The Myth and Reality of Shooting in Manual Mode

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I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. And it’s a great big steaming pile of…baloney.

Myth – Professionals Only Shoot in Manual Mode

I recently read an account of a new photographer who heard that “expert” photographers only shoot in manual mode, so he headed out to shoot. Camera firmly set to M, he shot away, happy as could be. However, the results from that first exploration were, needless to say, disappointing; overexposures, under-exposures, and a lot of crappy, blurred photos.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

I had about 10 seconds to make this image of a grove of Baobabs in Botswana. Had I been fiddling with finding the right manual settings, I likely would have missed the shot.

Here is the reality: Professionals and other experienced photographers use just about every shooting mode on their camera.

Those modes are there for a reason. Settings provide simplicity, speed, flexibility, or full control. Depending on the conditions in which you are shooting, any one of these may be appropriate. While other articles here at dPS discuss how to use each of the settings on your camera, I want to talk about the myth of Manual Mode, but also why it’s important to use it

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Moving subjects and quickly shifting scenes are not conducive to manual mode.

The Professional Reality

Try shooting on full manual control while making images of birds in flight. Go on, try it. I’ll wait.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

On the off chance that you actually went out and tried that exercise, I suspect you ended up with a lot of really bad photos. As birds passed quickly in front of different backdrops, as the sun darted in and out from behind clouds, the lighting conditions were undoubtedly in constant change. To adapt to those changes on the fly would be a nearly impossible task.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Rather, any professional would use one of the other settings. I, for example, would probably choose Shutter Priority mode under those conditions. That would assure I could maintain sharp (or artfully blurred) images as I shot, and leave the decision on aperture up to the camera. If I wanted a brighter or darker exposure I’d adjust the exposure compensation.

Now, if I was carefully shooting a landscape and had a particular vision for the final image, that’s when I’d make the switch to Manual Mode. In manual, I can take full control of the scene. I can adjust the depth of field, the exposure, incorporate blurs, or selective focus. In Manual Mode, I own all aspects of the final image, for better or worse.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

My point here is simply this – professionals use all the tools at their disposal. If it were true that pros only use Manual Mode, then pro-level cameras would only have one setting. Quite obviously, that is not the case.

You Still Need to Shoot in Manual

Shoot in Manual Mode, but not all the time. But understanding exposure, focus, shutter speed, and aperture and their effect on the final image is the heart of photography. To master the technical aspects of image-creation, you need to be able to put all these together without the help of your camera.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Manual Mode is perfect for landscape photography because you have the time to dedicate to creating the image you envision.

Manual means full control

I regularly practice the art of manual settings. When a scene is in front of me, I’ll imagine a particular way to portray it. I’ll envision how bright I want the image to appear. I select the focal point, whether motion blur is incorporated or eliminated, and how deep the depth of field should be.

Once I’ve got the image in my mind. I’ll select the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture without using the camera’s light meter to help me. Then I click the shutter and have a look.

Professionals Shoot in Manual ModeThis exercise reminds me of light and settings and how the camera works, sure. But more so, it turns every aspect of the image into a purposeful decision. There is no “spray and pray” photography when you are shooting in Manual Mode. Setting your camera to that scary “M” means you grant yourself full control and full responsibility for whatever emerges.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Aurora borealis and most other night photography require the use of Manual Mode.

There is no better way to learn about your camera, light, and about thoughtful photography than to set your camera to Manual Mode, turn off the autofocus, and go make images.

Summary

It’s absolute nonsense that pros only shoot in manual. Utter garbage. Your camera has a bunch of settings for a reason. Shooting in just one would be like only eating one type of food. Each has a purpose, and each has their place in the art of photography.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Purposefully underexposed images are also well-suited to Manual Mode, particularly when you want to retain a shallow depth of field, as I did with this flower image.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, shooting in Manual Mode may be the best tool at our disposal for turning our photography into a purposeful exercise. Using manual will force you to understand depth, light, exposure, blur, and focus.

So yes, you should shoot in manual mode. Just not all the time.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. Find out more aurora borealis workshops and other trips, his photography, and read his science and nature blog.

  • namberak

    “Back in the day” when I bought my first film camera and then quickly graduated to a range finder camera, everything was manual. There were no auto modes. I realize reading this though that I’ve gotten horribly lazy using the camera because everything doesn’t have to be manual any more. Aperture priority mode and forget about messing with anything, that’s my motto. I need to break out of my rut …

  • Shannon

    I’m going to disagree on the first example.
    Birds in flight are actuallty a good candidates for manually setting shutter’ iso, and aperature. The light on them is usual constant where the backround is constantly changing. The contant changing of background will likely give you inconsistent metering as the bird is flying. I started shooting with with manual a short while back for bif and have been very successful with it. Get your settings adjusted on some less interesting birds and the shots you actually want will all be sharp and correctly exposed. Setting the camera to shutter mode give the camera the ability to slow down if a dark background is behind your subject or a bright background could leave your bird in shadow. Manual is more effective when used in the correct scenarios.

  • Click and Learn Photography

    I both agree and disagree with this. You’re definitely right that shooting in full manual 100% of the time would likely yield poor results (in the faster paces genres of photography especially) but I don’t think ‘pros’ use all the settings.

    For example, I never use anything other than Manual or Aperture Priority mode, and when I refer to shooting Manual I generally mean using either Manual, Aperture, or Shutter priority. Using Auto modes is something I would never recommend doing because it takes so much control away from us.

    I go as far as recommending beginners start off in Manual because it really helps to teach them what actually effects the final exposure. If they then want to go back to SP or AP mode then that’s their choice!

    https://www.clickandlearnphotography.com/latest/2017/12/7/getting-out-of-autopilot-shooting-in-manual-mode

  • Shannon

    Yes.. Clouds can cause light changes among other things but this just makes you more aware of changes and in the end, a better photographer.

  • DD877

    I use manual for Birds sometimes but I use auto ISO… But then I am not a Professional…

  • Tom Cooper

    One thing you do want auto with BIF is focus. Getting tack sharp images of birds in flight manually is an exercise in frustration.

  • David W. Shaw

    I’ve never tried that technique, but I like to have ISO under my own control, so not sure it would work for me. Might be worth a shot though. Thanks for the comment!

  • David W. Shaw

    I too rely very heavily on Manual and Aperture Priority with only the occasional circumstance warranting another setting. And regarding beginners: Absolutely! I learned on manual cameras and using it exclusively really helped me understand exposure. That said, I think it’s important to know that it is OK to use other settings. But nothing beats manual for learning about exposure.

  • David W. Shaw

    Agreed!

  • David W. Shaw

    I have used manual for flying birds, but only very rarely and only under uniform lighting conditions. When I’m constantly shifting the direction I’m shooting and birds are lit differently, I like to have the quick flexibility of Shutter Priority in combo with Exposure Compensation.

  • David W. Shaw

    Nothing beats setting that camera on M to reset your creative self, and practice your exposure techniques. Good luck getting out of that rut!

  • Shannon

    I was only referring to manual exposure settings, not focus. Oh boy would that be torture with bif.

  • Click and Learn Photography

    Very well put. As you say, I’d recommend for any beginner to learn the opposite way around to what they’d expect. Rather than starting off in Auto for ease and then moving to Manual it’s often better to start off with the challenge of Manual and then use Auto modes when they’re more convenient (and you already know about exposure.)
    Obviously this is the complete opposite to what the manufacturers intend, but it’s definitely the best way to get the best out of you camera!

  • astrojohn

    I’m surprised there was no mention of post-processing a RAW image. Coupled with auto modes, RAW can go a long way to simulating full manual.

  • John Miner

    Shooting manually is a great learning experience, as you can see your image immediately and then correct. Not like the old days of waiting for your slides or prints, where I’d be happy with 2 or 3 out of 36.

  • DavidS

    Beautifully written, this means I no longer have to feel like a dummy every time I use non manual settings. Thanks and Merry Christmas.

  • Timothy Lim

    I do bird photography and have been shooting M mode with auto ISO for about 2 years. Setting it to AF-C should reduce your frustration. Also prime lens should have higher hit rate than zoom.

  • Peter Walker

    So you have time to adjust the exposure compensation, but not the aperture?

  • Dan

    90 % of the time I am using M with Auto ISO and only sometimes I am correcting exposure
    with Exposure Compensation. So I have everything under control (time and DOF
    management). I check used ISO so I do not get overexposed pictures or too
    high ISO. In some cases I switch off Auto ISO and do everything manually – when
    automatic exposure fails. I can correct exposure “mistakes” in PC because
    shooting RAW. This is better than to lose some shots which can’t be repeated.
    The challenge is to choose proper focussing technique. Back button together with
    AF-C is a great choice and one focussing point or some group if needed. Happy
    and Merry to all of you!

  • Denise Belanger

    For some reason I found manual much easier in my old film camera (of course, I had no choice! There were no electronic settings. Camera didn’t even have a battery, lol) than I do with my Lumix DC3. The way the electronic controls work is not as speedy as the old manual dials. But I guess I’m just old fashioned.

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  • Dave Wain

    Thanks David. I am on DSLR ‘L’ plates having had a manual Yashica film SLR that I stopped using many years ago. I am using all options – Av, Tv, M & P to familiarize myself with their uses. One comment to other commenters… you did specify manual mode as the ‘M’ setting on the camera. Av and Tv are not totally manual and as you said, when speed is the priority set to ‘Tv’ and allow the camera to choose aperture. Not always perfect but is most of the time. I like to control ISO however as low light can cause auto ISO to go beyond an acceptable level (although some cameras allow you set a maximum).

  • Dave Wain

    Additional Note: Back in the day ISO was only adjustable by changing the film, which was every 24-36 shots. One size did have to fit all when it came to ISO.

  • Nkanyezi

    Hi David: I understand that you are trying to tell people to explore other settings, but with the greatest respect, the first thing that a photographer should ask themselves is what story are they trying to capture… This is governed by the depth of focus because your subconscious is the thing that identifies all the sharply, in focus elements of an image first and foremost… The elements which are not sharp, but appear in that image are secondary, but still complimentary to that story…

    I like to stick to moving subjects ( wildlife, birds and action sports) and the very first thing I do is decide on my aperture/depth of focus… Then I look at freezing that motion by using the appropriate shutter speed, but bearing in mind that to capture birds flying ( In reasonable light) , your shutter speed has to be no less than 1/1,600th sec…

    You can set AUTO ISO which allows the flexibility, and providing the light is OK, it too will remain in manageable parameters…

    I have shot SLR for the past 18 years, but recently changed to mirrorless technology( SONY A9) and have to tell you that the ability to check the scene via the rear screen of the camera, before it happens is a huge help…. This camera body also provides a histogram in that live view…

    The way I set it fully manual – F-stop first, then shutter speed, then ISO…. Then check the live view, make some finer adjustments guided by the histogram and I am good to go….

    This new technology is a total inflection point in the way modern photography is going and in my current experience, judging by the actual results which I have got, the age of DSLR will soon become obsolete for most photography because using mirrorless is almost like cheating!

    You can check out these results on the Face Book pages of 1) SONY A9 owners and my Tim Driman Photography page….

  • Stormsurf

    I would argue that A is manual. In A, I control my camera with ISO and exposure compensation. This is a good way to shoot birds manually, incidentally.

  • Petegeoff

    Why should a prime have a higher hit rate than a zoom?

  • Petegeoff

    But what do you photograph?

  • David W. Shaw

    I use manual a lot, but certainly not all the time. I adjust to the situation, choosing the setting that makes my life easiest at that moment.

  • David W. Shaw

    Absolutely! When I got started, I too used a manual film camera and it forced me to learn about exposure in a way, I’m not sure I would today. (Though I do find the ease of use of manual mode on current digital cameras is really dependent on the camera.) Some are easy, some aren’t.

  • David W. Shaw

    I think all the comments about auto ISO are interesting. I never use auto ISO. Maybe it is because I shoot in a lot of low-light situations and don’t want the cameras selecting something too high. But whatever it is, I’d rather adjust elsewhere and not run the risk of noisy settings selected by the camera.

  • David W. Shaw

    Good point. But yes, I actually do find it easier to adjust EC. Adjusting in manual is always a balancing act. Adjust one setting and something else has to be adjusted too. With EC, a quick change and I can recompose with different lighting situations without having to change multiple settings again. Or perhaps this is just what I find easier in quickly evolving situations.

  • David W. Shaw

    And to you! Glad you liked the piece. And definitely no need to feel like an idiot, but that said, understanding manual mode will make you a better photographer!

  • David W. Shaw

    Definitely agree with you.

  • David W. Shaw

    A little outside the scope of this piece, but RAW has its own shortcomings, you might be able to do a fair amount of correction of exposure, but you can’t adjust depth of field or intentional (or accidental) blur in post.

  • David W. Shaw

    Absolutely agree with telling the story first. I’ve even written about that topic here on DPS. I’ve never used Auto ISO, because I just don’t trust the camera to keep it in a range I like. ISO to me is just as important to have under my control, maybe more, than any other aspect of exposure. That said, with all the comments here advocating for auto ISO, maybe I’m too cautious… And yes mirrorless are great! I’m in the process of selling off the last of my DSLRs right now. I agree with you that this is the direction that photography is going.

  • Tim Laborde

    I remember those film days vividly, shooting with my totally manual Minolta SRT202. You also had to set the ISO (ASA) manually then the film cartridge was read by a bar code reader for setting the ISO automatically. WOW, we have come a long way.

  • Tim Laborde

    Adjusting to “the situation” is key. BIF, I select a fast shutter speed 1st & use ISO auto. Landscapes, I select the best aperture for the best DOF and use ISO auto. For portraiture I use a shallow DOF and use ISO auto. Night photography, I use Manual by setting the ISO to 64, a medium Aperture and let the camera set the shutter speed and using a tripod. There are exceptions to all of the above but this is how I begin. Exposure Compensation comes into play, especially when shooting BIF when the background is usually brighter than the subject.

  • Tim Laborde

    BINGO, esp. the BBF comment with Single Point focus (most of the time).

  • Tim Laborde

    I have my camera set to a maximum of 5000 ISO. Thinking about reducing that to a lower setting. I hate grainey pictures.

  • drdroad

    Well, like most photographers (I think), a little bit of everything. But mostly I’m a urban/Architectural photographer. Lots of downtown with streaming taillights kinda shots. By far I get more stock sales out of these than anything else I shoot, plus I like that kinda work lots. I travel full time in North America, so always heading to a town I haven’t been to or done much in.

  • drdroad

    Completely agree!

  • photodude705

    Please stop telling people “Aurora borealis and most other night photography require the use of Manual Mode.” A knowledgeable shooter, and even novice shooters with a little guidance, can easily shoot the aurora in Aperture Priority mode.

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