The Fallacy of Manual Mode

I was reading a couple of posts from some photography groups that I belong to the other day, when someone asked for help in understanding how to use manual mode to take better photos.

Shooting in manual mode does not necessarily equate to better photos and there is a lot of hype around learning to shoot in manual mode. When you read the hype, you may be forgiven for thinking that the only way to get good pictures is to use your camera in manual mode.

The importance of understanding exposure values

Exposure value is a scale that is used when metering a scene to express a combination of Aperture and shutter speeds for a given ISO that can be used to give an optimal exposure for the scene being metered.

That is why we can vary our aperture or shutter speed combination and arrive at the same exposure.

In the example above at an ISO of 200, shooting at F8 @1/125s gives us the same exposure as shooting at F11 @ 1/60s. This provides us with the versatility to vary our exposure settings based on our subject matter and what is important to us.

Camera modes

Generally cameras offer three types of modes

  • Fully Automatic
    • Aperture and Shutter speed is set by our camera based on ISO setting and brightness of scene.
  • Semi Automatic
    • Aperture Priority – we choose our aperture and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed based on ISO setting and brightness of scene.
    • Shutter Priority – we choose our shutter speed and the camera selects the appropriate aperture based on ISO setting and brightness of scene.
  • Manual
    • We use our cameras meter to adjust our aperture and shutter speed manually to get the correct exposure based on ISO setting and brightness of scene.

All of the above modes simply provide us with some flexibility and control over our camera and how we expose a scene!

The objective in using any of these modes is to arrive at an optimum exposure for our subject or scene.

What does that mean in relation to using our cameras programme modes? It means this; For a given ISO setting and constant Exposure Value (EV), and based on our scenes brightness, the semi auto mode (Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority) will basically provide the same aperture, shutter speed combination, you just have to choose either to use aperture priority or shutter priority based on your shooting needs.

  • Aperture Priority – (F8) camera sets shutter speed 1/125s
  • Shutter Priority (1/125s) camera sets Aperture F8

Programme mode is a little different in that it will depend on how each camera manufacturer calibrates its programme mode as to which combination of shutter speed and aperture is used. In principle though, F8 @ 1/125s will be one of the choices.

So what about manual mode?

In manual mode we should be able to select an exposure setting of F8 @ 1/125s, and our meter should show that the scene will be correctly exposed.

All that happens in manual mode is that we must physically set our aperture and shutter speed. Using your camera in manual mode requires that you set your aperture, shutter speed and ISO for yourself and will not make your pictures any better.

Modern cameras are very good at what they do and in reality manual mode is only preferential under certain conditions

  • when you want to force the camera to use certain aperture, shutter combinations. In which case, ISO will be the variable to change for correct exposure.
  • When you are working in a studio and using a handheld light meter.
  • When your main subject is perhaps lit by a constant light source but your meter reading might be being influenced by other light sources and changes in brightness levels.
  • When you want to use your camera’s meter or a handheld meter to precisely control exposure and dial in some form of exposure compensation.

My advice is to not worry about which mode to use but to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each mode, and to be conscious of the concept of exposure values (EV’s) and the effects of using different aperture, shutter speed and ISO combinations.

And when using full auto or semi auto modes learn to use exposure compensation to influence and adjust exposure.

Lilou – Programme Mode – Lumix G9

This portrait of our cat Lilou, was shot in programme mode using programme shift to select a wider aperture and faster shutter speed combination with -0.3 exposure compensation applied.

I only had a couple of seconds to grab this shot, If had been shooting in manual mode I would have missed the shot while tying to to dial the correct exposure settings manually.

Using my Lumix G9’s programme mode and programme shift, meant that I had already set the camera up to bias for shooting using the widest aperture possible. All I had to do was point and shoot.

I do like and use manual mode sometimes myself but for the most part I have learnt to make exploit my cameras features and use custom set ups for different scenes.

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