When to shoot in Manual mode

This is a post for hobby photographers. 

Some professionals and aspiring professionals have strong feelings about what is the Right Way To Shoot. And some feel that the way they do it is the way everyone should do it. If that's you, please look away now. You won't like what I say and you'll probably want to tell me I'm wrong. You can find me on Twitter if you really want to get in touch: @EmmaDaviesPhoto.

You don't have to shoot in Manual all the time

This is one of the biggest myths about photography. The magazines, the gurus, the workshops - they all teach you how to shoot on Manual mode and imply that you're failing if you don't shoot Manual all the time. 

I completely agree that everyone with a big camera should know how to shoot on Manual mode. But that doesn't mean you put your camera on Manual and then leave your camera at home because you can't remember what to do. 

Don't miss the shot

Never, ever, ever risk missing a shot because you're fiddling with the dials. When you are out shooting, shoot how you are comfortable. Set aside time to practise before you go out, or have a go off auto once you've got the shot. 

You cannot shoot Manual mode effectively if the light is changing fast, or if your subject is moving in and out of the sunlight (wildlife, birds, children). 

Use priority modes instead of manual

It's rare that for creative or exposure reasons you need to control both the aperture and the shutter speed (see below for exceptions). So why not take advantage of the massive processing power of the expensive camera you've bought, and let it do the hard work?

On aperture priority mode, you pick which aperture you want, and the camera picks the shutter speed and ISO. On shutter priority mode, you pick the shutter speed, and the camera does the rest.

I shoot outdoors on aperture priority mode 80% of the time, because most of my creative decisions revolve around depth of field. (I am a commercial garden and flower photographer - if I was a sports photographer, I'd be more concerned about shutter speed.)

Times when you would shoot on manual

1. Because you enjoy the challenge

Some people do Sudoko, others like to work in Manual mode. It's fun to try work with all 3 controls at once. 

2. Studio work or flash photography

You are usually limited to a shutter speed correlating to your flash sync speed, and you would be wanting to keep your ISO low. 


3. Consistency

If you need to keep the same settings across a series of shots, you'll have no option but to dial them in on Manual mode. Shooting a few shots for a panorama is the most common reason for consistency - you don't want the camera changing your exposure as you move away from the sun. 

4. Macro

Getting the exposure right in Macro is more difficult than in normal scale photography. Even using spot metering it can be hard to find something sensible to meter off. And if you move even a millimetre, the exposure changes again. I usually shoot in Manual mode, set the aperture for the creative effect I want, and then use shutter speed like exposure compensation. 


5. You need a low ISO

If you are shooting for print or large reproduction, for a competition or for a portfolio, you'll want to keep your ISO as low as possible. Depending on conditions, you may find that the camera picks all kinds of odd apertures or shutter speeds, and you may be safer taking control of all 3 controls. 

6. You need a particular aperture and a particular shutter speed

Landscape photography springs to mind here. You often want a large depth of field (eg. f16), but you also want a long exposure (eg 3 seconds) - maybe to blur some water. There's no way the camera would ever pick that combination, so you need to switch to Manual mode.


7. You are using filters

If you start to use neutral density filters or polarising filters, you may find you can't judge the exposure through the viewfinder. If you have Live View, you can see what the camera sees, otherwise you need to do a lot of maths and calculate the exposure compensation you need to factor in. 

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Do you want to get off auto mode, and start making more of your camera? Join my free online beginner's workshop here, and get started today:

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BeginnerEmma Davies