Why You (Yes, You!) Should Start Using Manual Mode

M is for Manual — you know, that mythical position on your camera mode dial that you’ve been too terrified to even try. I’m here to tell you that manual mode is not nearly as scary as you thought.

Mode dial set to manual on a Canon DSLR camera.

Take control of your photography by switching to the manual mode. It’s easier than you think!

In fact, shooting in manual mode is a whole lot easier than you think. With a little practice, you’ll wonder why in the world you waited so long to make the leap from letting your camera make creative decisions for you to you taking charge of the image-making process yourself.

What you need to know before trying manual mode:

The one thing you need to become familiar with is the exposure triangle of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You’ll have to have an understanding of how changes in one affects exposure and how to adjust all three achieve a good exposure.

Not sure you’re ready to try shooting in manual mode? Here are four reasons you should take the plunge and switch to manual.

1. The camera does everything in manual mode.

With a high-quality DSLR set to one of the fully automatic modes, you’re basically using a big, heavy (not to mention expensive) point-and-shoot camera. Sure, the camera will get it right once in a while, but more often than not, the camera is just as likely to get it wrong.

Waterfall image captured with the camera set to full auto mode.

Besides actually framing the shot, you’re pretty much just along for the ride when you press the shutter. ISO, shutter speed, aperture, as well as focus point and white balance are all chosen by the camera. This is no way to make a photograph. Leaving all of the creative decisions to the camera and what it thinks the exposure and the main point of focus should be is not the way to consistently make good photos.

In the photo above, the about the only thing the camera got “right” was the choice of ISO, which was 100. When it came to aperture and shutter speed, my camera decided on f/4.5 and 1/60th of a second, neither of which I would have chosen for a photo of moving water. I would have used a much smaller aperture, something in the range of f/11 – f/16 for maximum depth of field, and a much longer shutter speed to maintain a good exposure and achieve a blurred look to the water. Something more like this…

My secret waterfall on the Mad River

2. Using Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes? You’re already halfway there.

If you’re already using one of these semi-automatic modes you’re half way to shooting in manual anyway, so why not take the next step? In either Aperture Priority (AV) or Shutter Priority (TV) modes, you select the ISO and either the aperture or the shutter speed, respectively, while the camera alters third part of the exposure triangle to maintain what the camera thinks is the correct exposure.

This is where the camera often gets it wrong. The camera will go for a “technically correct” exposure which may differ greatly from an “artistically correct” exposure of the same scene. Using the example of that first waterfall image, the histogram shows this photo is “correctly” exposed, with no blown-out highlights or grossly underexposed shadows. Yet as far as photos of waterfalls goes this photo is not really any good.

To get the silky look in the second photo of the same waterfall, I need to manually adjust all three settings — something I could only do in manual mode.

Prescott park gardens in the morning.

3. Digital has made it easy.

On most modern DSLR cameras you can enable either a histogram while in Live View or have the histogram displayed alongside the image preview after the shot. With this information, you have everything you need to make the move to Manual.

Using live view and the histogram to learn manual mode

Use what you’ve learned about the Exposure Triangle to experiment with the various camera settings and I guarantee you’ll have that ah-ha! moment in no time.

4. The satisfaction of knowing it was all you.

A weathered boardwalk winds through the sand dunes towards the ocean and a fiery sunrise.

The No. 1 reason to make the switch to Manual mode is in knowing that the photos you make are 100 percent the result of choices that you and you alone have made. There’s no greater satisfaction in photography than knowing that that great photo was all you — not some lucky accident where the camera just happened to get it right.

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