Why should we use manual mode?

This is the $1,000,000-dollar question, why should we use Manual Mode when all the other modes do exactly what we want and without the hassle of learning what everything does?

We get asked this a lot and our answer is always the same, it gives you control over the images you take.

While using the camera modes seems easier, you may not always get the image you are expecting.

Let’s see what we mean. There are only three things you can change;

Light – exposure:
How bright or dark do you want the image?

Depth of field: F-stop
How much of the image do you want in focus?

Speed:
How blurry or sharp do you want the image?

Here is the issue, changing one will directly affect the others and there is no way around this in normal use, the only exception is the ISO setting and we will get to this later.

Auto Mode

We will use auto mode as an example, however, there are many different modes available depending on the camera you have. In this mode you point the camera at the subject and click the button. The camera will sort out the exposure, (how bright the image is), adjust the shutter speed and the depth of field (F-stop) and if it cannot get a correct exposure with these then the camera will change the ISO. All of this happens as the button goes click. There you have it! An image, with you only pointing the camera at a subject and pressing the button.

Our first steps to manual mode:

Exposure

This is another way of saying how bright or dark the image will be when the photo is taken.
Looking through the view finder you may see a display at the bottom that looks similar to the image below.

Through the view finder fig.1.0

We are only interested in the middle section that has a reading from -3 to +3 and a pointer near the centre. This is measuring how exposed your image will be, or in another way how bright or dark the image will be. Each number on the scale is what is known as a stop of light. The right-hand side is increasing the light up three stops and the left-hand side decreasing the light down three stops. The best place to have the pointer is in the middle as this will produce a correctly exposed image.

The exposure meter is controlled by a dial on the camera so take a look at your manual to learn how to operate it.

Depth of field:

How much of the image is in focus

Also known as depth of focus this is related to the aperture or opening in the lens, whereby the lower the starting number the larger the aperture opening. Therefore, a lower F-stop number enables more light through the lens and onto the camera’s sensor. Lenses have either a variable or fixed F-stop number, which indicates the highest amount of light the lens can let through. Most kit lenses will start at an F- stop around 4.5 and if they have a zoom then this may change, the more you zoom in. Looking at your lens will tell you what the F-stop is.

Another way to see what the lens F-stop is, is to look at the display on the back of the camera, which will show you the starting F-stop for your lens. By the by, the lower F-stop lenses are always more expensive, as the quality of the glass used is higher, enabling more light through.

From this, you would think that having a low F-stop number is the way to go as this lets in more light, which in turn allows higher shutter speeds and consequently a sharper image. However, there is a downside to this as the lower the F-stop number the less of the image will be in focus. Think of it as taking a picture of the different parts of someone’s face. With a very low F-stop say F1.2 and the focus point set on the eyes, then their nose and ears may be out of focus. Yet, if the camera lens is set to say F5.6 and the focus point is on the eyes, then the nose and ears may now be in focus . Knowing this, we can take more control of the way the photo looks and get creative with the end results.

There is another downside, in that the higher the F-stop number, the slower the shutter speed has to be, the shutter has to stay open longer to let in the equivalent amount of light. This is because the aperture in the lens becomes smaller the higher the F-stop number. This can be an issue in low light or if the subject is moving, as the slower the shutter speed the higher the chance of having a blurred image. Steady hands or tripod required at this point!

Here is the issue I think most of us have with manual mode, We have to be constantly aware of our camera setting and our surroundings.

For instance, landscape images may require a high F-stop to get everything in focus which in turn requires a longer shutter speed to get the image correctly exposed. Meaning that to avoid camera shake we may require a tripod to get a sharp image. Taking fast moving objects requires a fast shutter speed so you would think having a lens with a very low F-stop would work, but you may not get everything in focus.

This shows that we must plan ahead, slow down and be patient when using Manual mode.

When there is not enough light:

ISO to the rescue

What happens when we cannot get enough light through the lens by adjusting the shutter speed or F-stop value plus you cannot use or do not have a flash or other source of lighting? In this situation you can change a setting named ISO. This increases or decreases the sensitivity of the sensor to the light coming through the lens. Changing the ISO will allow the camera to operate better in low light and may allow you to take the image at the required shutter speed or F-stop.

In days gone by when we used film, ISO was the rating of the film sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO number the more light the film would be able to capture, but the trade-off was image quality as the higher the ISO the more noise/grainier the image became.

In fact, it is the same for digital cameras, the higher the ISO the noisier/grainier the image becomes.

Most DSLR cameras have an ISO setting starting from around a 100 and up to and over 32,000 so at the very high levels. You can try taking a photo in near total darkness at the settings we require, but the image quality may not be as good and we may have to use other means or additional equipment to get the image we require.

Using ISO to enable the camera to capture more light is great, especially if photographing indoors at events where other types of lighting is not allowed.

ISO International Organization for Standardization which combined two film standards named ASA and DIN which were combined to ISO standards in the 1970’s.

The impossible shot: low indoor lighting, fast moving subject and no external light source allowed.
ISO 4000, Shutter Speed 1/160 sec F-stop 5.0

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. The higher the fraction the faster the speed which means that 1/500th is a much faster shutter speed than 1/30th. In Auto mode the camera decides the correct shutter speed to use and adjusts all the other settings to enable the fastest shutter speed. Switching to manual mode requires that the photographer has to set the shutter speed and knowing what this is, will determine how sharp or blurry the image is or how dark or bright the image is.

What is the focal length of your lens?

For a shake free image the shutter speed has to be higher than the focal length of the lens being used. This means that if you are using a 50 mm lens then the shutter speed should be greater then 1/50th second. For a zoom lens check how far you are zoomed in and do the same. If the shutter speed is lower than you require, adjust the F-Stop or ISO to get the correct image for your exposure.

Decide which shutter speed is correct

Assuming we are looking for a correctly exposed stationary image and you have never ventured into manual mode before, then try this.

  • First, switch to manual mode
  • Next, set the ISO to no more than 200
  • Then set the F-stop to 5.6 and look through the view finder towards your subject
  • Finally, set the correct exposure by only changing the shutter speed
  • After, make a note of the settings.

Is the exposure needle still in the center?
If not, what do we need to change to get it there and keep the shutter speed above the focal length of the lens?

Look at the image (fig 1.0) above . This is looking through the view finder and you should be able to see all the information you require.
The first number on the left is the shutter speed, the second is the F-stop. (Check your camera’s manual for your own camera.)

To freeze or not to freeze:

To freeze a subject such as a bird in flight or a fast moving car, a higher shutter speed is required. This can be anywhere from 1/500th of a second to over 1/1000th of a second. To blur or to take low light images such as the stars at night, a slower shutter speed is required and this can be from 1/5th to 30 seconds.
New photographers can easily mistake camera shake for out of focus images, as they have the same appearance when the shake is subtle.

Slow shutter speed results in blurred water.

Remember, to eliminate camera shake when hand held, the shutter speed must be higher than the lens’s focal length.
Changing all three settings may still not be enough to get that perfect shot and other methods may need to be used.

Is manual mode best?

Well not always!

After all this, manual mode may not always be the best way to go. When you have mastered manual mode, you may not always use it, because not all situations will require or allow for it. There may not be the time, or the conditions may change greatly between shots.

E.g. let’s assume we are at an event with low changeable lighting and fast moving subjects, there may not be time to configure the camera so one of the other modes including auto may be your best choice.

To summarise, understanding how the settings work and how each one affects the image in differing ways will ultimately give you more control over how your resulting images look.

To learn more through piratical experience why not attend one of our Learning Center classes. We offer group or individual classes for all levels.

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