Manual mode

How (And When) To Use Manual Mode On Your Camera


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In a previous article 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. Today we’ll take a look at manual mode and learn when you should use it.

I made the portrait below using manual mode. Later on 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 How to Choose an Exposure Mode on Your Camera.

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. I made the portrait below, for example, using the same exposure settings as the one above. That makes it easier to use batch processing techniques in 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 bulb mode.

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

Manual flash photography

Automatic portable flash units 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.


Mastering Exposure ebookMastering Exposure

My ebook Mastering Exposure gives you the knowledge you need to get the correct exposure every time you take a photo. Reading this ebook helps you master your camera’s exposure modes and metering tools, and help you master tools like manual mode. You’ll learn why your camera gets exposure wrong, and how to put it right when it does.


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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.

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