For most of my time as a photographer, it’s been instilled in me to always shoot in manual mode. This is the mentality of plenty of photographers from older generations. Make no mistake, there’s something to be said for the lessons from these sages. But the wisdom isn’t fundamentally timeless. Today, there are zillions of situations where manual mode is overrated. Don’t just take my word for it; consider the fact that most smartphone photographers use auto mode.
Why Manual Mode Is Overrated
You’re walking along the street and notice some very inspiring light shine on a building. Two people are walking directly into it. The split-second trigger goes off in your head, and you see a shot. You raise the camera to shoot, very sure that you’ve got the decisive moment. But when you chimp the LCD screen, you notice the screen is pure white. Because you were in manual mode, your camera couldn’t adapt and you lost the moment. Had the camera been constantly adjusting the exposure itself, you would’ve probably captured the moment.
You’re trekking through a National Park with friends and notice a curiously colored bird during spring migration. You attempt to photograph it as quickly as possible, but your camera is in manual mode, and you’re exposed for the beautiful woodpecker you found earlier. This is another situation where manual mode is overrated.
You’re at a party photographing an event. You decided that night that you’d be a natural light photographer. You stop someone with an intriguing t-shirt for a photo. You shoot a single photograph just to be respectful. They ask you if you can give it to them later, and you agree and exchange info. But later on, you end up realizing the photo wasn’t exposed well. What do you do? Do you tell them the photo wasn’t that great when they were excited to have the image? Do you just not respond and be an awful person?
Manual mode doesn’t always make a ton of sense. For lots of situations, it’s quite overrated.
When Should Manual Mode Be Used?
So when should manual mode be used? Well, two specific situations come to mind. The first one involves using flash. If you’re photographing an event or a session with a flash, your shutter speed matters. It controls the ambient light. You can lock it to 1/250th and go about shooting however you’d like.
The other situation is where you can shoot to your heart’s content and you’ve got a lot of time to work with. One of the best situations that come to mind is photographing a sunset. You don’t have a bunch of time to photograph a sunset, but it’s a lot longer than a split second.
Further, it’s also excellent for when you want to be creative. The photo above was shot when I was experimenting and creating something painterly. Manual mode could easily work for this.
P for Professional
For years, I think that shooting only in manual mode was a way for professionals to look down on passionate photographers who call themselves enthusiasts. In truth, lots of those professionals would often just meter the scene to get to the center of the meter bar. In reality, if that’s what you’re doing, then just shoot in Program auto. Otherwise, aperture priority and shutter priority are still fantastic options.