Taking that step into full manual can be daunting but once you’ve got to grips with the basics, you can start to reap the benefits.
Once you have figured out how to use the semi-automatic exposure modes on your camera, such as aperture priority and shutter priority (Tv on Canon), the next step is to experiment with fully manual mode. The other modes are called semi-automatic as your camera is still making some of the decisions for you – in aperture priority mode, you set the aperture and the camera sets what it thinks is the appropriate shutter speed, and vice versa in shutter priority mode. However, in manual mode you set both the aperture and shutter speed yourself, while also having control over other key parameters such as ISO and white balance. You’re not totally on your own though, as a manual exposure graph/gauge appears in the viewfinder, so you can judge the effect of your settings on the overall exposure (more on this later).
M doesn’t stand for Macho
Before going any further, it’s important to clear up one major misunderstanding about shooting in manual. Some people think they need to be able to shoot in manual before they can be considered ‘proper’ photographers but that’s not the case at all. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so don’t switch to manual until you are reasonably confident with this mode – otherwise your shot might come out horrendously under- or overexposed. Nobody will forgive you for taking a rubbish picture just because you did it in manual, and most experienced photographers switch between the various exposure modes as needs dictate. Manual mode is simply another tool, rather than the entire toolbox. Anyway, to get started in manual mode, simply move the exposure mode dial or menu selector to M (refer to your camera manual if it’s not clear how to do this).
Get used to making adjustments
The next step is to work out how to adjust aperture and shutter speed independently of each other. Again, each camera does it slightly differently, so check your camera manual; on most DSLRs you move dials or wheels on the camera body to change each setting. As you move the dial or wheel, you will see the aperture width (f number) and shutter speed change on the top screen or viewfinder. Now, you should also notice a horizontal line or gauge with 0 (zero) in the middle and +/- increments either side. As you adjust aperture and shutter speed, a pointer will move up and down this line. This is what is called the manual exposure chart, which we will also refer to as the ‘meter’ or meter line. The meter considers the central point as the ‘correct’ exposure but you shouldn’t follow this slavishly.
Don’t obsess about the central point
Now, here is where it gets interesting. Some people assume when shooting manual that you should always ensure the pointer is bang in the middle of the meter line. While this is understandable, all you are basically doing here is following what the camera tells you is the ‘right’ exposure, so you might as well go back to using one of the automatic or semi-automatic modes, as they will do the same thing a lot faster. Instead, use manual mode to make informed choices according to the situation. Basically, because you are locking in your choice of aperture and shutter speed, you can be confident the camera won’t ‘helpfully’ change them. Say you are shooting a wedding in good light and you want a wide aperture to reduce depth of field on a portrait, while also maintaining a faster shutter speed to keep the subject sharp – being able to ‘lock’ both parameters in manual is very handy.
Working in constant light
Manual comes in handy when shooting in constant light, as once you have set the aperture and shutter speed you want, you shouldn’t need to adjust it much. Many sports and action photographers will switch to manual for shooting moving subjects in constant light, making adjustments on the fly for the best results. That said, it’s important to keep a close eye on the meter line or your histogram, as changing light will obviously have a big effect on your exposure. Manual mode also lets you quickly make exposure adjustments according to the demands of a particular situation. When shooting a bride’s white wedding dress or snow, for example, you could push the pointer up the meter line by about +2 stops to prevent the camera from delivering a drab, grey midtone. This is the true value of manual – with practice, you can predict the outcome, rather than worrying your camera will get confused and throw a curveball. Note also that manual gives you access to bulb mode, a very slow shutter speed for star trails and other creative low-light effects.
Working in constantly changing light
While it’s true that manual mode is great in constant light, it’s also handy when the light is anything but constant – at a music gig or live performance, for instance. Left to its own devices, your camera’s metering system can easily get fooled by the very wide dynamic range at a show – bright, multicoloured lights turning on and off, the sudden appearance of deep shadows, pyrotechnic explosions and so on. Then there is the challenge of keeping fast-moving performers sharp. So, many music photographers shoot in manual as it enables them to open their lens aperture as wide as possible (to let in the maximum amount of light), then keep adjusting the shutter speed as required – if it drops below 1/100 sec, the risk of softness and blur rises dramatically. Higher ISOs can also be employed for greater light sensitivity and faster shutter speeds.
Manual and flash
If you regularly use flash, either on or off camera, it can also be worth changing to manual mode as it enables you to balance the flash output with the available light more easily. One of the biggest problems with flash is that the foreground and foreground objects can end up looking very bright, while the background can end up looking seriously underexposed. If you switch to manual you can enter the best aperture and shutter speed settings for the available ambient light, using the meter line as a guide. Then adjust your flash output accordingly for the best results. Many professional portrait photographers only use manual when working with studio lights to give them maximum predictability and control.
Don’t forget the exposure compensation button
As mentioned at the beginning, you need to use manual mindfully. Although using it regularly will hopefully give you a better idea of how the holy trinity of aperture, shutter speed and ISO all work together on your camera, there are times when the camera really is smarter than you. If you are only using manual to override what your camera is telling you is the best exposure for a certain situation – because you know it’s going to get confused – it may be quicker and easier to use the exposure compensation button. This is a very simple way of making your image brighter or darker. As well as the classic examples of snow and bridal dresses, exposure compensation is great for back-lit subjects. That said, for very specific and ‘mission critical’ jobs such as weddings, sports events and gigs, manual can be marvellous…
About the Author
Geoff is a highly experienced photography journalist and recently stepped down as editor of Digital Camera, the UK’s best-selling photography magazine. He now writes for a range of publications. Geoff is a keen travel and portrait photographer and a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society.