Will shooting in manual mode a better photographer?
The answer is no.
It is important that you understand all of the shooting modes of your camera and know when and why to use each. In this article, I will help you fully understand your camera’s shooting modes.
Learn Shooting Modes in Photography
Let’s begin with, what shooting modes are. They are merely the modes of your camera that determine which components of exposure you as the photographer will be in charge of, and which the camera will handle.
Older cameras don’t offer shooting modes because older cameras don’t control anything. They are completely manual. Technology has changed and grown so much over the years; now cameras can select all of the settings by itself. The camera shooting modes allow the photographer to choose how to handle this.
Let me start by saying, if you are unfamiliar with the components of exposure, check out my article on learning photography. It will give you a good foundation for photography and exposure. The three components of photography are, aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
As a photographer, it is your job to understand and control these three settings, which you do in manual mode. However, there will be times when you want to only worry about one or two of the settings. For those cases, you can choose to let the camera handle some of them.
For example, I often shoot in the camera shooting mode in photography called aperture priority mode. This mode allows me to only worry about my aperture while my camera handles everything else.
Make sense? Let’s get started.
What are the camera shooting modes in photography?
There are many shooting modes in photography, but we will focus on the most important. Those are:
Manual Mode, Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority Mode, and Program Mode.
All other shooting modes in photography are considered automatic modes, where the camera selects all the settings of the camera.
Program mode is meant to be a hybrid-type mode where you can adjust things like ISO, or metering modes, etc… Program mode gives full control of the components of exposure to the camera, and therefore, I consider it an automatic mode, and would tell you to avoid shooting in program mode.
None of these automatic modes are the best to use, simply because you are not in control of any settings on the camera. The camera itself is making all the decisions. So avoid those, especially as you are learning about the shooting modes of your camera.
Shooting Modes in Photography: Manual Mode
So many photographers consider manual mode the holy grail of photography. In fact, some feel that if you can’t shoot in manual mode, then you aren’t a photographer.
Manual mode is a tool, just like all the other modes and equipment that you use in photography, so don’t let people bully you into shooting in manual mode. Just like I said above, I shoot primarily in aperture priority mode, and I have been a professional photographer for over 15 years!
When shooting in manual mode, you are in charge of setting all the components of exposure; f-stop (aperture), shutter speed, and ISO. Be aware that most digital cameras have auto ISO, so if you want to shoot in true manual, then make sure auto ISO is turned off.
Benefits of shooting in manual mode
- Your understanding of exposure increases as you make exposure choices with each image.
- Your camera, it’s settings, and exposure becomes second nature to you.
- You are in complete control, no camera input on exposure choices.
1) Your understanding of exposure increases as you make exposure choices with each image.
The first benefit of shooting in manual mode is the fact that you master exposure more quickly. When you make a mistake, you see it instantaneously (with digital cameras) and are forced to fix it by either knowing what to adjust or by trial and error. By doing this, you learn quickly what each setting of exposure controls. Shooting this way is an excellent idea if you are out practicing, but if you are shooting for a client, you do not want to be shooting by trial and error.
2) Your camera, it’s settings, and exposure becomes second nature to you.
Similar to the reasoning above, as you gain experience with shooting in manual mode, the exposure settings become second nature to you and therefore when you find yourself shooting in a different camera shooting mode in photography, you will be able to fix the problem.
3) You are in complete control, no camera input on exposure choices.
In all of the other modes, the camera is making decisions about your exposure as well. And let’s be honest, it guesses based on algorithms the camera manufacturer created which means it can be wrong. In fact, it can be wrong often. By shooting in manual, you are in complete control of the settings and not trusting an engineer that works for the camera company.
Negatives of shooting in manual mode
- Often when shooting in manual mode, your attention is too much on the camera and too little on the client.
- You get in the habit of ‘chimping’ too much. ‘Chimping’ is the act of looking at your screen after every shot.
- You’re not able to work as fast because you must constantly be adjusting exposure settings.
1) Often when shooting in manual mode, your attention is too much on the camera and too little on the client.
In my experience, the best images are taken when there is synergy between client and photographer. Sometimes, shooting in manual mode can interfere with this connection. As a photographer, it is up to you to help your customer feel comfortable and natural in front of the camera, and that can’t happen if you are always worrying about your settings. Getting out of manual mode can free you to connect better with your client and maybe even deliver better images.
2) You get in the habit of ‘chimping’ too much. ‘Chimping’ is the act of looking at your screen after every shot.
Stop looking at your screen after every image! Shooting this way truly breaks that all-important connection between client and photographer. When shooting in manual mode, you almost need to look at the camera screen after each shot.
To remedy this, use a light meter to determine camera settings before taking the image. This is how it was done back in the days of film.
3) You’re not able to work as fast because you must constantly be adjusting exposure settings.
Because you are monkeying around with all of your exposure settings after every shot, you are not able to work as quickly. It obviously will slow you down. As you become more adept at shooting in manual, it will slow you less and less, but you will still work slower.
When to shoot in manual mode?
Manual mode is awesome for certain shooting situations, so don’t think that you shouldn’t learn to shoot in manual mode. You should! Maybe, just use it when it is necessary.
Choose Manual mode when shooting with strobes and lights that you control. If you are shooting with strobes or off camera flashes set to manual, then shooting in manual mode is your friend. Understanding the concept that your shutter speed controls the brightness of the ambient light while your aperture (f-stop) controls the brightness of your strobes, will help you understand how crucial shooting in manual mode is when you are shooting with strobes.
Choose manual mode when shooting in a location where the lighting in even and consistent. If you find yourself shooting in an area where the light is even, and continuous, selecting manual mode as your shooting mode could be the right choice. For example, often when I am shooting an evenly lit wedding reception, I will switch to manual mode to force the exposure settings to stay exactly where I want them to stay.
Choose manual mode in tricky lighting situations. If you find yourself in a tricky lighting situation where the light meter that is built-in to the camera is getting fooled, then shooting in manual mode is the way to go. One situation I find where this is the case is when shooting for sun flare in my images. If I am trying to get sun flare, the light meter on my camera always gets the exposure wrong, and therefore shooting in manual mode would be the best choice.
Shooting Modes in Photography: Aperture/Shutter Priority Modes
I have listed these together, merely because the pros and cons are the same. I will list why you would want to shoot in each mode separately, later in the article.
When shooting in aperture priority mode, you select the f-stop, and the camera will choose the shutter speed. If you are not in auto ISO, you will also need also to set the ISO.
You can select aperture priority mode by selecting the A or Av on the shooting mode dial.
Shooting aperture priority mode is for photographers who are mostly concerned with the depth of field in their images, like portrait or nature photographers.
When shooting in shutter priority mode, you select the shutter speed, and the camera will choose the f-stop. If you are not in auto ISO, then you will also need to set the ISO. You can select shutter priority mode by selecting the S or Tv on the shooting mode dial. Tv stands for time value, as shutter speed deals with time.
Shooting in shutter priority mode is for photographers who are mostly concerned with motion or movement in their images, like sports and action photographers.
Benefits of shooting in aperture/shutter priority modes
- Allows you to pay less attention to the camera settings and more attention to creativity and the client.
- You’re able to work quicker without having to look at your camera after each shot to check exposure.
- “Chimp” less often when shooting in aperture or shutter priority modes.
1) Aperture and shutter priority modes allow you to pay less attention to your camera settings and more attention to your clients.
Because you are dealing with fewer settings, you are more able to focus on your clients. Set your f-stop while in aperture priority mode, or your shutter speed while in shutter priority mode, and let your camera handle the rest. Remember to shoot in auto ISO as well, this will allow you to not worry about ISO either.
2) You’re able to work quicker without having to look at your camera after each shot to check exposure.
Because you are only worrying about one component of exposure, you can work much more quickly. Adjust that single setting, whether f-stop or shutter speed and get back to shooting. When shooting in aperture priority mode, change your f-stop and don’t worry about your shutter speed unless it is getting too slow.
3) “Chimp” less often because you are adjusting only one setting.
Chimping is a bad habit many photographers have. When shooting in aperture or shutter priority mode, you will need to see the image less often because you are only adjusting one setting. By shooting this way, you will have more confidence in your settings and be able to focus more on the client.
Negatives of shooting in aperture priority mode
- Your camera determines some of the settings for your exposure.
- You may not learn exposure as quickly because you’re not doing it all yourself.
- You MUST learn to use exposure compensation.
1) Your camera determines some of the settings for your exposure.
As a photographer, it is important that you are in control of your exposure settings. Allowing the camera to pick any of the exposure settings, may be too much for you! While in aperture or shutter priority mode, your camera will choose some of your settings.
2) You may not learn exposure as quickly because you are not setting them yourself.
Learning to master exposure is imperative in photography, and when your camera is choosing some of the settings, you may not learn as quickly. Shooting in manual until you have your settings down, is the best way to handle this.
3) You must learn to use exposure compensation.
When shooting in aperture or shutter priority mode, your exposures may be incorrect because the camera is choosing some of the
settings. The only way to fix this is with exposure compensation. Follow the previous link to learn more about exposure compensation.
When to shoot in aperture priority mode?
I would recommend shooting in aperture priority mode when you are taking photographs of people. As a portrait photographer, your main concern is depth of field. A group of 20 people will require a different depth of field than a couple, and therefore an adjustment to the f-stop is required.
Plus, getting that beautiful separation between your subject and the background requires a combination of distance and depth of field, which happens by setting your f-stop.
When to shoot in shutter priority mode?
I would recommend shooting in shutter priority mode when you are shooting things that deal with motion. This could be a waterfall where you want to blur the water to give it that glassy look, or sports where you want to freeze the action.
Whenever you deal with motion, shutter priority mode is your go to camera shooting mode in photography.
The shooting mode I use the most and how I shoot.
I am a portrait photographer, and therefore I am mainly concerned with the depth of field in my images. F-stop determines the depth of field in photography, therefore, I choose to shoot in aperture priority mode almost 95% of the time so I can focus on f-stop and depth of field without worrying about shutter speed.
I also choose to shoot in auto ISO, which you can learn how to turn on in the proper way here.
When on a shoot, I first pick my light. What I mean by this is the location I choose to begin my session with a client is based first and foremost on the light. I then find a background for the image within that light.
I backlight my subjects, because this brings softness of light to the face. If you’re unsure how to do that, check out my article on backlighting here.
So many photographers get it wrong by choosing background first and then trying to force the light to work. It rarely does.
Always pick the spots for your images based on the beautiful light first.
With the light and location selected, I place my subject where I want them within the scene. My attention now moves to the exposure settings, and because I care most about the depth of field, I shoot in aperture priority mode and set the f-stop first.
For this image, I want a shallow depth of field, so I select f2.8 as my f-stop and then take a picture. In the images below, the one on the left is this first image. As you can tell it is too dark, so I adjust the exposure compensation to a +1.0 and take the image again. That image is shown as the image on the right.
By adjusting the exposure compensation, the camera will change the exposure settings for the next image taken; either to brighten or to darken it. When in aperture priority mode, the camera will do this by adjusting the shutter speed or ISO.
Now I am ready to focus on my client and begin to shoot.
This process has taken about 20 seconds to complete. While shooting in this same location, under these lighting conditions, I won’t need to look at my LCD screen anymore to preview the images and verify exposure; I know that it’s correct. No matter what image I take in this location, I know I will nail the exposure.
When we move to a new spot, I repeat the process, take a test shot and adjust the exposure compensation from there.
As a portrait photographer, it is imperative that I focus on, and interact with my clients to allow for them to feel comfortable and have their natural expressions come through. Shooting in aperture priority modes allows me to do that.
Make sense? I hope so. Everything is the same if you shoot in shutter priority mode except the camera will adjust the f-stop and ISO rather than the shutter speed.
Camera shooting modes in photography are so important as they determine which components of exposure we are photographers are in charge of, and which the camera takes care of.
As you go out and shoot, give them all a try, don’t be afraid of them! The more you get used to them, the more you will learn which settings work best for you on a given shoot. Like I said before, I love aperture priority mode and use it all the time. You, however, may prefer something entirely different.