Should You Be Shooting in Manual Mode?

Knowing When to Use the Right Tool for the Job is Part of Being a Professional

As a beginning photographer, there is a lot of help and advice out there. The problem is that much of it is conflicting based on who is giving the advice and their own experience. You will hear over and over that professional photographers always shoot in manual, or to be a good photographer, you have to shoot in manual mode.

This advice is just not true. An image shot at f8 for 1/250th in manual mode will be identical to one at those settings in automatic, aperture priority, or shutter priority. There is no magic manual mode that makes the image better. This article discusses where, when, and if, you should be shooting in manual mode.

As you know by now, your camera has several mode settings, from fully automatic, through creative modes, aperture, and shutter priority, and finally, manual mode. The one point you have to remember is that, nor matter which of these modes you are using, you are relying on your camera’s meter to help determine the exposure.

Unless you are very experienced, you are not going to just look at a scene, determine the settings, set the camera, and take the shot. Even if you have this ability, why would you? You have paid hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for that sophisticated computer in your hands, why not let it do some of the thinking?

The reality is, most photographers that shoot in manual mode are actually using a manual version of aperture or shutter priority without even realizing it. If they are out walking around a city, they may set their camera to f8 or f11, realizing that is the best aperture for the conditions, then change the shutter speed as necessary depending on the lighting.

A sports photographer may go into a situation and set the shutter speed to 1/100th and then modify the aperture as needed. Either way, they are relying on the meter in the camera to tell them the correct exposure, and they are only modifying one factor as they shoot through the day. So why not just use aperture or shutter priority. They are doing the exact same thing, but they have a safety net if the light suddenly changes.

So, when should you use manual mode?

One situation in which you should always use manual is shooting with studio strobes and many times even with a flash. The reason is, your camera can only meter what the light is, not what it is going to be when the strobes fire.

Getting the exposure right in those situations requires knowledge, experience, and let’s face it, a bit of guesswork. Also, with strobes, the relationship between aperture and shutter speed changes. In natural light, either of these factors will affect the exposure. With strobes, because the flash of light is much quicker than any shutter speed, the only aperture affects the exposure. Shutter speed only affects the ambient light being allowed in.

If you have been shooting in manual mode because you think you are supposed to, go back and look at some of your images. First, are they all well exposed? If not, think how much better they would have been if you had relied on the camera’s meter just a little bit more. Also, look at all of the ones that do look properly exposed. Are they all shot with the same aperture or shutter speed? If so, what was the point of the shooting manual? You would have achieved identical images in aperture or shutter priority.

There is a lot of good advice out there that comes from very experienced and knowledgeable photographers. You should listen to as much of it as you can, but put it into practice in your own photography and make sure it makes sense to you. Shooting in manual mode all the time doesn’t make you a better photographer, just a harder working one.

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