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Switch to Manual Mode

A Guest Post by Sam Levy from citifar.

In the past couple of years, the price for DSLRs and other fancy cameras has decreased dramatically and these cameras have become affordable to many more photo-enthusiasts. I often stroll Fifth Avenue in New York City and observe so many tourists using their DSLR to ‘snap’ rather than photograph. There is nothing wrong with snapping but I can’t help feeling puzzled by the reasons beyond their purchase of an expensive and heavy camera instead of a good and cheaper point and shoot.


Since I started citifari to run photo tours for photo-enthusiasts of all levels, I have listened to some of the reasons for not using the manual mode. It is usually one of these:

  • I never took a photography class
  • I don’t have time to think about these settings when I take a picture
  • I am afraid of my camera’s settings, or
  • It would take bad pictures

Essentially: fear and/or effort. Let’s think about it for a second and let’s tackle them one by one.


Taking bad pictures

What makes a bad picture? Is it only a picture that is not in focus and/or poorly exposed? No, there are plenty of ways to take bad pictures. Rather, then, what makes a good picture? Is it only a picture in focus and properly exposed? Not either! Chances are that you are already taking bad pictures (I did not say only)! So where is the fear? That you will take more bad pictures? Are you afraid at the possibility of maybe taking one good picture by chance? If it is only fear, you are in the digital world: take one picture in manual mode and then switch to automatic to capture that shot you were afraid to miss, it won’t cost you anything additional and with practice you will realize that you don’t need the additional security shot.


Your camera’s settings

If the reason for the purchase of your fancy camera wasn’t a fashion statement or to get some exercise by carrying a heavy camera bag, it was probably in order to be able to play with the settings in order to get control over the camera and get those nice shots.  What has changed since? You became intimidated by the possibilities of your camera? You don’t know where to start? You need only to consider three variables to take a picture: the aperture, the ISO and the shutter speed. Forget for now all the fancy options hidden in the menus of your camera. Just these three will get you a long way. Play with them, mess with them, read more, take a class. But again: if you are afraid to miss a shot, take your picture in manual and turn to automatic as a safety.


I never took a photography class

The easy answer to this is: take one. But I would like to augment that by: if you don’t have the time or the means to, you don’t need to take a class. There are a ton of resources online to teach you about the basics of photography, including DPS which I keep reading for tips, tutorials and lessons from professionals. The best class is probably to take your camera out, take more pictures and experiment. With digital, you can take as many pictures as you wish without incremental cost, with software at home you look at the effect of the changes in one parameter by comparing two pictures otherwise similar.


I don’t have time to think settings when taking a picture

True, this one will be the hardest to overcome. It requires practice in order to build the automatisms you need so that you can set your capture the way you want in manual mode. But once again, you can start gradually. When you have time, force yourself take your picture in manual mode and when you don’t have time, turn on the automatic mode. You will gain with practice and will never want to go back to automatic mode after a while. Ultimately, the manual mode will add fractions of seconds to your setup but your end result will improve much more than the extra effort. Also, as a by-product, you will think more about your picture before the shot and the message will pass better.

I would like to add one more reason why you might not be using the manual mode.


I don’t know what the automatic mode does

If you knew you probably would not use it. You purchased your camera in order to control your pictures and instead, the automatic mode selects everything for you:

  • the focus point: your picture will be focused somewhere but not always on the subject you picked as a point of interest
  • the exposure: your picture will be exposed so that it matches an ‘average grey’. This will probably not help seeing what you wanted to show in your highlights or in the shadows.
  • all other settings: the processor inside the camera did not know whether you wanted to freeze the movement or on the contrary, to have a slow shutter speed, it does not know either whether you wanted to throw everything out of focus behind your subject or to have an ‘all in focus’ landscape


You invested and are now carrying your camera because you decided to tell the camera what to capture: you want to be in control and you don’t want now to let the camera decide for you instead. Forget the automatic mode and switch progressively to manual… (you might want to explore the semi-automatic modes aperture and shutter speed priorities too).

Sam Levy is the founder of citifari. citifari offers photo tours in New York City. Structured as a 2-1/2 hour practical workshop, citifari tour helps you get comfortable with your camera settings and take great shots from New York City. visit citifari atwww.citifari.com, on facebook at www.facebook.com/citifari or on twitter @citifari. email Sam Levy at sam@citifari.com

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