The Joy and Freedom of Manual Mode

I remember the days –  I’d take a few blurry shots here, a few underexposed shots there, and find the occasional decently exposed and in focus shot somewhere amidst all the not so good ones. I’d take a bunch of photos, and wonder why they didn’t look good – but I never dug deeper to find out why.

When I first started using a camera about two decades ago, P and Auto modes were my best friend, or so I believed.  I started using cameras more regularly for my job, but I never made a solid effort to understand how the camera really worked until many years later. I found the idea of manual mode stressful and confusing, and I didn’t see the point in it when I could rely on the camera to do most of the work for me. I was probably several thousand blurry or underexposed shots in before I realized I couldn’t depend on auto mode anymore. 

A photo I took many years ago, before I knew manual mode. The composition was all wrong and the shot was blurry on close inspection. I remember taking this shot and how I wasn’t ready for it -nor was I confident with the camera’s settings

Not only did I lack an appreciation of what manual mode could do for me, I now realize one of the reasons I didn’t like shooting in manual mode was because my cameras lacked manual controls. Originally, I had point and shoot and bridge cameras that required multiple button presses to change aperture or shutter speed. Even to this day, there are still cameras released with very poor (or non-existent) manual controls. They are built for the person I used to be – someone who thinks they shouldn’t be bothered with changing settings and just expects results with the press of a button. In my opinion, anyone interested in learning photography should buy a camera that, at minimum, has both a shutter speed and aperture dial, as well as a dedicated ISO button (or at least a button that can be customized to adjust ISO), and set their camera to manual mode. It wasn’t until I picked up a camera with dedicated dials and re-framed my stresses about manual mode as a learning opportunity that I really started to advance my knowledge of the photographic process. Nowadays, I actually find it more stressful when the camera is set to automatic modes, because the camera is doing things out of my control that I didn’t ask it to. It is interesting how our perspectives change. 

It wasn’t until I picked up a camera with dedicated dials and re-framed my stresses about manual mode as a learning opportunity that I really started to advance my knowledge of the photographic process.

Another one of my pre-manual mode photos. This red-capped manakin was an awesome subject, and a great photo opportunity, but the settings I used were all wrong, leading to mushy details. The bird was barely moving, so the shutter speed didn’t need to be so low and the ISO settings needn’t be so high. At the time, I mistakenly thought I had a bad camera, but it was more capable than I thought.

Once I developed a general understanding of what the camera settings did, I thought I was set. I was wrong. While I always knew that there were skills to learn, I naively thought that taking decent photos was something the average person with a little know-how was capable of doing. It’s true, that under the right circumstances, anyone take a good picture. Anyone can be handed a camera set to auto mode and there’s a chance the camera might choose settings in the right ballpark.  But the trick, especially with subjects like wildlife, is being prepared with the right settings before the brief opportunity for a shot comes and goes. It’s about interpreting what the light is doing, what the subject is doing, anticipating the moment before it happens, and setting the camera settings correctly in advance. Before I understood this, the results I was getting were frustratingly inconsistent. This is where learning manual controls and interpreting lighting proved to be critically important. Understanding how to change manual settings, evaluating conditions and deciding which settings can and should be changed, and building the muscle memory so that it becomes second nature, better prepares us for those fleeting moments.

Birds are naturally erratic subjects most of the time. Manual mode pays off when anticipating and preparing for fleeting moments.

Even once I begun to understand manual controls, I still had no idea how much time, planning, and effort had to be invested just to capture a couple of good images. My reaction times were slow and I messed up a lot of opportunities fumbling over my camera. I didn’t know how much patience would be required to revisit the same places over and over again, just on the off chance I might have decent lighting conditions or see something interesting, or even be prepared to capture it. As a beginner, it was hard for me to even fathom how someone could be motivated to sit or stand in one spot for hours on the off chance they might seem some cool wildlife, let alone take a good photo of it. Now, I’m more than happy to go out for hours on the off chance I might see something – or not. I now yearn for those zen, almost meditative moments when it’s nothing but a camera, a lens, and air between me and a great subject. In these brief moments, I’ve felt my insecurities, worries, and stress melt away. It’s just me and my manual mode, dialing in the settings with the confidence that I can handle whatever opportunity presents itself, whether or not it comes to fruition. Those moments don’t always present themselves, but when they do – it’s what makes it all worth it.

It’s about interpreting what the light is doing, what the subject is doing, anticipating the moment before it happens, and setting the camera settings correctly in advance.

Manual mode is especially useful for fast moving subjects like birds in flight.

After learning manual mode, I also started opening my eyes to other learning opportunities. Without the distraction and worry of how to select appropriate camera settings, I was freed up to focus on things like composition, leading lines, expression, and light conditions. I started to notice impressive things that I would have otherwise quickly passed by. I started to see things differently. I began to observe both the “big picture” and the smallest of details. This hobby has helped me to slow down and appreciate things more. 

Understanding manual mode lets you do things like slow down the reflective light trails of rain for a more dramatic effect.

While phone companies are adding fake background blur to photos, and photo manipulation software companies are busy releasing AI features that instantly replace the sky in your photo or take out all the blemishes on your model, I’m digging my heals in with good old manual mode. Anyone still using P, A, or S modes should strongly consider moving over to manual. In the beginning, it will be frustrating and humbling, but I can assure anyone who puts in the time that they will come out the other side a better photographer. There may be a few situations where using automatic modes (P,S,or A) still makes sense, but learning manual mode provides one the freedom of understanding exactly what their camera is doing and being in total control at all times. Sometimes you just need to kick the training wheels off and let it ride.

Manual mode is especially useful in low light forests – the camera easily gets “confused” by all of the filtered light coming through the trees; manual shooting is more reliable there.

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