Manarola, Cinque Terre, italy

When To Use Manual Mode

I have to tell you a secret: on my cameras I use aperture priority about 90% of the time. I sometimes use manual mode and very rarely shutter priority. If I feel a photo might be over- or under-exposed, I use exposure compensation (I love the fact that my Fuji cameras have a dedicated exposure compensation dial).

There’s a piece of advice that I often hear repeated in photography circles, especially to beginners: that they should use manual mode, because it’s “better”.

Now, I do believe that beginners should learn how to manually set the exposure on their cameras, because there are situations where manual mode is objectively advantageous (more on this later). If one hasn’t learned it properly, they will be in trouble when the need arises.

I have nothing also against photographers who only use manual mode. Sometimes we learn to use our cameras in a certain way and we stick with what has always worked for us. If manual works for you, be my guest.

What I believe to be inaccurate is the idea (sometimes implied, other times clearly spelled out) that automatic modes are a crutch for newbies and that Real Photographers™ shoot in manual mode.

What I really can’t stand are photographers who look down on “beginners” who use aperture priority or, god forbid, the dreaded P mode. Give me a break!

Modern cameras are exceptionally good at nailing the exposure in almost every circumstance. Do you think you can do better? I’m not so sure.

Many photographers who shoot in manual mode decide on an exposure by checking that the meter indicator is at zero, which is exactly what the camera does in auto mode. It just takes longer. Shooting manual in that way gives you nothing and can be justified only by the fact that it’s the way they learned and changing ingrained habits is hard.

That said, there are times when I use manual mode, but that has nothing to do with getting the right exposure and everything to do with getting a consistent exposure. Here are some examples.

Changing the Framing

Krka National Park, Croatia
Krka National Park, Croatia. 0.5s at f/22, ISO 200

I use manual mode when I want to get the same exposure for the main subject even when my framing changes because I moved or zoomed.

For example, I might be taking a series of shots of a waterfall in a forest. For these type of photos, it is imperative to control the exposure of the water. The camera will overexpose the water to compensate for the darkness around it and consequently blow out all the details in the former.

In that situation, I might take a shot in aperture priority with some negative exposure compensation or using spot metering on the water. Then, after I’ve reviewed my histogram to make sure I have a correct exposure, I will switch to manual mode.

In this way, If I’m moving or zooming in and out to include more or less of the surroundings, I’m assured that the camera will not change the exposure just because it sees a different proportion of highlights and shadows in the frame.

Stitching and Stacking

Loch Tulla, Scotland. Panorama of 7 HDR brackets

I also use manual mode when I’m taking a series of shots to stitch into a panorama or to combine for focus stacking. Having uneven luminosity across the different frames will make it harder, or even impossible, for the software to properly assemble images and give you uniform skies and foregrounds.

In those cases, I also make sure to set white balance and focus to manual.

When Using Flash

1/30s at f/5.6, ISO 400, two independent flash units

My go-to technique for flash photography is to first make sure I’ve nailed the ambient exposure (which often I want to be one or two stops darker than normal) and the add flash on top, which could either be manual or TTL.

Again, I don’t want the ambient exposure to change when I’m moving around, so I lock it down in manual mode once I’ve settled on it.

You can read more about my off-camera flash technique in this article: Venetian Carnival Portraits with Off-Camera Flash.

With Auto ISO

Penang, Malaysia. 1/300s at f/4, ISO 200

This is a trick that I’ve started employing only recently, as it was technically not possible with older camera models.

Especially when I’m doing street photography, I like to set a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze subject movement and an aperture that is small enough to give me the depth of field I need. Then I turn on Auto ISO and let the camera decide on the exposure by varying the ISO value.

It’s great that, with cameras that are smarter and have better low-light performance than was possible years ago, we have at our disposal this third semi-automatic mode, besides aperture and shutter priority. So why not use it?

Do you use manual mode in preference to other, automatic or semi-automatic modes, or viceversa? Please let me know in the comments.

Portions of this article originally appeared in Six Myths About Landscape Photography | Visual Wilderness.

Comments 4

  1. I tried the Auto ISO when I was doing some shooting in a disused power station as I had limited time and didn’t have the time to try various settings. The photos came out great but much too grainy ! Clearly the ISO went much too high. To the extend that Adobe refused them on their stock site. So I guess

    1. Post

      You can limit how high ISO can go in Auto mode, but then you have to accept slower shutter speeds. Sometimes there is no substitute for a good tripod.

  2. My normal shooting mode is Aperture Priority and I use Exposure compensation as you do. I rarely or never use Shutter Priority. My manual mode use is seldom, mostly when I am taking Pano’s.

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