photography and photographs understood

Manual Mode

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: Jul 2009; revised: Mar 2018; readers past month: 555

If you want to learn about photography, I recommend taking plenty of photos every time you take pictures and going out and taking pictures often. More than abundance and frequency, though, you’ll benefit greatly from examining your photos, looking at the results of your efforts. Unlike film cameras, with digital cameras you can see the effects of various settings pretty immediately. Digital memory cards are cheap now. You can take hundreds of pictures in one outing without having to delete any of them along the way and you can copy your images onto your home computer and then reuse the card. Photos are relatively free for the taking. So take plenty of them and experiment so that you can learn. This means doing more than just leaving your camera on an automatic mode and pointing it at something. In order to gain experience in photography that will allow you to learn more about it, you’re going to have operate your camera at a minimum in one of the creative modes and not a fully-automatic mode. I recommend that you primarily use it in manual mode, though.

If you’re an absolute beginner to photography and new to using a DSLR camera, you might find manual mode overwhelming. In the beginning, none of your pictures will come out as well as they would in automatic. However, you’re going to have to have patience and keep trying. If you persevere and keep questioning bad photos, keep trying to understand where you went wrong and where you went right, you will eventually understand what you’re doing. You’ll eventually develop a skill for using this tool we call a camera. You may not have thought of it as such, but it is. It’s a multi-faceted tool, with many possibilities, but it is a tool—a tool for creating art, for giving others a sense of what you see, what you felt when you were on the scene. A painter must know how to handle her paint brushes, how to mix her colors on her palette, how to put paint and brush to canvas in such a way as to elicit an emotional desired response or to portray the world in terms in which others can see. The artistry of photography uses different instruments than painting, but the goals are similar. And although the final photograph that is created may take only a fraction of a second to produce once the shutter is released, it still requires a great deal of effort, study, experience, and skill in preparation to make that fraction of a second count. One cannot develop such skills without getting involved as much as possible in the settings of the camera and related aspects. I find this to be most possible in manual mode.

Converting to Manual Mode

As I mentioned above, manually controlling your camera can be wearing in the beginning. I do have a useful tip for when you’re getting frustrated with manual mode: if you just can’t get a picture to come out correctly in manual mode, take the shot again in automatic mode. Then examine the settings from the resulting photograph—assuming the photo it produced was satisfactory. You may have to change the settings on your camera to show the details of the exposure settings and anything else relevant. Make note of the settings that the camera chose for you. Then switch back to manual mode and set your camera to the same settings as the photo created in automatic mode. Take the picture again and see if it looks the same. If you set everything the same and the conditions of your subject are the same, it should be a fairly identical photo. Now adjust one of the settings a little bit.

Setting the Mood

Look at this photo; look at this young woman. If you saw her normally, you might think differently from how you see her here. Here you can see her as I see her: a sweet and friendly person. A shot like this one, with this exposure—bright, white background and warms tones to the subject—probably wouldn’t have happened in an automatic mode. It happened, though, because of artistic choices I made.

For example, increase or decrease the shutter speed, or change the aperture or something else. Change only one setting. Then take the picture again and see the results of your minor tweaking. Notice whether your adjustments improved the photo or made it worse. Try changing whatever setting you adjusted again—either more than before, or in the opposite direction (e.g., increase the exposure more or make it less than the shot taken in automatic mode). Again, play with only one setting at a time. Don’t do too much at once or you’ll confuse yourself and get frustrated again and then you’ll be back where you were. So, before adjusting another setting, put all of the manual settings back to the position that worked in automatic mode and take the photo again to make sure you’re back in an acceptable zone. Then adjust something else. Consider how each has an effect on the results and why. Think about books and articles you’ve read on photography and try to se how the situation you’re in relates to what you’ve read. After playing with various settings and observing how each setting effects a photograph, try combinations of adjustments. When you’re done, hopefully you’ll understand why you were having difficulty before you started experimenting and maybe your final shot will be better than the automated one. That will make you feel good about your progress if you can do that.

The Point

When struggling with manual mode, keep this in mind: a shot that’s difficult for you to take manually, but is easy to do when in automatic mode, is an opportunity for you to learn. To be a good photographer, you should be able to take better pictures than a person who knows nothing about cameras and just uses automatic settings. To do that, you need to know everything that the camera knows—or rather, what’s programmed into those automated settings. You need to be able to enter a scene, see something that you want to photograph and know how to set your camera not only to take the photograph that anyone can take, but to take the one that you see, that expresses what you see in the scene. So that later you can hand someone a photo and say, “There! That’s what I see. That’s what I see that I could not say and could not show you by any other method. Now, do you see the wonder that I see?” It is then that you are a photographer.