Mastering the Manual “M” mode on a camera

In the beginning

In my first blog post, “A camera does not make a photographer”, I wrote about what I consider to be one of the most underutilized modes on the camera…Manual Mode.  I have to admit during my early years doing photography I never changed my camera from the “Program” mode also known as “Auto” mode.  As a matter of fact determining settings such as aperture and shutter speed seemed like a high level science to me.  A lot has changed since then.

Back to basics

In 1998 I attended a photography workshop.  There were several people that attended with a variety of cameras from point-and-shoots to DSLRs.  The instructor made a bold statement right at the beginning of the class.  “After this class you’ll never want to take your camera out of manual mode again.”  Needless to say my curiosity was peaked and I a bit intimidated not to mention skeptical.

John, the instructor began by showing the class a series of photographs and asked for individuals to guess what settings were used.  One of the main subjects that he really enjoyed photographing was wildlife.  He used images of a dark colored wolf against a dark background and mountain goats against a snow background to discuss proper exposure and 18% grey.

These two scenarios can prove to be a challenge.  For example, in the case of the mountain goat against snow.  If the mountain goat is used as the pure white the snow would take on a grey tint.  So in this case he suggested that in order to maintain the correct color balance that you should open the aperture one step.  The next subjects he discussed were aperture and shutter speed.

And then there was light

Obviously, he covered the fact that aperture controls how much light is allowed to hit the sensor and shutter speed determines how long the shutter is open, but wait there’s more.  He explained how these two elements can make the difference between a good photograph and a great photograph.  Now we’re talking!  I had to know more.

1/250 sec. @ f20

John explained that a digital sensor is just like film.  The longer you allow light to saturate the sensor the deeper the colors.  For example, have you ever taken a photograph of a landscape only to have the blue sky that appears to be washed out?  This is where shooting at a slower shutter speed with a smaller aperture can really make a difference.

While the subject in this image is not overly exciting it does show exactly what I’m talking about.  If you look at the sky right above the lower tree line you can see what the sky looked like when the photo was taken.  I included a screenshot of the Camera Raw control to show that the only adjustments that were made were “White Balance” and “Exposure” to show that there was no addtitional saturation adjustments.

The “Ah-ha” moment

All of this was great information but I was still trying to make sense of how to determine the aperture and shutter speed to use for proper exposure based on the environment.  Finally, the “science” was about to be revealed!  John explained how aperture affects depth-of-field and shutter speed is used to stop action.  Voila!

It finally made sense.  The real secret to manual mode is determining what exactly you’re trying to achieve in the photograph.

If you’re shooting an individual’s portrait the main emphasis should be on the person not on the background.  In this case you would concentrate on a shallow depth-of-field by using a wider aperture.

Conversely, if you’re photographing action subjects and want to ensure that the main subject is sharp (not blurred) it’s necessary to use a fast shutter speed.  So how fast you ask, that really depends on how fast the subject is moving.

1/500 sec @ f/5.6

This photo shows both the effects of shallow depth-of-field and fast shutter speed.

Looking at the water behind the duck you can see that it becomes out of focus due to a wider aperture.


Even though the shot was at a relatively high shutter speed there are parts of the duck that are still blurred.  Let’s take a closer look.

It’s difficult to see, however zooming in you can see the water droplets shedding off the front of the duck.  However as you can see the wings are blurred.  This is partially due to depth-of-field however it is mainly due to the shutter speed being too slow to stop the action of the duck’s wing.

The take-away

As you can see it’s not as difficult as it may seem to “Master” the manual mode on your camera.  It’s simply about determining what look you want in the photo and adjust your camera accordingly.

I hope that you’ve found this post both entertaining and informative.  If you have any questions please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Sharon and Doug

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