The Myth of Shooting in Manual Mode

“You are a real photographer if you shoot in manual”

Seemingly innocent words and yet… implies two things.

To be a real photographer you must shoot in manual mode. 


If you don’t shoot in manual mode you aren’t a real photographer

Yes, suddenly that sentence has all sorts of layers, and none of them pretty.  If I had $5 for every time I have been told to shoot in manual, or that shooting in manual was easy, I would probably have enough to buy my new tripod head.

Shot in Tv mode with a variable ND on a tripod

So what is it about this particular ‘myth of manual’ as I like to call it?  Why is it considered the best or the only way to be a proper photographer? On asking, the reply usually given is “oh you have more control over what the camera does and can set it up exactly as you need it to be for the shot” or something similar.

Except…..the reason I spent several thousand dollars on my camera body is because I wanted to purchase the precision Japanese technology, engineering, design and development that went into making my camera a marvel of optical functionality.  It is way smarter than I am at judging the right settings for the light levels and it tells me what settings it thinks should be used for a shot.

shot in awful light in a gym, cranked ISO up as high as I could take and then played with Tv modes to see what it got me – I love the feeling of the action in this shot

Confession time – most of the time I shoot in P mode, do most of my landscape work in Av cos I can set a fixed aperture, and occasionally dabble in Tv mode when changing the shutter speed is required.  But for the vast majority of my work, P is where it is at.

Why?  Because in P mode, the camera will pick the shutter and aperture, I set the ISO, exposure and white balance.  The thing is, in P mode I can change pretty much ALL of these settings fairly easily for each shot, and often change the aperture.  If the light is dodgy I will change the ISO as well.  But looking through the viewfinder to see the settings means I can see what the camera things and use my knowledge and experience to make changes to suit.

Why the hell would I buy an expensive camera body and NOT use all that technology?  Why would I assume that I can properly make the call on the settings required – settings that are all collectively related and impact on each other.

Why would I want to limit the way I shoot so intensely – if the light is changing quickly or the action is fast, shooting in manual means changing the settings for each image, that takes time to calculate and then program into the camera.

Mud Sweat and Tears race in pouring rain and fairly awful light, can’t even remember what mode I used, was too busy trying to keep the camera dry!  But I love this water splashing spray effect.

A few years ago I had a question about something, can’t remember the details, and asked on a forum and nearly every guy on there replied “shoot in manual”.  My response was “I don’t know how” and back then I actually didn’t.  In fact it wasn’t til I attended a workshop that had an outdoor photowalk component, and the tutor showed me how ie which knobs and dials control which function, that I actually discovered how to use my camera in manual mode.

Since then it has come in handy for dabbling in panoramas, having learned the hard way that you need to keep your exposure the same for each image, and the best way to do that is manual mode.  Except what I actually do is this:

– set the camera up as as usual
– frame up the shot
– check the settings, and make my usual changes and check the image
– switch into manual mode and dial those setting in
– take the shots

Using a DSLR is complicated, with the combination of technology with using the hardware, and art with composing and editing the images.  Is it because you have to know more about how your camera works to use it properly in manual mode that feeds the myth? Is it that the gear heads who have forced themselves to shoot in that way have to feel a sense of superiority over those of us who aren’t there yet, or choose another option?

While I am sure there are loads of photographers out there convinced that manual is the only way, I know there are just as many and probably more that manage quite well in a semi-automated mode.

So why does this myth continue to be perpetuated?

Why is it laid down as gospel to new photographers?

The reality is, what makes you a photographer is intent.  If you pick up a camera or a phone, with the intent to create a specific image, to capture a time, a place or an event in a way that makes it uniquely yours, that is what makes a photographer.  Not the gear, nor how you use it. If you choose to go out deliberately, to take photos of the world to share with people, then you are a photographer. No question.

Shot handheld in P mode

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About lensaddiction

Mad keen photographer figuring it out as she goes!
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15 Responses to The Myth of Shooting in Manual Mode

  1. Degies says:

    The Pro’s only use M is nonsense. I agree it is by gear heads who focus on the tech more than the image. Image quality is important, but I would rather get the shot than not. I follow Moose Peterson and Arthur Morris quite a lot and it’s not about shooting in M, it is getting the shot. Knowing your gear goes a long way and always helps you in post. Sure I suppose if you make your living in photography and you do it full time you will pretty soon predominantly work in manual. In my day job I pretty much know what will work and what not in an instant, but us hobbyist photo enthusiasts can be forgiven for using other modes. I find myself in Av mostly, but I am very comfortable in M. I have used P before , but my topics vary so vastly I just find it easier to start in Av and then move to M if I want something specific. I don’t think I have used Tv before?

    Love your Purakaunui falls shot. Here is mine and you can see it is in full manual. That is pretty much out of camera

    I have been burned by the panorama’s at different exposures many times so I feel your pain. I have overcome this by back-focusing, setting my DOF button to AE lock, the AE lock button to AE Hold and setting the shutter button to metering only. This took a while to get used to, but since I spend most of my time in AI Servo it is second nature by now. So once I get my exposure for the first frame I then lock in that exposure for the next shots.

    One thing to take note of is that any article you read today talking about ISO, M, F-stops and even technique has to be taken in context. If your camera is newer than three years you benefit from massive sensor and image processor advancements. Even if you buy L glass with the second generation IS and USM the MTF charts show much better image quality compared to predecessors. That is not only for Canon, but Nikon and Sony. When I moved up from the 7D to the 5D3 I could get away with much larger ISO’s and I got get in an extra stop of light. Even better AF made images just better since it locked in so quickly all the mechanics just came together so much faster. I at times even chance a handheld shot at 1/150 now even though my rule of thumb is if it moves it needs to be at minimum 1/250 to avoid image blur. I am a bit of a pixel freak so I hate high ISO and before I would never go above 1600 , but now I will chance it up to 3200 if I really want the shot. I must say all my lenses is L and mostly 2nd generation so that helps.

    However in the end it is all about pulling the heart strings of the viewer. That is what makes the image…

    Just words of a mad man 🙂

    • lensaddiction says:

      LOL words of a madman who talks perfect sense to me. I follow Arthur Morris, I got the tip about back focussing my 7D from him too 🙂 I didn’t follow it all the way thru for locking the exposure for pano shots tho, will investigate further if my current manual mode doesnt work. I have a nice set of pano of Blue Lake at St Bathans I havent yet processed.

      Lusting after a 5D3 I have to say…..

  2. Victoria says:

    Thank you for this. All, gorgeous shots, too!

    • lensaddiction says:

      Thanks Victoria, I had some fun looking in my archives 🙂 Wanted to share some images that may not have been seen here before

  3. SherriS. says:

    I was smiling as I read this very timely post. As I nodded my head, I was trying to think back to where I had heard this mantra myself. I don’t know where but we know it’s out there for everyone to feel pressured by it.

    It’s been almost 2 years ago that I became determined to learn more about my camera and photography and switched to Manual. It was hit and miss of course. I agree with your philosophy of what makes us photographers. We are compelled to capture and share images. That is enough for me.

    I want to take a moment to compliment all of the images you shared. Each of them is very stunning!

    • lensaddiction says:

      Thanks Sherri, I was determined when I got my DSLR that I would learn how to use it properly too, but going full manual all the time right away? OMG there was no way I had enough experience in using the camera to do that. Even now 5-6 years later, I still don’t really understand the maths enough to want to shoot in manual but at least I can set the camera up if I need to.

      I had some fun going through my archives finding images that related to this post, glad you enjoyed them 🙂

  4. Ron says:

    I am in three camera clubs. I couldn’t pretend to know all the times I’ve been told “shoot in manual”. I don’t. Most of the time I’m in app priority.Some in manual, but that’s not the usual. I was told by a pro one time…these cameras are smart. It’s really a little computer. Shooting in manual is like having a laptop and then using pen and paper to add a column of figures. Why would you do that? I agree

    • lensaddiction says:

      YES! Exactly, the camera is smarter than I am at doing camera stuffs, why would I override it 🙂

  5. I do use Manual most of the time. It’s the mode I’m most comfortable in as it turns out. However, it annoys me when people talk about any “rule” that separates “real” photographers from others. Just snobbery in my opinion.

    • lensaddiction says:

      I don’t object to anyone using manual, if it is where you are comfortable then that is your choice. But imposing it on people because some people think its a superior way of shooting, you are right, it is snobbery.

  6. SPFischer says:

    Yay! There’s hope for me yet 🙂 I am intrigued by your method of seeing what the camera gives you in P mode and then adapting your settings as needed. Seems to me that’s actually a wonderful way to learn about settings. I actually tried manual for the first time last weekend and spent loads of time after each shot thinking through what I needed to tweak to make the exposure better. Spent more time thinking than shooting! I figure this will become a much quicker process the more skilled I become in understanding the principles, but now I am excited to try your method to see how that works for me. Great post!

    • lensaddiction says:

      Glad I could provide some useful info for you. Manual is really hard work, and there are certainly circumstances when it would be useful or required, but I really struggle with the idea of using it all the time.

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