The mythical manual


I’ll admit it. When I started to learn photography, I was intimidated by the dreaded manual modes.


The internet, where everyone is an expert, told me that real men shoot in manual only, but it’s so difficult to learn that it would fry my little brain.

Now I have been on a photography course, I can reveal the secret handed down from one grand master camera-ista to another. It’s the thing that they don’t want you to know…

Nearly every shooting mode on a modern camera is an automatic mode in some form or another.

Yup. Those frightening PASM modes on the mode dial? The first three – Program, Aperture and Shutter – are all automatic or semi-automatic modes. Even the M mode can be partially or mostly automatic if you want it to be.

Yes, you can shoot the camera entirely on manual if you have the letter S on your shirt and wear your undies over latex tights. Mmmm, nice. Some professionals will do this some of the time (that’s use manual, not wearing the costume). But in 99.99% of the time you will want to let the camera do some of the work for you.

There’s no shame in using a semi-automatic mode. It’s not a sin. The photography gods won’t rip your invitation to spend the eternity of the afterlife in luxury on Mount Olympus. Or Mount Canon, Nikon or Sony, if those are the particular gods that you make credit card sacrifices to.

There is something else. Remember that I said that the camera doesn’t want you to take a bad picture? That still applies to the so-called manual modes. They are nowhere near as scary as they look. The camera is still trying to look after you. Use as much manual control as you need and the camera will adjust everything else to give you a good picture. Usually.

We’re going to need a little theory. Don’t worry – it won’t be too heavy, I promise.

It turns out that nearly all photography is based on three basic factors. The unholy trinity are aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

The last of these – ISO – is both incredibly useful and mind-numbingly boring, so we’ll park it for now. Until you’re ready for ISO, stick your camera into its “auto ISO” setting and forget about it. We will come back to it later.

That leaves us just two things to worry about – aperture and shutter speed. In short, the aperture is how big the hole is to let in light to form your photo. Shutter speed is how long the hole is left open.

Shutter speed and aperture are linked to each other. If you try to set them totally independently of each other you could get a bad picture.

To illustrate this, we ought to go back to the first ever man-made photograph. What do you think it is?

The history books will say that it’s something like this:

first photo 1

Now that’s all very well, but I like to think that in reality the first man-made photograph was something like this:

first photo tan line

Huh? I’d better explain.

All photographs are made when light falls onto a light-sensitive substance. That light sensitive thing used to be a roll of film, now it’s the electronic sensor in your camera. Other light-sensitive substances are also available. When your curtain fades in the sunlight, that’s a photograph (of sorts). And it’s the same when sunlight tans your skin.

Admittedly the “tanning on skin” form of photography isn’t very good for selfies or pictures of cute cats, but we can get a little creative with it …

tan lines funny1

tan lines funny 2

How do we get a good tan line photo like those? We need two basic things – a hot sun giving us lots of light and we need to stay out in it for a long time.

The hot sun part is our aperture. It’s how much light is falling on our image at any given moment in time. It’s hard to get a tan-line on a wet and cloudy November in Blackpool.

Shutter speed is how long we are in the sun. We probably all know from bitter experience that it can only take a couple of hours to get a tan line if the sun is hot enough.

And that’s the magic link between aperture and shutter speed. We would get more or less the same results from a short amount of time in a very hot sun that we would get from a longer amount of time in a cooler sun.

Or think of it like baking a cake. You can bake it on a low temperature for a long time or a high temperature for a short time. The cake won’t taste the same, but it would have had the same amount of heat overall.

On a camera, a wide aperture letting in lots of light would usually match well with a fast shutter speed. A narrow aperture would generally want a slower shutter speed. You get the same amount of light in each case.

As we change aperture, we also need to change shutter speed. And vice versa. More of one usually means less of the other.

Okay, okay, I can see you throwing your hands up in despair. This is one of those Harry Potter moments when it all descends into mumbo-jumbo and wizardry. Aperturo confusum!

How the Hasselblad are we supposed to know what a “good” picture looks like? How will I know how much aperture and shutter speed I need?

This is where the automatic-ness of your camera comes in. Your camera can tell you what it thinks a good photograph looks like. It isn’t always right, but it is right more often than it is wrong.

Let’s say that you don’t know what aperture or shutter speed you want. Put your camera into P or “program” mode and it will act like a posh auto. The camera will control aperture and shutter speed for you. There are other tricks that P mode can do, but we don’t need to worry about those just now.

In P mode, the camera sets both aperture and shutter speed.

Now let’s say that you want to set a particular aperture. I’ll explain why you might want to do this in a later blog. Then you would turn your camera to A (or Av on a Canon). Choose your aperture. Your camera will automatically set a shutter speed to “match” your aperture for the picture you want to take.

It doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes you might be asking too much of the camera. But on the whole it works like an automatic mode where you are changing only one setting and the camera is doing the rest.

In A (or Av) mode, you set the aperture. The camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly.

Let’s say that you don’t care about aperture, but you do want a certain shutter speed. Maybe you want a very fast shutter speed to take a picture of a fast-moving sport. Then you would choose S mode or Tv (time value) on a Canon. You then choose the speed that you want. The camera would automatically change the aperture to compensate for your new shutter speed.

In S (or Tv) mode, you set the shutter speed. The camera adjusts the aperture for you.

That only leaves the dreaded M mode. You have to set both aperture and shutter speed. That’s much more complicated, yes?

Well, no, not really. Not these days. In the bad old days, you had to work out aperture and shutter speed without much help from your camera. Those were indeed the age of wizards.

Modern cameras will tell you if you are about to take a good picture or not in manual mode. When you are in manual modes, somewhere on your camera there will be a display like this one:


When the little indicator is next to the zero or in the middle, the camera is telling you that the photograph is correctly exposed (in its opinion). If it’s in the minus range (usually to the left), then you may need to let in more light – either with a wider aperture or a slower shutter speed. If the indicator is at the positive end, you may need to let in less light. That means a narrower aperture or a faster shutter speed. You keep on fiddling until you get the settings that you want. Then you take the picture.

But here’s the funny thing. You could use manual mode and always aim to hit the zero on the exposure level indicator. But then you would be getting more or less the same aperture and shutter speed values as someone who used the semi-automatic A or S modes. In each case, you would be getting the exposure that the camera reckons you need for a good photo.

There is a lot more to learn about aperture and shutter speed. But for now all we need to say is that they are linked to each other and that the camera can do the linking for you if you ask it nicely.




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