News and Views from Dave Wilson

Real Photographers Shoot in Manual Mode (or not)

by on Jun.02, 2009, under Photography

Edit 2/15/10: This post was written about 8 months ago before I had a chance to discuss my theory with a professional photographer who shoots in manual exclusively. After spending some time discussion shooting modes with Raul Touzon and being introduced to a very simple and very quick way to work in manual, I have rather changed my opinion. You can find my confession and details of Raul’s method here but I’m leaving this post in place since I don’t want to offend Joe McNally by suggesting I no longer follow all his wonderful teachings 🙂

Several photographers I know and greatly respect, and several more seasoned professionals whose musings I have read preach a gospel of photography that goes something along the lines of ‘real photographers keep their cameras in manual mode and would never think of using anything else.” The other variation of this is, of course, “if you ever use Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or, heaven forbid, Program mode, you cannot consider yourself a real photographer.” I take issue with this philosophy and have argued the point with various fellow shooters (those of the manual mode persuasion) on many occasions. I just don’t see why, when cameras now have the ability to do such a good job at metering and offering exposure choices to us based on some sensible input, we shouldn’t make use of the technology when it is appropriate to do so.

Note that I specifically say that the camera is offering us exposure choices and that we make use of the automatic or semi-automatic modes when it is appropriate to do so. I think these are critical points and areas on which I agree with the 100% manual folks. Automatic modes are a great labour saving device as long as you understand how they work, their limitations and how to work around those limitations. I suspect most people promoting the 100% manual path are really advocating a full understanding of the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and sensitivity, and an understanding of the mechanisms involved in metering. In this case, manual mode offers an excellent way to show their level of knowledge. I would argue, however, that using most automatic modes correctly also requires an equivalent level of knowledge but just leaves you with one less button to fiddle with before taking each shot (in most cases).

Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use manual exposure mode. Back in the early 1980s, I used nothing else. My Praktica MTL3 offered me no other choice and taking each picture involved:

  1. chose an aperture or shutter speed
  2. point the camera at the subject, frame and focus
  3. press the shutter half way
  4. twiddle the setting that I had not already set until the needle was centered
  5. assess the overall brightness of the scene and twiddle the dial a bit more to introduce some exposure compensation if it is predominantly dark or light.
  6. press the shutter the rest of the way.
  7. click.

As technology moved on, however, and I moved up to a Minolta X700, I now had the choice of manual, aperture priority and (wow!) program modes. I tended to leave my cameras set to “P” in the bag or when walking around just in case I needed to grab something fast:

  1. flip the power switch (if it was off),
  2. point the camera at the subject, frame and focus
  3. press the shutter.
  4. click.

I still leave my cameras set to program mode when I’m not using them for this same reason – minimal delay between seeing something unexpected and getting a decently exposed shot of it – but I hardly ever actually shoot anything in program. Most of my time, I use aperture priority and my typical picture taking “workflow” looks something like this with the D90 when using active matrix metering:

  1. flip the power switch (if it was off)
  2. chose the aperture I want to use to achieve the desired depth-of-field.
  3. assess the overall brightness of the scene and dial in some exposure compensation if it is predominantly dark or light.
  4. point the camera at the subject
  5. press the shutter (and marvel at the wonders of autofocus).
  6. beep-click.

This sounds just as complex as the manual case since I am often dialing in exposure compensation but typically, I will only change this when the lighting changes during a shoot. Often I set some compensation at the start and leave it that way throughout the shoot. The point here, though, is that I am making basically the same decisions as I would in manual mode. I still need to know that the meter will typically cause my picture to be underexposed if I’m shooting snow or overexposed if I am in a coal cellar and I need to have a feel for how to handle these cases and compensate accordingly. The fact that I am using aperture priority rather than manual says nothing about my level of knowledge or skill, but merely indicates that I am happier fiddling with the +-EV compensation dial than setting both aperture and shutter based on the meter needle position.

After all this is said, I do use manual mode when I find it most appropriate. I also switch to spot metering in many of these tricky lighting cases. For the mostpart, though, I’m shooting in aperture priority.

So why this rant now, you may ask? Well I just picked up the latest book by Joe McNally, “The Hot Shoe Diaries” (which, incidentally, looks like it will be at least as excellent a read as his last book, “The Moment it Clicks“) and I was extremely chuffed to read this on page 8:

“I am in aperture priority mode 90-plus percent of the time…. I am occasionally in manual exposure mode, say, when in a dark room… But, I tell ya, if you only use these cameras in manual mode because, as I have heard on occasion, you ‘don’t trust the camera’ or you ‘don’t trust the meter,’ then you are taking a souped-up Ferrari and driving it like the little old lady going to church on Sunday. Why do that? Use the technology!”

Joe – you are my hero. Vindication at last!

3 Comments for this entry

  • Ben - EnglishPhotographer

    Dave – Completely agree with you. Leaving the camera set to Aperture Priority may occasionally lead to poor exposure in some hastily taken photographs if your subject has obscure tones that fool the meter; but it takes a second to check the histogram. With manual, you’re much more likely to miss THAT shot. Manual mode is only really useful if the camera can’t capture the whole dynamic range of a scene and you want to preselect what it DOES capture. Otherwise, Aperture mode plus exposure compensation is best for photography.

    Ben – English Photographer

  • natan dotan

    Hi Dave.

    so what is that u are using now, is it exclusively Manuel?

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