News and Views from Dave Wilson

Real Photographers Shoot in Manual Mode

by on Feb.15, 2010, under Photography

Well, I admit it – I was hopelessly wrong. OK, not hopelessly wrong but wrong enough that I need to confess on the blog and provide some information that contradicts my earlier (and rather popular) post claiming that I’m happy to keep shooting in aperture priority and wondering why anyone would ever shoot manual when cameras these days have so many cool automatic exposure modes to help you out.

I should provide one caveat. My original assertion about shooting manual being a more complex process than shooting aperture priority was based on my experiences using a manual 35mm SLR back in the 80s. Having spent some time discussing the issue with Raul Touzon while sitting on top of a hill waiting for sunset (during which the above panorama was taken), I’ve now been introduced to a manual method for DSLR users and am definitely convinced that this is the way to go when shooting digital since it does, indeed, use a lot less brainpower and a lot less button pushing than my “aperture priority + exposure compensation” approach.

Raul’s method is as follows.

  1. Set your camera on centre weighted metering.
  2. Set the aperture you want to use (this may well not change from shot-to-shot so this step may not be required).
  3. Take a reading from the area of the scene containing the brightest highlight you want to capture.
  4. Rotate your shutter speed dial to choose the correct exposure as suggested by the meter.
  5. Increase your shutter speed by one half stop (one click of the dial if you camera is set to work in half stops rather than thirds of a stop) to set your manual exposure for half a stop below what the meter suggests.

Since you will typically be using a fixed aperture (to control depth of field), this approach means you only have to spin one camera dial after pressing the shutter half way. Change the shutter speed until the internal meter reckons the exposure is correct then give it one extra click for your half stop underexposure and voila, you’re done.

This seemed too simple to me but trying it today, it worked beautifully. The main point of this approach is that you prevent yourself from blowing out the important highlights and ensure that you gather as much information from the scene as possible.

As a side benefit of this approach, Raul also asserts that you won’t ever need to chimp the highlight or histogram displays again (at least, not unless you are doing things like HDR but that’s a whole other discussion that we have not had yet).

I was pretty skeptical when I heard this but it really does work beautifully. Give it a shot and see what you think.

Updated 2/18/10: After another day of shooting in manual, I’ve realised that this is exactly the same method as I used to use on my Praktica MTL-3 in the 1980s except for automatically dialing in a half stop of underexposure. The half stop is also not fixed since you still need to take into account the overall brightness of the scene and dial in different adjustments as a result. In snow, yesterday, for example, I was typically dialing in a stop of two of overexposure since the meter on its own would tend to underexpose the bright scene.

Based on this, I will be using manual mode moving forward in any situation where I have the time to set up a shot – any landscape, architecture or still life shoots, for example – and will stick to aperture priority in situations where I need to be able to shoot without thinking (and am happy to suffer the consequences of not adjusting the exposure to compensate for bright or dark scenes) – parties, pictures of the kids, etc.

12 Comments for this entry

  • davide

    Your MTL3 is a great camera! I love these camera, and the full manual mode! You must think before shot!
    .-= davide´s last blog ..Stop! =-.

  • David K

    Hi….yes I agree with your simple approach to manual mode, but have you forgotten your ISO settings? In manual, my Canon defaults to 400 ISO even if it says Auto, it will always be 400 ISO, so you do have to set the ISO if you want the best from your manual settings.

    • Dave Wilson


      True enough though, as a Nikon shooter, I had no idea Canon bodies would default to 400ISO – how strange. I was assuming that people using manual would also realise that they had to set the ISO themselves. I can’t imagine what auto ISO would do in manual mode (is that setting even available? I suspect not) since the whole point of manual is to give complete control to the photographer.

  • Jane Levington

    I believe that shooting in manual mode is the only method to truly learn photography. I understand many people who get great photographs using their digital cameras, but don’t understand how to shoot their camera’s in manual mode. In my own understanding, camera is just a device, and learning how to master this device is what can really make you an artist.

    • Dave Wilson


      I agree that learning how to operate your camera and how all the exposure settings interact is vital. I now shoot manual about 95% of the time and only resort to aperture priority in tricky lighting situations where I need to use fill flash and don’t have time to muck with power settings on the fly. My Nikon D90 and D700 both do a great job in these cases (with help from me dialing in some base exposure and flash compensation settings). In this case, again, though it is vital to understand how the settings interact and know what you are doing to get the expected end effect.

  • Hw

    Hi I have only just discovered your website and love what I see. With regard to this issue surely you end up with slightly unexposed images, I can see your point but surely placing the brightest hilight at say 12/3 of a stop overexposed gives the same result without crushing the blacks?.

    • Dave Wilson

      With another year of manual shooting under my belt, I’m rereading this post and thinking that the main thing that isn’t stressed is the fact that it is vital to gauge the overall brightness of the scene and adjust the exposure yourself using the meter as a guide. The half stop thing probably works most of the time as long as you are using center weighted metering because the whole metered area is not a highlight. If you are using spot metering on the highlight then I would very much expect to see the whole image underexposed by a couple of stops.

      Another thing I’ve learned in this process of getting back to the 1980s is that chimping is extremely helpful (not that I could ever do that in the 80s, of course). The more I shoot in manual, however, the more I find that my exposure guesses (how far away from the meter I set the exposure) get closer and closer to the right values and that the chimping becomes less critical. Practice really does help here!

  • Cab

    Hi Dave. I’ve been enjoying your daily photos for a while but not long enough to have seen this. Great article, and I’m going to give this method a try. I’ve been using A priority for most of my time with the DSLRs, but have been recently been trying to get experience shooting in M. I have always kinda thought the “manual for real photographers” attitude is silly, since if you’re using the camera’s meter to make your manual exposure anyway, what’s the difference letting the same meter just directly set the shutter speed for you in A mode? But anyway, I’m enjoying taking full control and learning more for myself in M.

    I just wanted to comment on auto ISO. As you may have figured out, Nikon’s system absolutely does change ISO for you in M mode. (Well, my D90 and D300 do, can’t comment on other bodies.) I guess it takes your exposure settings and then varies ISO to try and center the histogram, so one can definitely argue that you’re no longer really in M. Regardless, I go back and forth on auto ISO. Sometimes I like it, since I almost always forget about ISO (mental hang up on my fault -the corollary is that inevitably when I do change it, I forget to change it back and wind up shooting at 1600 in sunlight the next time I take the camera out), and I like having it adjust itself so I can just worry about aperture (since I’m usually in A). I like that you can set it to not exceed a threshold and to limit the shutter before it starts mucking with the sensitivity. Other times I just want the darn thing to do what I say, so I don’t like auto anything.

    I can’t speak at all for Canon’s system, but it seems odd that it would default to 400 if using auto. That should be a user setting…

    Anyway, I like the idea of this method, and I am definitely going to give it a try. I’ll have to figure out how much of an offset to dial in, and what to do with that pesky ISO…

    Keep up the great work on your sites!

    • Dave Wilson


      I don’t know if it is possible to set Auto ISO so that it mucks with settings in Manual mode but I would very much hope that it didn’t (and, if it does, I’ve set my camera up so that it NEVER changes unless I specifically change it). The whole point of having manual mode is to ensure that YOU control all aspects of the exposure so having the ISO change underneath you would seem to me to defeat the purpose of the mode. That said, I suppose it may be helpful in some cases to offer an automatic mode where you select shutter and aperture, and the camera selects the “right” exposure using the ISO value.

      The only time I’ve ever used Auto ISO was while shooting sport in Aperture Priority mode in the evening while the light was fading. This worked OK but nowadays I tend to set the ISO, stick in manual and just tweak the exposure every so often as the light changes.

      I guess I had better go back and read the whole thread now to see if I just contradicted anything I wrote a couple of years ago…. 🙂

      • Cab

        Hi Dave,

        Yes, Auto ISO definitely does change settings in M mode. I played with it on my D90 and D300, setting aperture and SS and aimed towards dark and bright areas, and I can see the ISO value changing as I do that.

        From Thom Hogan’s Complete D300 Guide, p.285:
        “In Manual exposure mode, the ISO is changed if the shutter speed and aperture combination you pick won’t achieve a proper exposure.”

        The merits of Auto ISO are really a discussion for another article, but it is important to remember that one must remember their Auto ISO settings when venturing into Manual shooting.

        Personally, I am fairly comfortable with my D300 at ISO1600, so I set that as a max, with min SS set to 1/30. You can set these however you like, and I think it’s actually a pretty decent system. In Aperture Priority, it will keep the ISO at 200 until the SS hits 1/30, then vary the ISO until it hits 1600, then go back to changing SS. This way you have a decent shot of maintaining hand-holdable shots as the light degrades, until it gets really dark. As noted above, in Manual it will vary ISO as necessary if your aperture/SS settings result in a less than optimum exposure.

        Much of the time I want to use Auto ISO is when shooting my kids indoors. They’re young and move quickly, so I try to keep the SS up, which isn’t always possible given available light, so it’s nice to be able to have the camera bump up the ISO without me having to think about it. When on a tripod or shooting more for fun, I’m with you – I want to have complete control over all the aspects, I just have to remember to unset Auto ISO (which I don’t always do – ugh). I wish Nikon had true dedicated shooting banks that didn’t change, so I could always easily reset my settings…

        The other thing to keep in mind (on Nikon, anyway) for Manual mode, is if you have any Exposure Compensation dialed in, it will shift the center point of your meter. So perhaps this method could be “enhanced” by setting 1/2 stop of EC, then simply center your meter when aimed at your highlights, eliminating Step 5. Just one less step to remember.

        • Dave Wilson


          Interesting. I guess I’ve not seen this because I always turn Auto ISO off. To me, the beauty of Manual mode is that I can decide what I think the correct exposure is. If the camera is juggling the ISO to come up with what IT thinks the correct exposure is, I’m not going to end up with the result I expect unless I manually juggle the exposure compensation.

          I think I’ll be leaving Auto ISO off since turning it on in Manual mode is likely to cause me a great deal of confusion!

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