The Myth of Manual Mode Photography

It is a fairly commonly perpetuated myth that professional photographers only ever shoot in manual mode, but you might be surprised by just how often even top shooters use semi-automatic modes. This great video discusses the myth of always using manual mode and why it can work against you.

Coming to you from Evan Ranft, this excellent video discusses the myth of always shooting in manual mode and why it can be detrimental to your work. No doubt, manual mode is a fantastic tool for taking full control of your photos, but that being said, it is not always the right choice. The important thing to remember is that your camera can make exposure calculations and adjustments faster than your brain and fingers, and in cases where every millisecond matters, this can be the difference between getting or missing the shot. For example, when shooting baseball games, I certainly do not have the time to adjust my exposure as the ball flies between light and shadows, so instead, I set my shutter speed and aperture myself and leave ISO set to auto. It is just one of many situations in which using a semi-automatic mode can be really useful. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Ranft. 

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T Scarb's picture

Not sure people think Pros only shoot in Manual mode... but I would hope every Pro is 100% capable of shooting in Manual mode without giving it much thought.

Jon The Baptist's picture

Oh you'd be surprised. I know more than a few professional advertising shooters who have no idea how to fully use Manual modes. Mostly available light fashion/lifestyle photogs.

My studiomate though, a 50 year old grown-ass man who has almost 20 years of studio product photography experience, is incapable of calculating how many stops different ISO 100 is to ISO 1600.

Good guy, good photog, but the technical reasons of why things happen just go in one ear and out the other in this "huh what?" kind of perma-bake mental haze from smoking too much weed in his 20's.

There have been a few instances where it's actually been really embarrassing. I'll never forget the moment when I was trying to help him do some long exposure work, and he told me that he didn't understand the correlation between ISO aperture and shutter speed. He just knew that 1/250th is sync speed, and lower number means blurrier backgrounds. I had this eureka moment of why he would always ask me the questions he did.

I hate to say it, but that moment really shook me to my core, in a bad way. It made me think "If this guy's getting (insert huge regional client here) work, than what the fuck am I doing wrong?"

It also made me realize just how unvaluble technical expertise really is when you know who your client base is and can generate work from them.

Peter Mueller's picture

Your very last comment has a lifetime of wisdom to it... but it still wouldn't change a thing for me even if I'd known it 50 yrs ago. (I've always hated "salespeople" and grifters.)

Marek Stefech's picture

eee i work with so many pro-photographers which are far far better photographers than me but they dont know almost nothing about technical things.

spencer robertson's picture

If you are shooting manual or aperture priority, you are still just depending on the internal meter.

Deleted Account's picture

Some people still use light meters or just use the Sunny 16 rule.

Jon The Baptist's picture

Internal meter doesn't apply with strobes.

Alan Klughammer's picture

the worst is when people want to use an exposure compensation dial in manual mode. Somehow dialing in exposure compensation is different from changing the shutter speed or aperture....

Santiago Olay's picture

Well I do exactly that. I put +3 or 2.7 stops exposure compensation in the manual mode. Then I meter the highlights I want to preserve, and then shoot. No unintended blown highlights while also keeping the shadows as high SNR as possible.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Manual mode with auto iso is still semi automatic in my opinion. That is not an insult, by the way.

Rev Aaron's picture

You're still relying on the meter - there really isn't any room to dispute what you're saying.

Santiago Olay's picture

Yes, and it´s also a very nice safety net

Jaspreet Sidhu's picture

I think most serious hobbyists/pros understand their strengths and weaknesses and let the gear compensate when necessary. All of my landscapes are shot full manual, street, action, or wildlife where movement causes minor changes to my exposure I'll just go to auto iso and control shutter speed and aperture. I'm sure lots of pros/serious hobbyists are more than capable of shooting 100% manual and could at moments notice.

Euan Gray's picture

If your camera has full and semi-automatic modes, automatic ISO selection and so on why wouldn't you use them as the situation demands or permits?

If you're making a serious and high quality portrait, for example, you'll want much more detailed control over what's happening, but for a snap of grandma and the cat fully automatic is fine.

Jaspreet Sidhu's picture

That's what I'm pretty much saying. The only issue i have with full auto is that I've missed more shots using it. Aperaure is almost set and forget and shutter speed doesn't vary by much once i know what I'm shooting. At that point iso is the only thing I need on auto to meter. I'm agreeing with you but what I'm saying is that if you're actually serious about photography there's no way you don't know how to manually expose a shot (ie the meter starts bugging out etc)... other than that shoot what format and setting gets you the shot that's what matters the most.

Euan Gray's picture

I agree that you should know how to do it manually even if you never actually do. Many older photographers who first fiddled about with cameras before automatic focus and exposure and before digital will usually, but not always, know how to do it.

Newer photographers, the sort that might think Edison invented the digital camera, may struggle somewhat because most if not all of the cameras they have ever used can do it all for them.

I don't know if they still do it, but there were reasons why photography courses at colleges required their students to use a manual-only film camera. You have no choice but to learn how to do it. Afterwards, you can buy your automatic-everything model and never worry about it again, but at least you know.

Much is lost through this contemporary emphasis on multi-megapixels and feature-packed cameras that do everything for you except drive to the shoot themselves - and that can only be a matter of time.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

I work faster in A mode for landscapes :
Setting aperture, exposure compensation, base iso.
If shutter speed isn't fast enough, I rise iso, and that's it (for an "easy" shot).
To everyone his technique, mine is fine with my way of shooting.
I also use M mode (and no auto iso) in many situations, depending on the need.
You need to understand the strengths of your modes.
(I never cared about P mode, maybe I should)

Timothy Gasper's picture

Every single Landscape I shoot is metered via an incident meter or, if needs be, a spot meter. When I was shooting Fashion and Modeling it was important to check the color temps as well. I had learned to TRUST MY METER!!

Jaspreet Sidhu's picture

Hey Timothy I know for fashion and modeling it's a big thing. But surprised that its a necessity for landscapes, i guess there's no wrong way just your own way.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yeah. Over 50 years of shooting so I learned to rely on the meter pretty much, but metering specific areas of a scene it would minimize any editing which would follow. I like to get right in the camera the first time if possible. I do use aperture priority just to see how close it is to the meter, but for several shots where I want to emphasize a certain mood, etc. I definitely meter what I see as important to create it. Thank you sir and be safe out there.

Ken Flanagan's picture

Pros use whatever they need to get the shot. I shoot manual most of the time, but whatever works. The thing that separates amateurs from pros is the ability to see the shot before hand and know how to accomplish that using a variety of tools at their disposal.

Santiago Olay's picture

This is the best comment I've read so far.

Peter Jones's picture

I will use whatever process that gets me the picture, everything else is merely a means to an end, I am judged by myself, my clients and my peers by my images not the mechanism of getting there.

Nox Vega's picture

I used to shoot manual in motorsport, but switched to shutter priority. It helps a ton adjusting to cloudy weather. It's not 100% accurate with exposure, but neither am I in manual mode. Things happen too fast.

Euan Gray's picture

I'm no pro, but I usually use aperture priority. P mode (Rockwell says (perhaps) tongue-in-cheek P is for Professional) for flash snapshots at home, manual for more planned flash.

On my trusty Cosina C1 and the Bronica SQ-A it's always fully manual because there's no choice. My phone is a good enough light meter for the Bronica.

John Stone's picture

Whatever method one uses, the camera is still measuring reflected light, so all this talk 'I shoot in manual'
- so what. It's horses for courses!
To say. "I shoot in manual", is like saying, "I shoot in raw" as if you are a fantastic intelligent photographer and you know what you are doing as opposed to someone who uses semi-automatic mode.
If you know how to use these modes, it doesn't really matter what method one uses, does it?
So, it is a myth, it's a meaningless myth.
By the way, does anyone remember the days when cameras had a needle and circle in the viewfinder and how long that took to get a good exposure?

Euan Gray's picture

My Cosina doesn't have a needle (+ and - signs and a green dot) but it does have the "circle in the viewfinder" focusing aid.

It doesn't take long to get a good exposure because you invariably know either the shutter speed or aperture you want to use and change the other to suit.

Adriano Brigante's picture

"By the way, does anyone remember the days when cameras had a needle and circle in the viewfinder and how long that took to get a good exposure?"

Most of my cameras don't even have that. And in most situations, it takes about one second to get a good exposure, if you know what you're doing.

Nitin Chandra's picture

Why not dispel the myth about Pros and Non-Pros? :)

Pros just follow this as a career and earn from it. It does not imply they are better or know more than Non-Pros...Just IMO...

Santiago Olay's picture

The greatest difference between a Pro and an Amateur (if they are both good photographers) is the actual knowledge of how to run a Bussiness, I'm afraid. Without that knowledge, you are dead.

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