Inspiration • Try Out Manual Mode!

September 9, 2010

in Photography Tips, Susan Keller

Post image for Inspiration • Try Out Manual Mode!

My Single Best Piece of Advice to Improve your Photography…

Written by: Susan Keller from Susan Keller Photography

[Important note: I must apologize. The photos I’m about to subject you to are for illustrative purposes only. They are not artistic. They are not pretty. They are so NOT Wow. God blessed me with boys. And in the historical realm of things, boys are not renown for their great love of posing patiently for their photographer-Moms who are trying to demonstrate tutorial concepts. There. I feel good about getting that off my chest.]

My exhortation and encouragement today is a simple one: Shoot Manual.

That’s it. Not simply, “Get off the Green Box.” Not, “Use Aperture Priority for greater control.” Just SHOOT MANUAL. Just do it. It will transform your photographic experience. It will take your images to a whole new level of excellence. It will save you HOURS of editing time.

Let me show you.

Technical detail –

  • all images SOOC
  • shot in jpg mode, not RAW
  • first image is aperture priority
  • second image is manual
  • both AP & Manual are shot with spot metering on the skin (trying to give aperture priority it’s best shot).

First up is the granddaddy problem for aperture priority: back lighting.

Yes, I know. The sky isn’t as pretty in the manual image. But what are you trying to capture? The face or the sky? AP will rarely work in backlit situations – it will almost always give you a silhouette-ish image.

Next up is an example of pictures taken in “open shade”. Aperture priority handles this situation much better, albeit not bright enough for my liking.

Indoor-near-window example, utilizing my son who is completely sucked into his latest novel, Mockingjay. I thought if he was otherwise occupied, he might not mind me snapping away ;-).

Hmmm, apparently my snapping was distracting. So I turned to my dog. You know I’m desperate when I try using my squirrely, nervous, not-still dog for photographic fodder. I gave my dog my favorite lighting scenario: covered porch, early evening glow, Northern exposure. And aperture priority did a quite decent job. Tho, I still think manual affords me greater detail in his fur.

I think we should always be pushing ourselves to get the exposure right IN CAMERA. Shooting Manually allows us to do this. And not only does this make for better images, but it really truly saves tons of time when editing. Case in point, and I want to end with a pretty picture, so I’m going outside the confines of my own home (smirk) … here is an image from a recent session I shot.

The top left image is SOOC. Editing this image was a dream. Nothing needed to be “fixed.” All I did was simply click on 3 of Jessica Paige’s gorgeous .jpg presets (Golden Shimmer, Tatum II & Vintage Lace) and Voila! Quick, easy, very pretty. 🙂

Now go shoot manually!

Orange County Baby, Child & Family Photographer

I totally love a great roadtrip adventure with my dudes, or a cozy afternoon curled up with a good book. “Reality” tv totally sucks me in. I prefer my chocolate to be semi-sweet and my Diet Coke to have a squirt of root beer in it. Photography makes my heart sing and waterskiing leaves me sore & limping but deeply satisfied.

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

James April 18, 2012

You know, you could just use exposure compensation lol


adrienne March 12, 2012

i love your writing. // please tell me how to get those somewhat high key images. is it just all about flash and exposure or am i missing something else… // sorry too sad today to write in caps. lol


Gerty February 15, 2012

I shoot manual and all this time I thought I was being too big for my boots being a amateur photographer. So I just need to keep at it? How do I get your button? I would like to add it to my blog site 🙂


Tracie Heasman February 12, 2011

Thanks for the inspiration 🙂 Definitely making an effort to shoot M in the future


Tracie Heasman February 12, 2011



donna good September 13, 2010

thanks so very much. very convincing argument!!!


Shannon September 13, 2010

Great post. Now is there a shooting in manual for dummies? I got my Rebel a few weeks ago and read my manual but just can’t figure out all the gadgets and how to shoot in manual!


stefani Marie Photography September 10, 2010

Thanks for this post!I actually didn’t know that the reason I couldn’t expose my photos correctly in AP mode in backlit situations could be fixed in Manual Mode. I would boost up ISO, or exposure… etc… and still never got the results I wanted. Ic annot wait to try out this back lit situation in manual mode! I am so excited. Thanks for sharing


Lynn from For Love or Funny September 10, 2010

Thank you for the inspiration! I’ve gotten lazy, and my photos show it. Now I’ll switch back to manual and see a definite improvement!


Susan September 10, 2010

Michelle –
I don’t really meter off a specific item. I’m usually metering using evaluative (which just kinda averages the light in the whole image area. I think it’s called “matrix” on Nikons), and I use “clicks” over and under as I described in a comment above. I take the picture using the the settings I *think* will work. Then I check the image on the lcd screen for brightness/darkness and I adjust my settings based on what I see on the back of the camera. Soooo low tech, but it works for me.

There’s a book I highly recommend for understanding exposure, called [appropriately, grin] Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson.


Jamie (Mama.Mommy.Mom) September 10, 2010

I was terrified to shoot in manual, but once I made the change there was no turning back! The difference in manual and the other settings isn’t even a contest! Do I get it right every time? Not even close. My images are still 100 times better in manual.


Michelle September 10, 2010

Susan – thanks for the info – you’ve explained/showed this really well. I’ve really been working on shooting in Manual more – but I’m still confused. I have faith that one day it’ll finally click and I’ll wonder why I struggled so much (because I’m sure it’s something so simple!), but for the moment, can I ask for more help???

I get the part where if I want to freeze motion I’d set a fast shutter speed and then adjust the ap to whatever is “correct”. I also get that if I want a blurry background/bokah I would use a low f-stop number (large ap) and then adjust the shutter speed to whatever is “correct.” I also get that “-0-” on my camera doesn’t mean it’s a “correct” exposure and I may always need to make the meter say it’s over/under exposed in order to get the picture to turn out the way I want (everyone’s camera is different and everyone’s taste in darkness/lightness is different). Got that part.

What I still don’t get is the “meter off the skin” or “meter off the sky” or “meter off my shoe/sock/ground/etc” – how on earth do I know where to point my camera at to “meter” (which I’m assuming means to know how/where to set my shutter speed/ap to make a “correct” exposure)???? Am I even correct in my assumption?

I was even starting to think I was confusing metering with setting my white balance (thinking about gray cards to set white balance and meters see light in gray) and maybe I still am a little… I leave my white balance at either Auto or Cloudy if I want the pics to look “warmer” but I didn’t think that using a gray card to set the white balance had anything to do with metering to know how to set the shutter speed/ap.

Thanks for any help/time you’ll take to straighten this beginner out!! I’ve really been struggling with this and am getting frustrated! And I don’t think I need to be – but it just doesn’t click yet…


Susan September 10, 2010

Carolina – practice practice practice. no magic formulas, but practice will make you faster.

Lynn – I rarely spot meter off the skin. I did it for this exercise because I thought it might give aperture-priority its best shot for success. I almost always use evaluative metering (tho, for the record, I don’t really think it matters what you use if you’re shooting Manually – it matters that you get familiar with how your camera reacts to different lighting situations so you know whether to adjust to the right or left to compensate). For example, with my Canon camera, I know that I generally like portrait exposures to be 2-3 clicks (2/3 – 1 stop) to the right of “center”. For extreme backlit portraits, I may go as high as 6-7 clicks (2+ stops) to the right. I believe Nikon cameras are just the opposite of this (so 3-7 clicks to the *left* of center).

And yes, you are remembering correctly – your camera’s light meter wants to make everything middle gray, which is why you always need to compensate if you’re shooting bright white or black. 🙂


Lynn September 9, 2010

When shooting do you always spot meter off the skin? And is there a general rule of how many stops above 0 to expose? Am I correct in remembering from photo one about a million years ago that every light meter thinks what ever it is viewing is middle grey?


Ashley September 9, 2010

Great post.

Since my photography class I’m now only shooting in M mode. It took me awhile to get used to it and I practiced everyday, but you’re right it does make a difference in shots. Now i don’t know any other mode.

I don’t have any kids, and my dog is the subject of all my photos. 🙂 My family thinks I’m obsessed with her.


Jenny September 9, 2010

I’ve not tried out manual mode yet on my camera. I’ve been messing with the program setting for a bit and I’m slowly learning more and more about what my POS camera can do xD I’ll definitely try manual tho 🙂


Patty Ann September 9, 2010

Love this information. I will have to go change my camera settings today and see what happens! (now I just need to figure out how to change those settings!)


Tammy Gibson September 9, 2010

Great reminder! Switched to full manual about 3 or 4 months ago and LOVE it. it has made a HUGE improvement in SOOC images which in turn allows edits to be a breeze.


Carolina September 9, 2010

I agree with you, shooting with manual is soooo much better than auto. but sometimes I have a hardtime when taking pictures of children. for example : so I adjusted my camera to manual setting, then when I was ready to shoot, the kids were no longer in a good site that has great light. they moved to the other site, so I had to change the aperture again and so on, so on..
Do you have any tips on that?


Lynda September 9, 2010

I use aperture priority mode and spot metering most of the time and this gives me nearly as much control as shooting in manual and it’s a lot quicker when I’m trying to get a shot of my constantly moving kids.

I do love shooting manually when I can, but I stick to still stuff.


Amy Locurto September 9, 2010

RT @Alltop_Photo: Inspiration • Try Out Manual Mode! Photography.alltop


Kayla Van Patten September 9, 2010

I’m glad to see that this is someone else’s advice too!! I have not been shooting that long, but when I was STRONGLY encouraged by my mentor to shoot completely manual, it revitalized my photography completely!! I now encourage every person I know to shoot in Manual. It maybe take some research, reading and learning, but in the end it is BEYOND worth it! Thank you for this tutorial!


Susan September 9, 2010

Ann –
yes, absolutely! Anytime I’m shooting in a backlit situation and I want my forefront subject properly lit, I “overexpose” to compensate.

Regina –
Aperture priority certainly has its place – and totally comes in handy with quickly moving kiddos! However, I will say that the longer I shoot Manual, the easier it gets, and the faster I am with it.

Linkie –
Yes. Metering is metering is metering, no matter the mode. When I’m talking about shooting Manual, I’m talking about ME manually choosing my exposure.


Kelley September 9, 2010

Great thoughts and encouragement. Love the way you wrote it too 🙂 The photography school that I attended to liked to call auto “the evil green box” because of what it does to your pictures.


Tracy September 9, 2010

I am embarking on my own journey into shooting strictly in manual and it is scary. Thanks for posting this!


Regina Lee September 9, 2010

Hi Susan,
Thank you for sharing~ You really are a generous person and have a heart of teaching. Your photos really amazes me… I’m new at this and new on ihearfaces. I started learning photography with manual. But I missed many opportunities of good moment since my kids do not wait for me to have correct exposure. You know how kids are~ So, I’m in aperture priority mode most of time now days. How to learn to quickly change to correct exposure when the kids are constant moving? 🙂


Ann Grounds September 9, 2010

Thanks for sharing!!! I have a question on your metering…you stated that you used “Spot Metering” in both AP and Manual. With the first exposure with back lighting, did you adjust your exposure to slightly over expose? I am finding that even with spot metering on manual, my exposures still seem dark so I increase by a 1/3 of a stop or more. Do Canon’s run low?
Thanks again for the great tutorial.


Rachael Hansen September 9, 2010

Thanks for sharing this! I’ve found that I love Manual the more I play with it. It’s just hard learning what to change my settings to for every lighting situation.


agrippinamaior September 9, 2010

thanks for a great article! I too shoot manual with my digital camera. it’s the way i learnt, the way i prefer and stood me in great stead when i began shooting with manual film cameras. several photographers have asked me why i don’t just shoot AP. why? because it teaches you how to use a camera to achieve the best result!


Lisa September 9, 2010

This is a great article! My only complaint is that the ads go directly across all of the manual images, so I can’t see them. Bummer. 🙁


wendy September 9, 2010

Here here! And if you take a series of shots that are all slightly off in exposure you can adjust one and sync the changes for the rest! Manual is the only way to go.


Cortnie September 9, 2010

Couldn’t agree more! I was (I guess you could say), scared to try manual mode. Like it would matter at all if my pictures looked cruddy anyway! Once I tried it the windows of heaven opened (in a purely photographical sense)! I started to understand my camera a lot better and I really started getting the shots I was imagining in my head. Now I don’t use anything but Manual.


charmaine September 9, 2010

Funny….Yesterday I said to myself…I’ve just got to figure this out!!! And I took some shots indoors which turned out ok….but I’d really like some decent weather today to shoot outdoors!


Alltop Photography September 9, 2010

Inspiration • Try Out Manual Mode! Photography.alltop


Jason W. Cline September 9, 2010

Try Manual Mode? That is all I use…..


Linkie Lueville September 9, 2010

I think the big thing that a lot of photographers forget to include when they talk about shooting manual, is it’s the ability to EASILY over ride your cameras computer. They only way that these images would have become brighter on manual with the same metering modes as aperture priority, is if she over exposed the image according the camera idea of an even exposure. The camera is going to meter, how it’s going to meter. It just takes knowing your camera, and when to “over expose.” When you DO know the time and place for that, you can simply use your exposure compensation on the camera it’s self. I’ve learned that my D200 consistently under exposes about 1.3 stops on spot metering. So, I set my exposure compensation to +1 almost always. And then, there are times, where my camera just doesn’t get it. So I resort to full manual.

basically, what i’m trying to say, is if you base your exposure off that little bar that bounces back and forth in your view finder, and try to get as close to 0 as possible, you’re essentially taking the SAME photo that you’d take in aperture priority mode. It takes the understanding of you camera, and how it shoots, to know how much you need to under or over expose to get a 100% well exposed photo. And knowing your camera well, and metering in spot meter to the face, you can get the same results in aperture priority, and you can in manual.


Patricia September 9, 2010

Thanks for the great post! I really do need to figure out why there’s that M on my camera!!!


Life with Kaishon September 9, 2010

I just love how Susan is a constant encouragement. Truly great post and a wonderful boost to get out there and do it : ).

Too bad it is 2:00 am and I can’t go see the difference for myself right this second! Tomorrow morning for sure : )


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