Why Do I Shoot Photographs in Manual Mode?

First off, lets be clear–I haven’t ALWAYS shot in manual mode. When I first bought an SLR (and, yes, it was film) I had just learned what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO were and how they worked together to make a good exposure. I KNEW how to use manual mode, but I sort of figured that was the OLD school way of taking photos. After all, my new camera DID have the capability to do everything for me, so why not let it? The problem with this mode of thinking came when I would look at the photos I had taken and the exposure just wasn’t the they way I envisioned through the viewfinder. After some less than pleasing results, I challenged myself to keep my camera on manual mode and thus force me to get comfortable with that “old school” way of taking photographs.

That challenge totally changed my photos, and after 6 years of experience, I now shoot in manual mode 99% of the time. The only time my camera gets changed to a different mode is if someone else (namely my kids or husband) are taking the pictures. Sometimes I even keep it on manual mode when I hand it to them IF I have dialed in the settings and am sure that the exposure is okay and the light they are shooting in won’t change too much on them.

Why on earth would I use manual mode with a (mostly) state of the art camera at my disposal? Shouldn’t it be smart enough to take great pictures without any input from me? The simple answer is “NO”–modern camera’s are not smart enough to take great pictures all on their own all the time. In fact, they really aren’t equipped to take great pictures all on their own unless the lighting conditions are perfect–and, for me, “real life” rarely happens under perfect lighting conditions. A great camera DOES NOT make a great photographer–but a GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER can make most any camera great! Why? Because a great photographer knows their camera like a woman knows her waistline and can control the camera in any situation.

Again, let’s be clear–I don’t claim to be a GREAT photographer and I certainly make my share of exposure mistakes. However, I do have some personal examples of what I am talking about.

Last month I wanted to take pictures of my 1 year old and his toy trucks. My one year old does not play with his trucks in perfect lighting conditions. He isn’t playing with is trucks outside in the middle of January. He doesn’t play with his trucks near any nice window light and only on nice sunny days. In fact, the day I decided to photograph him with his trucks, it was quite cloudy outside, and actually in my living room where the nearest windows are 10 feet away. But I wasn’t in panic mode–I just whipped out my camera in manual mode. I promptly dialed up my ISO (I believe I had my ISO at 1000) high enough to keep my shutter speed at an acceptable speed (above 1/60th of a second) and opened up my aperture as wide as prudently possible (I like f/2). Viola! I was able to capture that precious time with my little boy and his new-found love of trucks. Technically, I could have used flash but it wasn’t handy and doesn’t always produce pleasing results. You can see those indoor photographs here.

The sun can produce less than ideal lighting conditions, too. Last August, I wanted to take pictures of my son outside playing in the water and my kids outside on their bikes. The problem was, they weren’t outside riding their bikes in the beautiful evening light 1 hour before sunset. They were outside at 2 p.m. when the sun is still high in the sky. My son wasn’t playing in the water in the shade–let me assure you it was FULL sun and no way around it (okay, I guess I could have penned him in the shade but that would have lasted all of 2 seconds and interrupted how much fun he was having and I try not to do that.) I knew that if I let the camera take over the exposure, it would take an average exposure reading of the bright sunny background and the darker skin tones (darker because I was definitely going to try and keep his back toward the sun as much as possible so he wouldn’t be squinting) and neither my son nor the background would be exposed right. So I opened up my aperture as wide as possible (because I am addicted to blurry bokeh in the background–again f/2 is my sweet spot), set my ISO as low as possible (200 on my camera), and bumped my shutter speed up as high as I needed it to be to get the exposure right (and it was HIGH–between 1/1250th and 1/2500th of a second.) Would my camera have done that all on it’s own? No! You can check out some of those photographs here but many I didn’t blog (oh the horror!)

I am not saying that your camera will never get it right and there isn’t a place for some of the other shooting modes on your camera dial. What I am saying is that in order to get the best possible result most of the time, you need to know how your camera works and be IN CONTROL of what it is doing when you are taking photographs. To get a great outcome, you need to know enough about your camera and how to make a good exposure that you know when to take control and when to allow the camera to take over.

How do you do that? Well, I will write more about that in some future posts (this one is already quite long enough), but you can start by reading your camera manual. I know, I know–it is confusing and not a gripping read. However, it is a starting point and you can’t control your camera if you don’t know how it works. You don’t have to read it cover to cover, but do thoroughly read all parts relating to exposure, focus, and study that little diagram that shows the where and whats of all those dials and buttons more than once.

And now, I think some photos are in order to reward you for reading this far. These photos are from our trip to Southern Utah last weekend. And–don’t send me to photography prison–they were all taken from the car!

There may or may not have been eye rolling from my husband while I was taking these. What can I say–I needed some entertainment around 1-70.

These are my favorites. I love that out of focus blur!

FYI–I will be doing these DSLR photography related posts at least once a week–most regularly on Fridays. And please don’t be scared if you don’t understand some of the photography vocabulary used in this post. My future Friday photography posts will cover these terms and many other topics. Until then–study up!