Manual Mode: Why it Matters

It’s tempting to stick the camera on full auto and let it do its thing. I learned to use manual mode shortly after getting my first DSLR, though, and have never looked back.

It is confusing at first, with what feels like a hundred things to bear in mind when choosing settings. A bit like learning to drive when you think you’ll never be able to coordinate your hands and feet and stay alert to what’s happening on the road. But you do, and it doesn’t take that long.

Using manual mode on a camera puts you in the driving seat. Your brain is brilliant at interpreting the light, situation, and subject. And it knows what you’re trying to achieve with the photograph. All your camera is interested in is levelling out the available light so you can see what’s in the picture. It doesn’t care if your subject is moving, if you’re trying to separate your subject from the background with a nice bokeh, or if you intentionally want to keep the photo on the dark side to capture a certain mood.

But aside from creating certain effects, choosing the exposure settings yourself simply gives a better photo. And it’s much more satisfying.

Here are two photos of my dog. Please don’t judge the composition or portrait values of either. I was simply messing about at home and all I was interested in was photo quality like colour, contrast, light, exposure. Both photos were shot in JPG and are straight from the camera – no editing whatsoever.

Shooting on Auto Mode

The first is with the camera on full auto. Up popped the onboard flash and I just let the camera get on with it as I squeezed the shutter button.

photo of dog
Auto settings: f.4.5, 1/200, ISO 3200, flash fired.

Switching to Manual Mode

For the second, I popped the camera in manual mode and picked my own exposure settings. I slowed down the shutter speed, opened up the aperture a bit and reduced the ISO. I also prevented the flash from operating.

photo of dog
Manual mode settings: f/3.5, 1/125, ISO 1600, no flash.

To my eye the second image is an improvement over the first one which looks a bit flat and washed out. What do you think?


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