Shooting in Manual Does Not Make You a Better Photographer

Fair warning.  This is a rant.  A rant against stupidity being perpetrated against photographers everywhere.  Sadly, because so many creatives actually believe this load of fertilizer to be true, they become frustrated, discouraged and otherwise disconnected because of the volume of images that get made that aren't any good.

It's time to stop the madness.  If you shoot in Manual only, and every exposure is perfect, move along.  This article isn't for you.  You've already achieved your level of perfection and surely don't need to hear my opinion.  If not, maybe take the time to read, and maybe become a happier, more productive photographer.  Your choice, no one gets to tell you what to do.

When I started in photography, my first camera didn't have a light meter.  I learned through doing what exposures would work shooting Tri-X and over time became reasonably adept at reading light.  Big whoop.  When I finally got a camera with a built in light meter, well that was the day I also got a camera with some level of semi-automatic function and I've never looked back.

I am quite capable of shooting in Manual mode.  You are too.  Everyone is.  The question that is more relevant is why does it matter.  The engineers at Canon, for example, in order to construct the program mode responses, have analyzed over one million exposures of all kinds of subjects in all kinds of lighting.  So have most of the other manufacturers as well.  It's difficult and time consuming but the outcome is pretty awesome because today's cameras will get the exposure right regardless of the scenario over 92% of the time even in Full Auto.


The answer is that the majority of image makers want a correct exposure the majority of the time, correct being what the light meter sees when it is used correctly.  If it were up to me, and it's not, I would tell every person to spend at least as much time learning to use the light meter as they do twisting dials, rings and knobs and shooting in Manual.  It would be time better spent and they would actually learn something.  Probably not gonna happen because that is practical and that kind of advice doesn't give the tellers a sensation of power over the people being advised.

So if you are using the light meter to set the exposure manually, and the camera would set the exposure for you automatically, and the exposure will be the same darn thing, isn't leveraging automation faster?  Or are you still frustrated with this whole horseless carriage thing and the death of your buggy whip business?

Making the settings manually isn't making you any better.  "But wait!" some shout!   "I want to control my shutter speed myself, or my depth of field myself, or my ISO myself, not have the camera do the work."  Awesome.  Let me know how that wheel thing works out for you.  Every camera worth more than $100 bucks is likely to have a PASM setting.  In fact, Program mode is DESIGNED to allow the user to override to suit a particular need and still get a proper exposure.  All too often I work with folks who are upset about shots that didn't work out, and the root cause is that the exposure is WRONG.  Why is it wrong?  Because a lot of the time, they were in Manual trying to make an exposure with the settings that they wanted, but unfortunately the light didn't care what they wanted.  Here's a secret.  Light doesn't give a rat's hairy behind what you or I might want.  It just is.

If by shooting in Manual, you are just making the settings that the camera would have given you anyway, you have wasted time, and your subject has probably become bored to tears and moved along to Cucamonga.  When I teach new photographers, I refer to these events as Unicorns.  You miss the Unicorn because you are busy futzing with settings that the camera can set for you faster and with a much lower probability of fat fingering something than a human can.  Photographed any Unicorns lately?

But I'm Not Creative If I Use Program...

What utter Toro Poopoo.  The photograph is not made in the camera, it's made in your brain.  A base exposure is just that.  The art is what you do with the scene, your composition, the changes you make to the base exposure, your angle, your field of view, your position, you know, all the stuff that is the human part of art.  The answer to "no program" has existed for decades.  They are called Shutter preferred and Aperture preferred.  You make one setting, maybe two (ISO), and the camera balances the other exposure element for you for a good exposure.  It's not a freaking triangle, it's math.  A correct exposure can be delivered through multiple combinations of shutter speed, aperture and ISO.  There's more than one answer, and that's why inspecting someone else's EXIF data so you can write it down and try to use it is about as useful as throwing rocks at Saturn.  Ask a working field photographer what mode they shoot in and you have an 80% chance of getting aperture preferred as the answer.  A studio photographer will be more inclined to say Manual, and for very good reason.  You know what changes in a studio setup once the setup is done?  Nothing!  I know studio pros who mark the position of everything and always do their sets the same way because then they know the exact exposure off the bat.  It's really interesting to see them work, but it fails as soon as one element of the shot changes.  Like the subject position.  Or the light.  Or the distance from the strobe.  Or the placement of the umbrella.  You know what helps address those changes?  Automation.

I've encountered lots of photographers who shoot in manual and sometimes get lucky.  These same people have no concrete idea of what shutter speed as a tool can do.  They don't understand aperture, let alone how to leverage depth of field.  Their only concept of ISO is "noise".  I am sad for them, because they are often frustrated, things don't work out and they don't know why things didn't work out.  There is a big difference between learning concepts and understanding them in practical use.  When some of those people agree that they have hit the wall and are not afraid to shoot in Program for a couple of weeks, they are consistently surprised at how much better their images are.  By not worrying about stuff that is not yet clear, they make successful images and learn about filling the frame, composition and most importantly begin to start seeing.

Learn to See and Forget All This Manual Crap

The great Peter Hurley once called me a human light meter.  He's one himself.  You can be too.  Stop worrying about twisting knobs and learn to see light and shadow.  Make enough images and you will learn to see the light if you focus on it.  And that means eliminating distractions like "did I set the right shutter speed?"  What a waste of time when the camera can help you.  You paid hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars for your camera and its incredible programming, so why would you insist on using it like a fully manual camera from 1935?  Learn to see the light, and to make judgements on what matters in terms of story and emotion and composition.  Until you can do that, consider leaving the camera in Program mode.  When you can look at a scene and gauge where the meter will be and what you need to do to the overall exposure to make your point, then you are making a photograph.  You aren't making a photograph if you are just twisting dials and rings to make a setting in minutes that the camera could have done for you in microseconds.  Spend your energy on the seeing.  When you do, you will make fewer shots, and you will be happier with more, which will in turn make you more demanding and you will improve.  10,000 shots on Manual does not make you better if 9,800 of them are exposure screwups or where you just manually applied a meter setting.  That's not learning, that's copying.

It Looks Different on the Computer Than On the Camera, So I Have to Shoot in Manual

No you don't.  Your computer is showing you the real deal, unless your computer display is so far out in terms of colour and brightness that it looks like a colour TV from 1961.  You cannot really edit properly on an uncalibrated screen so spend a couple of hundred dollars, get a good screen calibrator and use it.  Good, by the way, means a screen calibrator that can adjust screen brightness.  If at that point, the back of the camera doesn't look anything like the computer, then the back of the camera is wrong.  Odds are excellent that somehow the LCD brightness has been adjusted.  Improperly set LCDs have contributed to hundreds of thousands of wasted images, drug and alcohol abuse and photographers giving up photography in favour of wax crayons.  Compare the LCD display of a JPEG with a JPEG on a calibrated display.  Adjust the LCD on the camera to get it as close to the computer as you can, otherwise, you will be making images that don't work out. Manual mode won't fix that.  Exposure compensation won't fix that.  Fix the darn LCD settings and move on.  If you do not know how, consult your manual.  If you've lost your manual, you can download one from the OEM's website as a PDF.  Then put a copy on your smartphone so you always have it with you.

But SO and SO Said Real Photographers Only Shoot in Manual

I'm not your grandma, but if SO and SO told you to take a leap off a bridge into a vat of razor blades would you?  The proper response to "SO and SO said" is "thank you, you are clearly a unique individual with strong opinions.  Please have this case of SHUT THE FRACK UP free with my compliments."  The creative world is filled with ne'er do wells and know-it-alls who get a real charge out of making a growing photographer feel less capable and less worthy.  These charlatans couldn't find their butt with both hands because their heads are so deeply rammed therein.  By causing you to believe their tripe they gain power over you.  I'm serious, that's what this is about for them.  Not help, not coaching, but power.  Do not give them the right to tell you what to do.  Hell, I don't have the right to tell you either, I'm just so tired of this Manual BS that I wrote this article.  You don't have to listen to them and you don't have to listen to me.  

Photography is an art form.  Art happens in the brain.  It doesn't happen with camera settings, they are just a tool to help you release your own creativity.  Shoot however you want, in whatever mode you want, but do so because you decide to do so based on your own conclusions determined from real world evidence.  Your images.  The ones that you got straight out of camera.  Before you fix them in post processing.  Nothing wrong with post processing, but wouldn't you rather be creative with the tools instead of having to fix botched exposures because you thought shooting in Manual would make better images?

Take A Break and Go Look at Old Masters Paintings

I recently made a trip to the AGO to see an exhibit featuring work by Vincent Van Gogh.  The ads said so.  Two paintings does not an exhibit make but I got fooled be the ad, so it's my fault.  What did I get from looking at paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Jansson and some others?  A clear reminder that art happens in the mind.  None of these paintings were photo-realistic, yet they all had enormous power and emotion.  Setting a light meter setting manually would not have made these images.  What would is getting to a decent starting exposure really fast and then stopping to see and to weave your story with adjustments and compensations, both in camera and in post.

But The Great Photographers That You Admire Shot in Manual

True enough, they did.  Many of them worked in the late 1800s and into the middle of the 20th century.  They shot in Manual because they had no other option.  Ansel Adams did not just settle for the light meter reading, he was specific and particular in the image capture and spent days processing in the darkroom.  Alfred Eisenstadt went for emotion. So did Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Had non-manual modes been available at the time, I am confident that these greats would have used them as a starting point, just as great photographers today do.

Go Make Photographs

The reality is that how you get to a great photograph matters a lot less than the thinking and seeing that goes into the creation.  Being fixated on using Manual has nothing at all to do with thinking or seeing.  Exposure is an important step, but only the first step in becoming the artist you would like to be.  Don't tie yourself down artificially or buy into the BS from "your betters".  Focus on seeing and thinking, learn to use the light meter properly and don't worry about the mode that gets you there.