Shooting with a manual lens centers your attention on the precise image you want to produce. Once you get the hang of shooting manual (here are two prior dPS tutorials: Tips for Using Legacy Lenses and Shooting in Full Manual and Why Every Photographer Should Use a Manual Focus Lens), you learn how to produce some pretty cool images that are easier to manage, than if you leave autofocus on, and that can make for some fun photography.
With all of the computing that’s in a modern autofocus lens, the camera and the lens often take the photo for you. Further, autofocus and shake reduction can actually work against your art. If you shoot frequently on autofocus, then you know the camera can easily focus on the wrong subject. This is particularly true in situations where the light varies greatly.
Even when you turn off autofocus and go manual, the modern computer-driven lens can be cumbersome. It’s like turning off an automatic mode in a car and using paddles to shift gears. The experience is just not the same, things don’t work right. You want to step on the clutch, and shift through gears, feeling the engine with your right hand as you accelerate.
That’s how I feel about shooting manual. Your eye and hand drive the photo, rather the camera telling you how to drive.
Here are some of the cooler shots I’ve taken while photographing with manual lenses. They are listed from easiest to hardest. I hope you’ll enjoy some of these, too .
1) Nature shots that feature lots of bokeh
It’s spring and that means the world is filled with lots of colorful flowers, and blossoms to admire. Who doesn’t love photographing these beautiful subjects?
Because I live in a populous city, I shoot flowers with a wide-open aperture to create maximum bokeh. It allows me to blur many unwelcome background objects like cars, bikes, telephone polls, people, and even some buildings.
Manual is ideal for this kind of shot, as it is simplistic. I focus as closely as the lens permits, and set the aperture as wide as possible. I calibrate shutter speed to accommodate light and shadow differentials. The rest is easy as could be. I move myself and the camera to a position that frames the relatively still flower (wind not included) and capture the frame. The above crabtree blossoms shot is a classic example of this technique.
2) Spot focus street shots
Street photographers like to capture candid moments of human nature. Capturing cool street shots is hard. Personally, when I do shoot street photography, I tend to find a setting that I like, frame the shot, set my camera, then wait for the right person to come along. So perhaps I cheat a bit if you are a pure zen street photographer.
However, to get that shot, I love manual focus. I can set the focus based on the distance between the camera, and where I anticipate the subject will be. Autofocus often latches on to an object, and frankly sometimes the object is a little off from the spot I want to shoot. So I prefer to use manual focus, on the spot where I anticipate the subject will be.
This shot taken at the National Gallery of Art took about 10 minutes. I focused on the middle stair well and waited for the right person to come through. Unfortunately for me, a bus load of secondary school kids were there at first, but once they cleared out, things happened quickly.
3) Bright night shots
Some objects are brighter at night than others. The moon is a great example. So are ferris wheels, because they shed an enormous amount of light, often rendering all other light sources as dull or non-existent.
For some reason, in darker situations like this, the light meter in my Nikon D810 and the autofocus on some of my lenses, don’t synch well. At times autofocus doesn’t catch the subject at all, or worse, it focuses on the wrong object, like a street light in the background. So I almost always calibrate both focus and aperture manually, to get the sharpness and light just right.
Back to the ferris wheel in the image above. The image was shot with a Figmentum 35mm lens. Focus was easy, as the distance from the subject let me simply set the lens on infinity. But, the aperture required some manipulation, as I started off too bright, and had to close the aperture slightly. I actually shot this at ISO 100for 30 seconds at f5.6, which turned the water reflection into a crazy bokeh as it came closer to me.
Panning is one of the most difficult forms of photography, literally catching an object in motion, at a slower shutter speed. This creates fantastic blur behind the subject, while at the same time keeps the object in focus.
You pretty much need to shoot manual to pan well. Sure, you can lock in your moving target with autofocus and then pan, but really there’s so much that most cameras get wrong with autofocus. When I pan, I like to spot focus with manual. I understand where my subject will be from a distance perspective. I focus, then keep my hands on the focus dial to sharpen as necessary.
In the case of this photo with my dog, I shot it with an 85mm lens, so I set the focus on infinity and planted myself in the middle of a dog park. This fine pup was playing catch with her Dad and was quite happy about it. I caught this shot on her sixth catch.
5) Shutter drag
If you think manual panning produces some cool shots, try dragging the shutter. This is for low light situations where you basically have the same technique as panning, but now use a flash to freeze your subject in motion.
Generally speaking if you are in a low light situation, autofocus may be suspect anyway. That’s why I prefer shooting manually. I’ll confess. If there is an autofocus lens on my body, then I’ll use it to get the camera focused on or close to the subject, then go manual to finish the job.
This shot was also taken at the National Gallery of Art, and features the LED light tunnel between the East and West wings. If you are on Flickr or 500 Pixels, you see a great photo of this every week or two. I decided to play double jeopardy with this shot and rode the conveyer belt while I shot the pic, so not only were the lights and the subject moving, but I was also moving at the same speed as the belt. The exposure was 1/4 of a second, with on-camera flash.
What are your favorite manual shots?