Manual mode

Exposure Lesson #4: Manual Mode

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In the previous lesson we learned that evaluative metering (also known as matrix or multi-segment metering) is the most advanced built-in metering system that camera makers have invented.

But, the reality is that evaluative metering is just as fallible as your camera’s other metering modes.

If you photograph a white flower, for example, it doesn’t matter whether you use center weighted average or evaluative metering. The camera still gives an exposure reading that makes the flower gray, not white.

You, the photographer, still have to step in and override the camera’s suggested settings.

One way to override your camera’s settings is with exposure compensation. Another is to use manual mode. In today’s lesson we’ll take a look at manual mode and learn when you should use it.

I made this portrait using manual mode. Later on in the lesson you will find out why.

Portrait of asian model made using manual mode

When automatic modes fail

Your camera gives you the choice of four exposure modes – manual, aperture priority, shutter priority and programmed auto. Many cameras also offer at least one fully automatic mode. But as you should know by now, creative photographers never touch them.

If you’re unsure why that is, then read Exposure Lesson #1: How to Choose an Exposure Mode.

The main benefit of aperture priority, shutter priority or programmed auto modes is that they are easier to use and faster than manual mode. They handle changing light conditions better and work better with automatic flash units.

But there are times when the automatic modes will let you down, like the above example of photographing a white flower. In these situations switching to manual mode is often a good solution.

Photo of a white flower made using manual mode

When to use manual mode

These are some of the situations where I use manual mode.

Every photographer works differently and you should treat these as suggestions only. Eventually you will figure out when you prefer to use manual mode. It’s a personal choice that nobody can make for you.

Manual mode for portrait photography

When you make portraits you should focus on capturing great expressions and creating powerful compositions. It’s essential to build a good rapport with the model to achieve this.

You can simplify the process by using manual mode. Start by setting the camera to aperture priority and taking an exposure reading. Then switch to manual mode and lock those settings in. Take a test photo and check the histogram to see how accurate the exposure was. Adjust the exposure settings if necessary and take another test.

Once you’re happy with your settings you’re free to focus on creating good portraits. There’s no need to change them unless the light changes.

Another benefit is that the exposure is consistent from frame to frame. That makes it easier to retouch the portraits once you get them into Lightroom Classic.

Portrait of asian model made using manual mode

Manual mode for landscape photography

Manual mode is also useful for landscape photography, especially when your camera is tripod mounted.

The process of landscape photography is relatively slow. It takes time to find the best viewpoint, decide which lens to use, and wait for the right light.

As a result, you have plenty of time to work in manual mode. The benefit is that your exposures remain consistent and won’t be influenced by factors that cause automatic exposure modes to underexpose (such as a bright sky or light reflecting off water).

It is also easier to use manual mode when using graduated neutral density filters to reduce the brightness of the sky.

Dusk is my favorite time for creating landscape photos. I like to take a series of photos as the light fades.

It’s easy to cope with this in manual mode. All you have to do is increase the length of the shutter speed as the light fades, checking the histogram as you go to make sure it’s pushed as far to the right as possible.

I made this landscape photo using a shutter speed of 30 seconds, in manual mode.

Landscape photo made at Muriwai, New Zealand using manual mode

Long exposure photography

For long exposure photography involving shutter speeds of longer than 30 seconds, I switch my camera to bulb mode.

Bulb is another form of manual mode. The only difference is that you decide the length of time the shutter stays open using a cable release, rather than setting the shutter speed on the camera.

I made this long exposure photo with a shutter speed of 120 seconds. This was only possible in using bulb.

Long exposure photo made in Island Bay, New Zealand using manual mode

Manual flash photography

The automatic portable flash units made by Canon and Nikon can do amazing things. Combine them with evaluative metering and one of your camera’s automatic exposure modes (that is, programmed auto, aperture priority or shutter priority) and you’ll be able to create powerful images without going anywhere near manual mode.

The main drawback of these sophisticated portable flash units is the price. They’re expensive. If you don’t mind working in manual mode then you can buy cheaper manual only flash units.

If your flash is manual, you should use manual mode on your camera.

Start by setting the ISO and aperture to match the light output from your flash units. Then adjust shutter speed to change the brightness of the ambient light. It may sound complicated but it’s straightforward once you get the hang of it.

Portrait made with portable flash in manual mode

Creative exercise

Manual mode is an excellent way to learn about the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

The aim of this exercise is get you thinking about the relationship between these elements of the exposure triangle.

In manual mode your camera indicates whether the exposure settings you have selected are correct according to the camera’s built-in meter.

These diagrams show how it works. Check your instruction manual if you’re not sure how to do it on your camera.

Diagrams showing exposure display in camera viewfinder

  • The central arrow (circled) shows that the top display is exposed correctly.
  • The middle display is overexposed by a stop.
  • The bottom display is underexposed by a stop.

Let’s go back to the earlier example of a white flower. By now you should understand that if you are using manual mode and set the exposure so that the arrow points to zero (as in the top diagram) then the exposure will be incorrect. The camera’s recommended settings are wrong.

You need to step in and set exposure so that the arrow is pointing to +2. This is more likely to be correct.

Hopefully this exercise shows you that manual mode, in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it properly, is not very helpful. It’s up to you, the photographer, to set the exposure correctly.

Exposure lessons

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.


  1. Hi Andrew! It is great article for even advanced hobbyist like me. I shoot in manual 100% when using flash indoor and sometimes outdoor when the lightening and a subject call for it. It’s amaze me that so many people own good quality DSLRs and still always use either fully automatic mode (green square) or P (program) mode saying why they should think and know the concepts of photography when they have such smart cameras. All they get just decent quality snapshots. I never could make any sense of that as why to spend so much money on a camera and to use it at 30% capability plus they always shoot in JPG. RAW is something they just don’t justify to deal with because RAW files are much larger in sizes and they are trying to save on their SD card capacity. However, we all are free to think and to do in accordance with our believes. I mostly (80%) shoot in semi-manual Aperture priority Av on my Canon 6D and quite often using EC (exposure compensation) depending of the background and a subject intensity of either white/black appearance. I’ve noticed that my Canon has tendency to underexpose most of the time using evaluated metering mode, so I usually shoot with +2/3 to get just perfect exposure despite the fact even at 0 it would be very easy to correct in LR.

    1. Author

      Hi Michael, glad you liked the article. Programmed auto is not so bad but I don’t understand either why someone would use an SLR camera in full auto. I guess they don’t really want to learn how to take control of their camera and create better photos. As long as they’re happy!

  2. Andrew,

    I switched from Aperture Priority to Manual mode last summer, after realizing that since Live View lets me see what I’m getting, running in Manual means never having to fight the camera for control over exposure.

    Before I went digital, I used a Canon FT-QL 35mm SLR for decades. It used a manual “put the needle on the circle” metering system that read the central rectangle of the tick-tack-toe board (about 10% of the image) – and had to stop the lens down to take a reading. Shooting negatives, I got into the practice of taking a reading of my hand as a surrogate for the subject, and letting it go at that. Worked fine, given the dynamic range of negative film. (Might not have worked as well with slide film – BTW, Paul Simon was really singing about Ektachrome.)

    Switching to Manual with my Canon 70D and G5X – I shoot RAW with both – felt like a return to the way I’d worked all those years. Now I simply expose for the highlights to make sure they’re almost but not quite blown out (my version of exposing to the right, without bothering with a histogram), and I get good results without having to use the exposure compensation dial to fight with the camera’s automation. I’ve set one knob to control aperture, one to control shutter speed and one to control ISO (a luxury I didn’t have when using film), and expose by eye – what a concept! – using the Live View display on either camera or the EVF in the G5X.

    1. Author

      Hi Phil, the idea of using the spot meter to expose for the highlights is a good one. It’s similar to what I used to do for black and white film many years ago, except I exposed for the shadows. It’s interesting how exposure techniques have changed over the years as the technology evolves.

  3. Hi Andrew. In manual mode, using a prime lens I can understand that the slowest shutter speed is equivalent to the lens focal length (e.g., 50mm lens / slowest shutter speed one fiftyith of a second). But if using a zoom lens, do I need to select the focal length to compose my photo and then set the shutter speed to that figure or is there a faster way?

    1. Author

      Hi Michael, the short answer is yes, you do. Consider a 24-105mm zoom lens. On a full-frame camera, you could theoretically hand-hold the lens at 1/30 second at the 24mm lens. But without Image Stabilization it would be impossible to get a sharp image at 105mm and 1/30 second. You would need a shutter speed of at least 1/125 second to do so.

      I used the word theoretical deliberately because many photographers, myself included, use faster shutter speeds to guarantee sharpness. The rule really gives you the bare minimum shutter speed required for a sharp image.

      You also need to take crop factor into account. Divide the required shutter speed by 1.5 for an APS-C camera or by two for a Micro four-thirds camera. So 1/125 second becomes 1/180 on APS-C or 1/250 on Micro four-thirds.

  4. I like to expose manually using my vintage Sangamo Weston Master V for incident light, providing I have the time!

    I bought a Yashica JP and the SWM in 1966. The former is long gone but the latter, after a reconditioning service, is fine.

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