4 Reasons to shoot in the manual mode


Focused on the eyes–The eyes are what it’s all about when it comes to portraits. What happens when your focus can’t hold for both eyes when your depth-of-field is shallow? Canon 40D. ISO 100 1/60 sec @ f 1.4. Captured in available light from a north-facing window. There is a reflector just out of camera view below where  I’m standing over Lesly who is reclined on a sofa.

Automatic mode is so wonderful.

It frees you to concentrate wholly on what’s in the viewfinder.

In fact, if that’s how you do your best work, there shouldn’t  even be any display in the viewfinder to distract you from your subject in hand.

As long as you don’t make mistakes either in setting your exposure, shutter speeds, ISO, White Balance or even focusing, an uncluttered viewfinder can allow you can be one with your subject.

The reality is, everyone makes mistakes. Some photographers are just luckier than others. Those of you who are lucky, wouldn’t you want to be lucky all the time?

Here’s 4 reasons to shoot in manual mode:

1. To learn from your mistakes

mode_dialWhenever you make mistakes, don’t delete all your pictures right away.

Even worse, do not delete your pictures as you’re shooting.

Everything looks nice and sharp and even properly exposed if you’re in the right lighting conditions on that tiny LCD monitor on the back of your camera.

Obviously I don’t mean save those pictures  that were accidentally taken of your beautiful feet or other body parts.

Instead of deleting indiscriminately, after you go through and assign all your stars for ratings and picking out those gems,  go back and look at the bad pictures.


Which is in focus?–The difference may be subtle but the one on the right is the one I prefer because the eye on the right which is closer to me is sharp. Knowing my own limitations about hand holding successfully a 50mm lens, I opted for the higher shutter speed and shooting wide open at f 1.4. The White Balance was set at Auto. I should have changed it just for the heck of it to see the difference.

lesly_exifI really mean it.

Especially open in Photoshop those pictures where you thought you had a winner when you saw it in the viewfinder.

As we shoot, we inventory in our mind a particular setup or situation where everything seemed to come together.

I don’t know about you, inevitably those are the ones I look for first, when I’m editing.

So when I find I really really blew it, not focusing carefully, or paying attention to the lighting, or the pose of the model, I have identified some areas of improvement to work on.

Critical and analytical thinking are important skills for a photographer of any skill level.

2. To diagnose problems

When you capture in manual, the EXIF (exchangeable image file format) info is a wonderful note-taking tool capable of recording almost everything with minimal effort on your part.

A good example is this: supposing you use a certain lens infrequently and then you start noticing every time you use it, you have a focusing problem.

[poll id=”10″]

If you have Apple’s Aperture of Adobe’s Lightroom, you can search through your entire catalog of pictures for pictures taken by that lens. All you do is enter in the search field the focal length of the lens for EXIF.

Now it will bring up every single picture ever taken by you using that particular lens. Then when you have a selection of pictures taken with that lens, you can further diagnose by comparing the aperture setting on those pictures carefully scrutinizing the sharpness.

If you look at the aperture and you see that consistently the lens is not sharp at that setting, you now know that perhaps you need to send that lens in for repair. This conclusion assumes you weren’t under the influence of any hallucinogenic substance.

Or you might learn that if you’ve out partying too hard and haven’t had enough sleep, you have no business shooting with a shutter speed below 1/500 sec with a certain telephoto lens.

Remember what Dirty Harry said.

Becoming a better photographer has a lot to do with knowing your equipment and this approach helps.

4. To become a light meter

Okay, this is a silly reason. Why would I want to become a lightmeter?  Hear me out. From my years of using the same speed film daily, I know the exposure for taking pictures outdoors within one or two f-stops. Why is this useful?

Have you ever changed the ISO on your camera to shoot indoors and forgotten to move it back to 100 when you’re done?

If you know your exposure, this a like a self-check that something is wrong. If I’m outdoors and my camera doesn’t tell me 1/500 sec @ f5.6, I know my ISO is probably set too high.

Now if only I can remember to do the same when I change my White Balance.

5. To recognize and know when to override the camera

Oh… while we’re on the subject of automatic modes, do you know every camera has a threshold where the light level is so low it can’t possibly focus?

Also the scene has to have enough contrast for your camera to discern before autofocus can work.

If you’re lucky when that happens, the camera refuses to allow you to shoot.

Better I realize it’s having trouble focusing than letting me assume everything is hunky-dory and I find out only later that none of the pictures are sharp.

What you need to do then is get someone to shine some continuous lights on your subject and you manually focus–the old fashioned way.

You may have more reasons not to shoot in manual exposure mode than I do, so why not share them with me?

17 thoughts on “4 Reasons to shoot in the manual mode”

  1. Ian,
    Thanks for sharing that tip about the custom modes on the Powershot G3. I never thought of setting Custom modes for that. Now, I’ll have to seriousness consider setting it up like that.

    The suggestion to set the camera on P when you pack it away is a good. I’ll have to remember that. Thank you.

  2. 4: One of my bete noires.

    On my old G3 I put my favorite settings into one of the custom modes. Just spinning the dial on power up set up the way I wanted to start most times. With my 30D there are no customs modes and I have picked up the camera at high noon only to start shooting at iso 3200 from the night before.

    I now try to set the camera to P when I pack it away. I never use P, but at least it means its needs to get *something* in a push, and forces me to think set up when I have the time.

  3. Pogo,
    Thanks for posting back. I’m sorry if it sounded like I thought it was you and that you didn’t know what you’re doing.

    It’s disappointing to hear that Canon doesn’t give good service in the Czech Republic. Thankfully, you can buy accessories from foreign lands without too much hassle. Just have to pay more?

    I have to admit that whenever I hold a 400D or a Rebel in my hands, I am a little lost myself because to shoot in Manual mode, I have to hold down an extra button, then turn the dial to affect the aperture.

    It’s not like the 40D where you access the aperture and shutter using two separate dials. In the end, it doesn’t matter what mode you use so long as you get the results you want.

  4. Peter

    no is not me– is the camera

    and I’ve gone around the mulberry bush enough that I know this by now. Canon is notoriously bad for service in Czech republic. I ordered an extension a year ago and still do not have it. Am not exactly thrilled with Canon services. But neither is anyone else here in Prague…

    and a similar body is not exactly the same camera. This camera also goes in for regular care, so it’s not like I neglect it. But for rehabilitation, you’re talking 6 weeks in shop… and half price or more of new camera.

    So I use shutter… in high light, very bright light I will switch over to aperture, but not so often. Is much harder for me to gauge and results can be disastrous. What looks and what actually is with this camera are often radically very different things.

  5. Hi Paul,
    I still have my motorized body Nikon F3 and my Canon A-1. Though they haven’t seen daylight is years, I can’t bear to part with them.

    I work faster using manual mode for 90% of my subjects. The only time I find the aperture or shutter priority to be faster is when I covered baseball.

    In that instance I usually have 2 cameras. One mounted somewhere and focus locked on home plate with a foot pedal. Exposure is set on either aperture or shutter priority.

    The 2nd body with the long lens 500 mm or 400 mm is set to aperture priority because during the course of a play you could be looking in outfield in one instance then spinning around to look in the dugout in the next instance.

    In the example above, there is no time to be fudging with exposure. It’s tough enough figuring out where the play will be let alone the exposure and making sure you have don’t cut off anything important when shooting with such a tight lens.

    Thanks so much for sharing. You have a wonderful body of work by the way.

  6. Thanks for the post Pete,

    When I delved into photography back in the days of silver, I learned on old Nikon FEs and FMs. Then When I graduated to F3s and so forth (I still have my F4 and F5), I still shot in manual.

    Now with my digitals, I shoot strictly manual. And use a light meter.

    Having the control, actually allows me to think more about what I need to shoot, more about the moment, light, composition, I feel it makes me a better photographer. When I shoot in auto, I can sense when the exposure is off. So I have to stop and check.

    I don’t shoot in manual exclusively, I use the other modes as well, mainly aperture priority. I like to control my DOF.

    Thanks again Pete and keep the articles coming.

  7. Pogo,
    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. When you say “If I try to change the exposure, the shutter gets changed–so it was a nonsensical battle,” I think you just haven’t figure out that you need to push a combination of buttons to affect the setting you want.

    If I can get my hands on a similar body, a Canon Rebel, I”m certain I can show you how to tackle this problem.

    The biggest difficulty with digital is this: to change one setting, you need to figure out which combination of dials and buttons to push and turn.

    Currently there are so many models of bodies within the same manufacturers. Models are given different names if they are sold here in US or elsewhere. I wish they wouldn’t do that.

    There is enough confusion as it is.

    Share some of your pictures by posting a URL to your pictures, Pogo.

  8. I use shutter very heavily. I tried manual, but there is something screwy with the camera and I am not able to set the different functions separately.

    If I try to change the exposure, the shutter gets changed–so it was a nonsensical battle and Canon is not famous for maintaining guarantees. After several battles with this, I worked with shutter priority in many set conditions to study extreme low light and fast movement.

    I do macro, table work and insects. Shutter gave me very broad control over low light, action and quick movement such s dragonflies… and so I kept it as main application, but I can’t make any claim regarding recognition of ISO via viewfinder.

    A big problem with 400D that I have is with the playback- LCD image aint nothing like what comes out, so I rely very heavily on viewfinder and comparable past experience.

    It’s not just a matter of comparing past images of same lens because I use 4macro lenses, but what time of day, problem that is before me. I spent much time using different lenses on the same subject to learn different approaches and this has been extremely rewarding in working.

    I know that the 50 2.5 is going to make a far better image than the 100mm of a dragonfly emerging or insect on my hand and will change over. After much much frustration I added an extension to the 100mm 2.8 and upped the basic ISO to 400 for clear day work and 800 for dawn, twilight and clouds– and this made a very big difference on the images.

    Learning to use shutter priority takes keen sense of light, but it is also richly rewarding because I can shoot in extreme low light and in underbrush for delicate shots where flash could probably injure the subject.

    Besides, flash causes seizures for me. But for a good image, brainless shooting never works. Aperture priority is confusing for me and has higher variance between lenses.

    Some lenses and usage it seems far better application, but I don’t use it for macro or insects. I don’t use it for show-jumping either– I use shutter.

  9. Hello Richard,
    Thank you for leaving your comment. Once you get the hang of manual, the other modes can be used with better understanding. If anyone wants to learn how to use their camera to its fullest, manual is the way to go.

    You’re absolutely right about keeping your mind sharper. Every setting you choose is a conscious decision. It keeps you thinking about what you’re trying to show in your image.

    Love the name of your website! Was that inspired by that Chihuahua from Taco Bell ad? I apologize if you don’t have a clue of what I’m referring to. Thanks again

  10. Great post! I began shooting in manual – the challenge with digital cameras, now, is understanding all the other “modes”. I think it’s just simpler, keeps the mind sharp, and faster to know the basic variable exposure equation than to know the two dozen situations to set your camera on (for that particular moment) and then snap the picture… so is automatic really faster? Maybe to get a shot off, but not the perfect shot.

  11. Hello Teresa,
    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. What a selection of HDR images! When I write about HDR, I will contact you to see if I can show them as examples.

  12. I shoot only in manual mode I have since I bought my camera. I never though about it but I can tell where the ISO is set when I look through the view finder. Some people use some of the priority modes but I have not found them useful. As for mistakes one of my worst habits is taking multiple shots of the same thing without changing my angle or the camera settings. Some of my best shots have happened when I have experimented a bit.

  13. Hello Dennis,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. You have some beautiful work on your website.

    From the results of my very unscientific poll so far, it appears that only 20% of my visitors shoot in manual.

    There is one other reason which I forgot to mention. When you shoot in manual you are metering the scene more carefully and thinking critically about the areas which are “hot” or possibly beyond the range of your exposure latitude.

    Then when you consciously over expose or under expose to override what the meter suggests, you will learn over time and experience when to trust and when not to trust the metering or the metering pattern of your camera.

    How important is this? I think I should go back to the post and add this. Dennis, thanks for sharing the URL to your wonderful work.

  14. Peter this is a good read. It shows many people why it is best to shoot in manual mode. That is about all I ever shoot in and encourage others to do the same. I think it makes the photographer think more about the way they wish to take the photograph.

    Good Stuff, Thanks!

  15. Jo,
    Needless to say, I never did buy that fancy, do-it-all power saw. Obviously carpentry is not my calling.

    Something important I didn’t think about is this: the more you use the manual mode, the more confident you will become. Before long, you will be working just as fast in manual as in one of the automatic exposure modes.

    So pleased to hear this was helpful.

    Hey, you never did send me a high rez picture of Moy ² so I can make it look even better. Get on it.

  16. Peter, this is such a great post. My photography guru used to startle me when our lessons began by asking me “What are you taking a picture of?” every time he would watch me setting up a shoot. I thought it was obvious, but he insisted I use my mind before beginning, not just do the automatic “grab the camera, point and shoot” routine.

    That’s what you are doing: applying your mind, and showing us how we can do the same. Thanks a lot!


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