My most controversial photography article – ever
I hope you are all having a great week and life is good. Di and I sometimes write for Digital Photography School, a fantastic photo website that runs tons of articles about different aspects of photography.
Last month I wrote an article for them that has turned out to be the most controversial article I’ve ever written. What was the subject, you may ask?
Shooting on manual.
Specifically, it’s a simple introduction on how to shoot on manual.
Some people seem to get pretty upset about the suggestion that I advocate shooting on manual.
“bla bla bla bla bla. Shooting in M mode does not improve your picture at all.” Capixaba
I believe that shooting on manual is more than just exposure – it’s about learning the Craft of Photography. To me, an artist knows their tools like they knows their limbs.
I would love to know what you think – do you agree? Or totally disagree?
Or maybe you are just struggling to learn manual and it’s making you frustrated? Should you keep going?
Please read the article on Digital Photography School – and share your thoughts with me here on my blog.
I would love to know your thoughts!
Have a fantastic week,
Anthony and Diana
16/07/2020 @ 7:53 PM
I clicked through a Digital Photography School article you wrote that was in today’s newsletter. I have been enjoying your articles on your blog this afternoon.
I was wondering if you ever play with manual white balance? It can be used while shooting to change the mood of the photo and to make sure none of the individual color channels are blown the way highlights get blown in over exposure.
19/07/2020 @ 10:55 AM
I always use Kelvin temperature to adjust my white balance. This gives me the best control with RAW files. Thank you for your comment!
13/07/2020 @ 4:40 AM
This is a great article. I thought myself photography using manual mode from the start. I love it because I have total control of my images.
17/11/2019 @ 1:59 AM
I’ve never really understood why cameras have auto-exposure since the advent of digital. Back in the days of film, you took your photo, waited around for a couple of weeks until you finished the film, sent it off, waited another weekend then saw from the dark blob printed that it was horrifically underexposed , you had forgotten to take the lens cap off or whatever.
Now you can see immediately- and just hope that others aren’t looking as you try to give the impression that any decent photographer always takes one takes a test shot with it on before removing the cap.
The brain is a remarkably good light-meter as you’ll find out if you shoot on manual. It tells you things your camera would be too respectful to say
“f2.8 and 1000s” in this light!”
“Whoops, I went out last night didn’t I? Probably don’t want the iso at 2500.”
It’s like the day when you take the stabilisers off your bicycle. Of course it doesnt mean you will never fall off. But you still don’t want them back.
Shooting on manual teaches you the light.
If Antione de SaintExupery is right and perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away, shooting on manual seems an obvious step on the road to that perfection – even for those still at the “must remember the lens cap” stage.
31/12/2019 @ 12:20 PM
I totally agree with you that manual teaches you light and its effects. The wonderful advent of digital photography has just made this more apparent. So easy now to self correct on the spot. How quickly we forget what came before. Trial and error until you became effective at the craft. Thank you for your comment Alex!
7 Ideas On Making Art From Pablo Picasso - Cities at Dawn
24/12/2018 @ 2:22 PM
[…] go I wrote about how I had got some super-intense comments on an article I’d written – How to Shoot on Manual. It was very interesting to hear what you all had to say. (Btw I wrote a little follow up […]
Cities at Dawn
28/05/2018 @ 5:59 AM
[…] So – to create the atmosphere and ambiance of light you are seeing – you need to know how to ensure your light meter won’t over or underexpose. (More about that here) […]
26/02/2018 @ 10:13 PM
To every setting there is a purpose and a season for every setting under heaven: Auto, Scene, Manual (User, which is a set of saved Manual settings) and the “semi-automatics” (P, A, S) all have some value. Many factors affect what is the best choice. Witness the several different methods described in this comment section alone.
It is always advantageous to be familiar with your camera and what you can do in each setting, even “auto” allows exposure compensation and macro/landscape to be adjusted. It can be less intimidating to learn by starting in auto and exploring the effects of the available adjustments, then move to P, S and A before heading into full manual mode. More often than not I try more than one setting, often including auto in the mix, especially when the light is low and the wind is blowing. I’m not an expert and it can give me a data point for settings I might not have considered.
Also I disagree, hopefully with due respect, to a comment that one person made saying that if you don’t bother to learn manual mode you aren’t going to bother to learn composition. To my thinking the subject and layout are more important than a perfect, or perfectly artistic, exposure. Starting by learning composition leads to a deeper understanding of why to use the myriad settings and a desire to learn them.
While I understand that it is ideal to frame an image that does not need to be cropped and get the exposure just so, I see post-processing, including cropping, as a set of tools we all have to use at least sometimes: the world doesn’t always present the way you want it to…the light is what it is, you can only stand where you can stand, and those pesky power lines are everywhere! It isn’t lazy, it’s a different form.
Just like sumi-e painting is different from water colors, and both are different from acrylics and oils, an image with a good subject and layout taken in auto can be post processed into a work of art equal in emotional impact to one that came straight from the camera exactly as you wanted it to. Not the same, but artistic none-the-less. Is it better to not take the shot until you have mastered all the intricacies of your camera?
23/02/2018 @ 11:35 AM
Give Bigfoot my best 😉
23/02/2018 @ 10:50 AM
Thank you all for your commenting and support. I am still amazed at how difficult I found it trying to explain and encourage people to shoot with manual. I think I’ve distilled it most by saying : It’s all about the craft man!
Anyway, I wanted to respond to all your comments with a Story of Manual.
I’m walking in the woods. There are sights, sounds and smells and I’m making an effort to totally absorb it all. I am very much present.
All is good. The sun is high. The light is hard and strong filtering down through the high pines. I know I want fine detail and good depth of field for the images I’m about to make. Contrast and latitude come to mind.
I set my exposure in camera and in memory – giving aperture priority though I watch my minimum shutter speed. ISO was chosen before walking into the woods… I make images. Through the trees I see a clearing in full sun. I think +4-5 stops of light. I see potential shots just moments in the future by observing the light through the trees.
Making my way to the clearing my fingers adjusting exposure that -4-5 stops, without looking once at the camera, just mentally counting clicks. I don’t have to be spot on. I want it close so I don’t have correct by 12 clicks when a potential shot arrives. Just 2-3 clicks max. That is enough to get the base exposure set.
I know it’s best to have my exposure set for the light not for the subject. I know if I set it for the subject then it is most likely going to come too late…I need it set BEFORE the shot comes WHATEVER it may be.
I get to the clearing, my exposure already set. Or at least very very close.
On the opposite edge of the field I spot Bigfoot standing in the dappled light of a slanted sun through leaves. He smiles at me. Shutter speed I think! Again the fingers move in a reciprocal fashion simultaneously towards a faster shutter speed exposure as I raise the camera – a re-prioritization in an instant. I see an EV of -2/3rds. Close enough. Click.Click.Adjust.Click.Click. I think “tone” mood” “key” – what am I feeling right NOW. I’ll make adjustments quickly and instinctively. Click. Over exposure seems appropriate to capture full shadow detail( don’t want someone telling me my Bigfoot was just a tree due to terrible shadow detail!)
I walk off the field into the open shade of a mountainside. Again I know this is a +4-5 stop change from the previous base exposure I was using. ISO comes to mind. I change my exposure for soft open shade light. I choose a nice balanced exposure not really prioritizing shutter or aperture as I am not sure what I will find ahead of me yet. I can get a good base exposure as long as the light remains the same. I will not think of exposure again for awhile I know. My eyes are keyed into slight changes of the light – heavier shade or dark recesses, brighter dappling of light, these will need small adjustments, or not – Adjustments of less than ⅓ to 1 stop of exposure are made on a per image basis and not for “correctness”, but for tone, key and mood.
Across the field and out of the woods I come upon a sea. The sun is now low just a few degrees from the horizon. The cirrus clouds are plentiful for golden hour and there are few low clouds on the horizon. Conditions are good for colour and dynamic light. A wide lens goes on and aperture again takes priority. The tripod comes out. Now things have really slowed down. I know I will be in this spot for awhile making a photo every few minutes, but mostly just watching it all happen and feeling most alive! Shutter times get longer as the light leaves. As dark approaches aperture is widened. The stars come out and ISO increases.
23/02/2018 @ 10:18 AM
I actually found you because of that post on DPS, your suggestion to return to shooting manual struck a chord with me so I read the article and followed the links. I started my photography on a Zenit-B, so I can shoot manual, but I got lazy/nervous about missing the shot and mostly use aperture priority. I am now surprised to find that I enjoy shooting manual again for reasons too psychologically complex for anyone else to be interested in!! 😉
I am in complete agreement with a lot of the above, you take photographs because you enjoy it, and you do whatever gives you most pleasure. If you’re OK with auto stick with that, but if you really want to understand your toolkit and use it as an extension of your body then it’s manual.
23/02/2018 @ 9:00 AM
I too used a film camera for many years until several years after digital came in – I was reluctant to change. It was all manual and I think you are perfectly right to try and encourage people to use manual settings – it’s an important skill to learn. You can make such minute changes to get the photo YOU want, not what some automatic setting decides you should have. In post-processing, you can see how awful the “auto-adjust” type settings are and it’s often the same with camera auto. I use a Nikon D300S.
23/02/2018 @ 5:51 AM
Always an interesting subject. In the main I shoot in Av mode, however, I do it in a modified Manual mode using Exposure Compensation and the Histogram. I know that the cameras exposure metering is based on the 18% grey system and often for me that does not produce the effects I want. I, therefore, adjust exposure via Exposure Compensation, which I find is a very easily understood solution. I will use the Histogram to confirm that the exposure is where I want it to be because using the back screen is not accurate enough in variable lighting situations. I know I could use the ‘blinkies’ but they just frustrate me.
At other times I will use Manual mode when I want a constant setting, such as photographing in a location with a constant light, but the passing subjects are wearing different tones of clothing, which would fool the cameras metering.
Lastly, thank you for all of your articles, very thought provoking and informative in equal measure.
23/02/2018 @ 3:24 AM
So you expound “Manual” mode – but you still use your camera’s light meter, don’t you?
Setting ISO determines how much light your image sensor needs and, as you say, modern cameras work well at most of their ISO settings. You set an ISO number and that programs your light meter.
The aperture size controls the depth of field – mostly – for a particular focal length lens. The shutter speed controls how much blur you’re going to get depending on how much your subject is moving and how much your hands are shaking!
So you are taking an image of a bird flying by, say – you want a fast shutter speed. You look through your viewfinder and find you need to rotate the aperture control (in manual mode) to get the EV in the middle. Then press the shutter. Oh dear, where’s that bird gone? Damn thing flew away while I was fiddling. Maybe I’ll set Shutter Priority mode and try again. I’m letting my very clever camera work out and set the requisite aperture and – lo and behold! – I have an image! A touch under-exposed, but that has preserved the detail in the shadows and I can restore that with my image processing software. The camera is still using its light meter, but setting the aperture much, much more quickly than I could do. If you have the tools, use them!
Now that bird has landed on a bush close by and there is a lot of foliage in the background that is distracting my eye – I want an image that shows the bird in exquisite detail, so I set my lens aperture wide open and proceed to adjust the shutter speed by looking through the viewfinder at the light meter reading. Snap! Oh no, the bird flew away again and I have a nice picture of a bush. So let’s put the camera in Aperture Priority mode, wide open for the shallow depth of field that I want, auto-focus because my camera has 164 focus points and the focus motor is much faster than me turning a ring and let it work out what the shutter speed needs to be – and set it!
This time, its all happened in less than a second and I have a wonderful image of a bird just taking off from my bush.
There is a place for everything in the photographic world and Manual Mode may be useful if your camera is bewildered, after all you are supposed to have a brain that is more powerful, but by and large, using either Aperture or Shutter Priority mode will give you what you want and allow you to exercise your creativity whilst leaving the drudge work to the camera.
“If you have the tools, use them!”
23/02/2018 @ 2:40 AM
My feeling is that people who can’t be bothered to learn manual mode on their camera, are not going to be bothered to learn the fine points of composition (when they can just crop with image editing software), fine tune their craft by spending time appreciating the limits and rewards of using a prime lens, or develop a deep knowledge of their subjects. They will buy expensive equipment to do the ‘work’ for them, take quick pretty snapshots, move on to the next gimmick, and think they are fine art photographers. There is a time and place for the automatic and semi automatic modes, but picture-taking takes such little effort these days, who wouldn’t want to immerse themselves in finding out how far they can take their photography?
23/02/2018 @ 2:31 AM
Hi Anthony, I totally agree with you that every photographer needs to know how to shoot in manual, whether or not it is used 100% of the time. My first slr was a Canon AT-1 bought in 1978. When I received the camera I bought a photography book which explained exposure so simply it’s stuck with me all these years: aperture controls how much light is let in the camera, shutter speed controls how long the light is let in, and ASA controls how sensitive the film is to light. Now just swap ISO for ASA, and sensor for film….
I wish I still had thta book.
Ive read so many confusing explanations for exposure its no wonder most new photographers are confused by it.
I agree that to be in total control of the creativity of your images you need to know how to shoot in manual. Shutter or aperture priority can be very useful in certain situations, but knowing how to use aperature or shutter speed to get the results you want should come first.
22/02/2018 @ 11:49 PM
I totally agree and this really strikes a cord with me. I recently returned to manual and find I am enjoying photography more because of it. it feels like more of a creative process. I find that semi auto modes actually make it seem more mysterious than it really is – especially Auto ISO. As Sue in the comments here says – Manual makes exposure compensation easy or actually irrelevant – you simply decide the exposure you want, no ‘compensation’ needed. Thanks for this post!
22/02/2018 @ 10:24 PM
My photography goes back to shooting without an in camera meter OR a range finder. That covers a lot of auto’s. It is ALL about the photographer choosing the right exposure and (guessing) the right focus distance.
To differentiate between “Making” a photograph and a snapshot, it all starts with choices. In auto, the choices end with framing and composition. In Manual YOU choose the focus point (there can be only one. You choose the exposure to determine that the SUBJECT YOU CHOOSE is properly lit.
That’s a bunch of choices from the days when we didn’t have an AUTO choice. As for aperture and shutter priority, they’re just an augmentation of Manual. Those choices are easily over ridden or compensated for.
So for Manual and it’s ALL about MEEEEEE, I say learning control is essential to making a photograph.
22/02/2018 @ 8:35 PM
Use whatever mode makes your photography enjoyable for you.
I agree that the most flexibilty over the creative process is gained by using manual mode, but lots of photographs online are no more than snapshots so manual mode wouldn’t particularly help them, the best images show some degree of ceativity, probably by using manually dialed in settings. I do use manual mode whenever I have time as I enjoy the thought process behind deciding what settings to use – but that isn’t necessariy what others enjoy about photography – so each to their own.
22/02/2018 @ 8:34 PM
I am a beginner when it comes to using manual mode. I have experimented with aperture priority but thought that practicing more in manual mode would support me in gaining a better understanding of how my camera can be used more creatively. I greatly appreciated your simple introduction on how to shoot in manual mode. I have practiced using your tips and can see that the more I practice, the better my images are turning out. Thank You!
22/02/2018 @ 8:22 PM
Firstly thank you for another interesting and inspiring article. Secondly I admit to mostly shooting manual, though occasionally other modes, so perhaps a degree of bias in my response. A camera is a tool that records light. Leaving in a camera in an non-manual mode is like leaving a robot in charge of paint brush. You lose control, and are just snapping the scene in most cases.
Exceptions to the rule are action, sports and street shots were taking the time to prepare a manual exposure can mean losing the shot.
Thanks for the inspiration and helping me to find my photography mojo again.
22/02/2018 @ 8:12 PM
I learnt photography using film cameras, entirely manual…a Canon FT and then a Nikon FM 2….and since ‘going digital’ I rarely use other modes…too much of a faff to learn exposure compensation etc. So I guess I’ll always be a Manual girl!