Manual Mode: 8 Compelling Reasons to Move Away from Auto Mode

Photography 101

manual mode
Written by Karin van Mierlo
Karin is a pro photographer with a bachelor's degree in photography bringing 25+ years of experience to your table. She is the driving force behind Photography Playground and loves to write and teach about all things photography related. She is the developer of the Fearless FrameWork, a holistic method of learning photography.

Manual Mode

Congratulations! You just bought your first DSLR camera. I can see you sitting at the kitchen table carefully opening the box. You take out this impressive camera with anticipation. It’s the start of your photography adventure. I’m gonna take so many beautiful pictures with this wonderful machine you’re telling yourself.

As you take it out of the box you see all the buttons and displays. You start to feel a little bit intimidated. Mmmm, maybe read the manual first you think. And you take out a booklet that has the size of a long, meandering novel. Okay, not helpful.

Hello Stranger!

You take another good look at your camera and it feels like a stranger to you. Then you remember the guy from the shop told you: ‘Hey if you can’t figure it out you can always shoot in auto mode. The camera does it all for you, all you need to do is push the button. Easy-peasy!’

And wow what do you know it looks like the camera is set in Auto Mode! It must be your lucky day! Best leave it there you think. Better be safe than sorry. Don’t wanna mess up the settings of this thing. So you leave it at Auto Mode and never look back.

But every once in a while when you’re photographing during one of your trips you have this nagging feeling in the back of your mind.

What if I actually knew how to take the camera out of Auto Mode?

Would my pictures become better?

Or would I mess it up?

Yes, they will get better…eventually! And yes, you’ll probably mess it up from time to time.

But there are a lot of reasons to take the plunge. Let me share 8 of them.

Manual Mode Myth

However, let me first address a myth about shooting in manual mode.

There isn’t a pro photographer in the world that is shooting in manual mode all the time. Some situations are just not suited for manual mode. That’s why your camera also has semi-automatic modes. Manual mode is not the holy grail of photography. But understanding all the different exposure modes and knowing when to work with them is. So let’s start with exposure modes.

On one side of the spectrum, we have Auto Mode where the camera controls everything. All the way on the other side we have Manual Mode where you control everything.

In between, we find Program Mode, Shutter Speed Priority Mode, and Aperture Priority Mode. Program Mode gives you a little more control than Auto Mode and both Semi-Auto Modes gives you almost full control.

Understanding why you should do something is the best motivator to actually dive into something new! So here it goes! 8 reasons why you need to learn manual mode!

#1 Take Control of Your Flash

A lot of cameras have a built-in flash. In Auto Mode that flash will pop out every time the camera thinks there’s not enough light.

The light of the flash is harsh, frontal light and it will not do your pictures any favors in most circumstances. You need to decide for yourself if you want to use flash or not. That’s not a decision you want to leave to the camera.

In Manual Mode, you’re able to increase the light sensitivity of the sensor with the ISO setting so there’s no need to use the flash.

Find out more about natural light photography here.

manual mode, program mode | Photo: Costa da Caparica, Portugal ©Karin van Mierlo, Photography Playground

#2 Shoot in Raw

Uuhh…….raw? What do you mean?

Let me enlighten you, your camera can create 2 kinds of files, a jpeg file and a RAW file.

To keep it short and simple a jpeg file is processed and compressed the moment you press the shutter. Your camera decides on how to post-process and compress your pictures which gives you little control over the outcome.

A RAW file gathers all the information the moment you press the shutter. It saves just about every little piece of data it can lay its hands on. Then it hands it over to you and says: “Hey, wonderful photographer, here you have all this info! You decide what to with it.” As a result, post-processing a RAW file gives you endless possibilities.

It’s creative freedom baby!

Here are a couple more reasons to shoot in raw, 9 to be exact!

#3 Pick Your Focal Point

In Auto Mode, your camera has control over the focus. It doesn’t let you select your own focal point.

Cameras are very much into love at first sight. The focal point they’ll pick will be the first thing they see.

If that’s where you want the focus to be? Great! But in most cases, you and your camera will have a difference of opinion. Because you want your subject to be in focus and the camera has no way of knowing what that is. So you need to tell the camera where you want your focus to be.

This is a super important reason to move away from Auto Mode because the focus is not something you can adjust in the post-processing phase. Blurry is blurry. Nothing you can do about that.

manual mode, program mode | Photo: Botanical Gardens, Florence, Italy ©Karin van Mierlo, Photography Playground

#4 Movement: Blur or Freeze

The shutter speed controls how long your shutter will be open thus determining the amount of light that will fall on the sensor. It is measured in seconds. But there’s another very important aspect of shutter speed and that is the way it shows movement.

Slow shutter speed (anything below 1/60) will blur the movement your subject is making.

Fast shutter speed (anything above 1/250) will freeze the movement your subject is making.

For instance, when you’re photographing people running you need a fast shutter speed to get tack-sharp images. Or when you photographing a passing train you use slow shutter speed to make the train blurry. Check out this post for a deeper understanding about capturing motion in photography.

#5 Backgrounds: Blurry or Sharp

The aperture setting controls the size of the hole the light falls through thus again determining the amount of light falling on the sensor. It is measured in f-stops. Aperture also controls the Depth of Field which is the range of sharpness from front to back.

By opening up the Aperture (anything below f5.6) the background will become blurry.

When you close the Aperture (anything above f8) the background will become sharp and detailed.

For instance, when you’re shooting a portrait blurring out the background is a great way to draw attention to your subject. Or when you photograph a landscape you want a large depth of field and set the Aperture above f8.

#6 Creative Exposure

When your camera is in Auto Mode, the camera sets the exposure. In a split second, it measures all the different tones in the scene in front, calculates an average of all those tones and decides on the exposure settings. This might be the ‘proper’ exposure and it might not be.

Let me debunk another myth. There’s no such thing as proper exposure. Because exposure is always a creative choice.

And again do we wanna give that creative control to a camera? No, no, no, we don’t!

For instance, when you’re photographing a scene with high contrast you can decide if you want to emphasize the brighter or the darker parts. When you leave it up to the camera it will expose for the average of bright and dark resulting in a flat exposure.

Sunset photography is a good example of a high contrast scene where you want to emphasize the brighter parts around the sun.

manual mode, program mode | Photo: Metro, New York, USA ©Karin van Mierlo, Photography Playground

#7 Program Mode

I get it. Learning to shoot in Manual Mode or Semi-Auto Mode can feel overwhelming. It’s not something you learn overnight. Unfortunately, it’s also not something you can learn from a simple blog post despite what some other photography websites might like you to believe.

My suggestion is you start with Program Mode. This will already give you more control than Auto Mode and it’s a great way to transition gradually over to Manual.

By the way, it’s the P dial right next to your A.

So go ahead…….take that step…….go get your camera now…….and set it on P!

Take the Plunge!

Program Mode allows you to deactivate the flash and set your own ISO.

ISO is the light sensitivity of the sensor and can be adjusted to the amount of light that’s available to you.

For instance during the day when there is a lot of light you can set it to anything between 100 ISO and 400 ISO. When you’re indoors you can set it at 800 ISO or when it’s really dark 1600 ISO or even higher. The camera will calculate the shutter speed and aperture to match the ISO setting.

In Program Mode, you can set your own focus point, plus you can shoot in raw! Woohoo!

And last but not least you’ll also be able to play with shutter speed and aperture.

When you dial aperture open the camera will automatically set the shutter speed to go along and vice versa.

Shooting in Program Mode will give you a sense of what it will be like to shoot with more control without messing up.

It’s like walking the high wire with a safety net. Download the Program Mode step-by-step guide to discover how to shoot in Program Mode.

#8 You Become Best Friends

You‘ll have the infinite satisfaction and fulfillment of being best friends with your camera. Of taking a very important first step in becoming a better photographer.

You know, it all starts with understanding your camera. If that thing is a mystery to you, you won’t be able to create any magic with it. Because that’s what cameras are built for. When you know that thing inside and out you’ll create the magic.

Tell me, are you still shooting in Auto Mode? Are you ready to take the plunge? Let me know in the comments, I love to hear from you!

If you have any questions about shooting in Program Mode you can ask them in the Facebook Group.

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