. There’s almost no electronics, no little computer brain inside the camera trying to guess what I want it to do. When shooting with a camera that has only manual exposure controls, there are only three variables to worry about: shutter speed, aperture, and film speed. It’s very hands-on.

Fuji-X100This desire to get back to basic photography is a big part of the reason that my current walk-around camera is a Fuji X100. Although it does have all the advanced electronics of a modern camera, when it is put into manual mode, the X100 feels and behaves a lot like my old K1000; metal knobs and dials, a great optical viewfinder, and a simple and super-sharp 35mm-equivelent lens. Also, it weighs about a quarter of my DSLR, and is small enough to be unobtrusive.

So, I was carrying my X100 the other day when Uzema and I attended a Holly Cole concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival. I snuck a few pictures during the show, and realized that the results were a perfect object lesson for when to turn off the electronics, and shoot in manual mode.

Most of the time, I shoot in Aperture Priority mode. This mode allows me to pick the aperture setting that I want, and the camera calculates the shutter speed for me. In most circumstances, I find that setting the aperture myself (and consequently, the depth of field) is the most common creative choice I make, and so I prefer to have manual control over the aperture.

I started with the camera in Aperture Priority mode. I let the camera simply take the exposure that its little electronic brain thought would be appropriate, and the result was a wildly overexposed image.

Aperture Priority mode. Shutter: 1/18, Aperture: f/2, ISO 3200

Shooting in Aperture-priority mode. Shutter: 1/18, Aperture: f/2, ISO 3200. The resulting image is completely blown out.

EV-Comp DialThe problem here is that the camera’s electronics always assume that it’s looking at a scene with an average brightness. But the scene above is a brightly-lit figure against a dark background, and that’s way outside “average.” So, my usual next step when faced with an overexposed or underexposed image is to adjust the exposure value compensation dial. The EV dial (most digital cameras have this control, either on a physical dial or available on a menu) allows you to tell the camera’s electronics to increase or decrease the exposure. In effect, this control allows you to tell the camera, “You guessed wrong. Now make it darker (or brighter).”

I dialed in an EV compensation of minus two stops, making the picture four times darker. The image below was the result:


Shooting in Aperture-priority mode, with EV compensation set to minus-2 stops. Shutter: 1/50, Aperture: f/2, ISO 3200. The resulting image is better, but not great.

Still not great. For the record, the colour of Holly Cole’s dress in the shot above is supposed to be a stark black-and-white. This is still way overexposed.

The EV compensation dial on my camera goes down to minus-2, and no further. There’s no way to make the picture any darker using this method. This is when I switched to manual mode.

During the intermission (to avoid disturbing other people in the audience with the glow of my LCD screen), I made a note of the exposure for the above image:

  • Shutter: 1/50 second
  • Aperture: f/2
  • Sensitivity: ISO 3200

First, I set the camera to these values manually. Then I needed to make the picture darker. I could have changed any of these values to accomplish this:

  • Increase the shutter speed to let in less light.
  • Decrease the aperture to let in less light.
  • Decrease the ISO value to make the sensor less sensitive to light, thus making the picture darker.

There’s no one correct method. Making any of these adjustments would darken the resulting image. I opted to increase the shutter speed, as it would help freeze the action better. And the image below is the result:


Shooting in Manual mode. Shutter: 1/125, Aperture: f/2, ISO 3200. Bingo!

The above image is three-and-a-half stops underexposed, which is 11 times darker than the original photo taken in Aperture Priority mode.

Leaning to shoot in manual mode, whether you are using a DSLR or a pocket camera, opens up a host of creative possibilities for your photos, and can be the tool you need to get that great shot that no one else does.

3 thoughts on “When to Shoot on Manual”

  1. Great tutorial and example. I’ve been playing with manual mode a lot on this trip — it’s really helped with the scenery shots, though I rarely have time to use it for wildlife photography.

    What I really want to know is, how did you get such great seats for the Holly Cole show?

    1. Thanks very much, Sari. Wildlife photography really does benefit from the automatic modes so you don’t have to think as much while waiting breathlessly for a shot of a moving animal. As for the Holly Cole concert… we bought early and got sixth row. Also, these photos are cropped a fair bit, as I was shooting with the X100, which has no zoom. And Holly was great — she blew the roof off the hall.

  2. A clear presentation about a theme not often covered. Quite helpful, too. Excellent examples.

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