With all of the automation that today’s digital cameras offer, there is one mode that gets little attention or discussion – Manual Exposure Mode. Manual mode seems like a relic, a holdover from the bad old film days. Manual mode may even seem a little intimidating if the photographer hasn’t used it before. The fact is, Manual mode really is an easy exposure mode to master.
Readers who have followed this series by now have a working understanding of how lens aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work hand in hand to create a balanced exposure. Manual exposure mode puts all of that understanding to work.
Using Manual exposure mode couldn’t be easier. The photographer sets an ISO speed into the camera and then uses the shutter control and the aperture control to ‘zero out’ the camera’s meter. In many older film cameras there was a needle in the viewfinder that moved up and down indicating the exposure, a balanced exposure was achieved when the needle was centered.
In today’s electronic digital cameras the needle has been replaced with a graph. Bars appear over the graph as the exposure setting moves toward over- or under-exposure. Just like the needle used in the old film camera, a balanced exposure is achieved when the graph is centered.
Of course this begs a question: If the automatic Program mode or the semi-automatic Aperture Priority / Shutter Priority modes have the same goal of a balanced exposure, why bother with Manual mode? The answer is ‘Control’.
Control in this context means creative control or corrective control:
• Creative control can be defined as when a photographer makes exposure decisions that have an outcome that differs from the camera’s or is based on handheld meter readings.
• Corrective control is when the photographer uses experience to depart from the camera’s recommended settings in order to achieve the desired outcome. A camera’s programming is pretty darn good, but sometimes it can be fooled. By using Manual exposure mode that programming is completely bypassed.
The creative control of Manual exposure is often overlooked. Many photographers have the mindset that everything can be fixed in Photoshop, but this isn’t really true. Detail cannot be created in editing software where the camera’s exposure wasn’t able to capture it.
In a scene with lots of range between detailed highlights and detailed shadows the camera will split the difference and set an exposure somewhere in the middle. Details in both the highlights and shadows can be lost. The photographer can decide to either capture the bright details or the dark ones and use a handheld meter to take a reading of the chosen area. Then the reading is set into the camera’s Manual exposure. More can be found about handheld meters in this earlier blog post.
Corrective control is most often based on experience. For example, when shooting fireworks the photographer knows that the camera’s automatic exposure system will create a reading biased toward the dark sky rather than favoring the bright fireworks burst. In this case switching the camera to Manual mode and dialing in a long shutter speed and a midrange aperture value is a good place to start.
There are also times where the camera’s exposure and metering system simply cannot function. One example is when using studio flash units. Studio flash doesn’t support TTL flash metering; they don’t couple up to the camera’s meter. The camera must be set in Manual mode, a flash reading is taken with a handheld meter, and that meter reading is set into the cameras aperture and shutter speed.
One last point on using Manual mode – the feeling of being directly connected to creating the image. Many avid photographers prefer Manual exposure mode because it allows them to feel a direct connection to all aspects of the image capture. When they get compliments on an image they know that they were in control of every aspect of its creation. There was no automation involved and that can give a strong sense of “I made this” to any photograph.
In conclusion, Manual mode is one of the key tools in a photographer’s arsenal. Manual exposure allows the shooter to capture images that meet their expectations. In some instances Manual mode is the only way to capture the image, such as when using studio flash. Finally, some photographers find that Manual mode can offer a sense of direct connection to the craft of photography. Our best advice is to add Manual exposure to your skill set. There will be a day when using Manual will be the difference between capturing an OK image and creating an outstanding one.