Shooting in Manual Mode
(This is lesson 10 of my “How It’s Done” series of photography lessons)
Manual mode is often misunderstood and underutilized. Many photography beginners shy away from manual mode because it seems too complicated. There is also a misconception that “real” photographers shoot exclusively manual. The truth is, manual mode can be cumbersome to work with, but sometimes it is necessary. It isn’t difficult to learn manual mode and there are certain occasions when you are forced to shoot in manual. I use manual mode from time to time, but only when I have to. This past week I found myself in two different situations that required manual mode. I’ll break down my thought process so you can see how I go about using manual mode.
This first example is not meant to be the greatest looking series of photos in world. I was walking through the parking garage at Boston Logan airport, on my way into work, and thinking about how I was going to write this article. The variation in lighting inside the parking garage gave me an idea. Manual mode is useful when there is so much contrast in a scene that your camera can’t decide on a correct exposure — a scene like the parking deck. The outside of the parking garage is lit by daylight and inside is deep shadow. There is too much contrast between the inside and the outside of the parking garage for your camera to make a good decision about exposure.
Above is a photo of the parking deck taken in Av mode with no exposure compensation. The camera made a really bad exposure decision. The camera had no idea what it was looking at. It didn’t know that the inside of the parking garage is a dark shadow. The camera’s logic tries to render the scene as close to neutral grey as it can (read my exposure compensation article if I just lost you). The result is the large shadow areas are rendered too light and the brighter areas are completely over exposed.
What could I have done to get the proper exposure? I could have dialed the exposure compensation down, done some bracketing, and eventually found a working exposure setting. I had a better idea though. Most of the parking structure was made out of a nice neutral grey concrete. Leaving my camera in AV mode and using no exposure compensation I simply filled my camera’s frame with some concrete and snapped a photo. The histogram from this photo was right down the middle and the exposure looked right to me. Because the concrete was close to neutral grey I figured I could transfer the settings into manual mode and get a good setting for the entire parking deck.
Above is the photo of the concrete. Notice the settings: f/8.0 and 1/250 second. Now let’s see what happens when I use those settings to take a picture of the parking deck.
There, that’s better. The concrete and the signs are the right brightness and the interior of the garage is nice and shadowy. It could be argued that you could use the exposure lock button on your camera to get the same effect, but remember I am just showing you an example and exposure lock is another lesson. Next, I’ll show you a couple real world examples of manual mode.
This first photo is very similar to the parking deck example. Notice the large dark shadow area that fills a large portion of the frame. Left in an auto mode your camera would undoubtedly chose an exposure for this scene that is too bright. My idea for this picture was to capture the white, wind blown sea foam in front of dark boulder. I wanted the bolder dark, almost black and the sea foam bright white. What did I do? I metered the grey rocks and the beach sand. Both gave me a an exposure setting of f/8.0 and 1/400th second. I dialed those settings into manual mode and took some test shots. It worked. The boulder was black and the sea foam was bright white, right on the edge of blown out. Perfect!
This photo isn’t such an obvious time to shoot in manual as the last example. This is Ella at the farmer’s market getting her face painted. It’s late afternoon and we were in the shadow of a tall downtown building. The light was kind of dim, but not at all contrasty. These conditions should be easy for my camera’s light meter. However, in the background there were a bunch of white tents and also (not visible in this photo) a large black banner. The face painter is wearing a bright shirt and Ella’s shirt is black. That’s a lot of all black and all white. I was afraid that as I moved around and changed compositions my frame sometimes would be full of lots of white and sometimes be full of lots of black. If I didn’t use manual mode I would be in exposure compensation hell. And, there was one more reason to go manual — the bright sky. We were down in the shadows, and I knew that an exposure setting that would render the faces correctly would be too bright to maintain the sky. The sky was going to blow out no matter what. I know my light meter hates to let anything blow out. If I stayed in an automatic mode, any shot that included sky would get underexposed because my camera would try to keep the sky from blowing out. The solution was to shoot in manual. I don’t carry a light meter so to figure out the right settings I took some test shots and bracketing in Av mode. Once I found the sweet spot I dialed those settings into manual mode. I took a whole series of Ella getting her face painted using those same settings. All the shots had perfect exposure.
Does that all make sense to you? Please leave a comment if you have any questions.
Continue to lesson 11
Return to How It’s Done*David is an San Francisco Bay Area Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at raboinphotography.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!