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I'm very new to digital photography, so I still haven't gotten the hang of all this exposure and ISO stuff, etc. I have a Canon EOS T3.

My question is how big of a difference does it make using manual settings rather than auto settings for everything? I've taken some pretty nice photos with all auto settings, and I'm not sure if it could have turned out any better using manual settings. I know that there are some people who have been in the game for years upon years, and to them they can notice the difference between photos taken with manual vs auto settings, but for my situation, do you think it really makes a difference? Is my camera smart enough to determine the best settings for me?

Also, lets say manual settings are better (which I'm sure they are, since they give you greater control). How often are you supposed to adjust your settings? Between every shot, considering they are unique shots? Or does it not matter about the object, but rather the lighting environment? So if I'm in a forest at 2:00 PM on a sunny bright day and I take photos for one hour, should I be constantly adjusting my settings between every unique shot to get the best out of it? Or do I usually just find one setting that works for the environment I'm in?

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This is essentially a duplicate of What advantages does manual mode have over aperture priority mode? –  mattdm May 14 '12 at 23:28

14 Answers 14

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Applying manual controls allows one more freedom to enhance, manipulate and master applied photographic applications. By understanding the interaction of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO speed, photography — identified as "drawing with light" — can be utilized to its fullest potential.

Full creativity with the use of manual control can then be used to make those "How did they do that?" photos.

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I was reading the book Understanding Exposure, and they make the point you make here. Paraphrasing: "The camera picks one 'correct' combination of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed for you -- but as you move from maximum to minimum aperture, there are 5-6 other equally 'correct' possibilities which will give you a very different, but still well-exposed picture! The creative choice is yours." –  khedron Jul 13 '11 at 3:57
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And beyond that are all the 'uncorrect' possibilities. :-) What if you want to drench the picture in darkness or fuzz out the image in a wash of overexposure? The camera will try to give you the mathematically 'correct' exposure -- but sometimes the camera can be fooled and sometimes you won't want 'correct'. –  David Rouse Jul 14 '11 at 14:11

I'll give you one example of when I've used manual, and see if it makes sense.

A while back I was shooting my step-son's "little league" basketball games, which were held indoors. The gym lighting provided reasonably even (if not very bright) illumination, but things like glare on the floor or dark color uniforms kept fooling the camera's light meter into thinking that there was more or less light than there actually was, which caused under or over exposure.

So I set the camera to manual and based my settings off a center-weighted metering of an empty part of the floor, adjusting my ISO to make sure that I had a reasonable chance of stopping the action with a decently high shutter speed.

I could then concentrate on composition, trusting the reasonably even illumination to allow me to use that one combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO the whole game.

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Using automatic mode in camera is akin to using a automatic car. It works well if you just have to get to work but not when you are racing or if the track gets interesting :).. Just a few examples when you can't do without manual modes:

  • Control the depth of field: Your camera can't read your mind and know that you want to blur the background.
  • Multiple exposures: During that bright sunny day in the forest, you'll find that the clouds are too bright and the shrubs are waay underexposed. You'd need to take multiple exposures and blend them to get a good picture.
  • Consistency: If you got good pictures using automatic mode, then there is way to get similar pictures in similar condition.. your camera can decide on different set of parameters. With the knowledge of ISO/aperture/shutter speed, you can take the same picture in similar condition.
  • Cameras suck at exposure metering: Your camera's exposure metering is usually thrown off balance by bright subjects like snow or a bride wearing a white dress.
  • Night photography: Usually cameras tend to bump up the iso or turn on the flash when there is not enough light.. it doesn't know that you have kept the camera on a tripod and that iso100 without a flash will produce better pics.
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Interesting you should pick that analogy - automatic transmissions are banned in Formula 1 racing as they are considered to be electronic driver aids. While it might not match 100% the performance of a manual transmission used perfectly, an auto F1 car would free the driver to concentrate on other aspects of driving e.g. changing brake balance. I see auto functions on the camera as serving the same purpose, taking some decisions for you in order to let you concentrate on others. –  Matt Grum Jul 14 '11 at 9:10
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@Matt: You can only take that car analogy so far :) .. If you are talking about Av/Tv modes.. then yes.. they are necessary sometimes to take some decisions when you need to concentrate on other stuff.. I was referring to full on Auto mode that takes all the decisions for you (apart from composition and framing of course) –  Sridhar Iyer Jul 14 '11 at 18:07

Manual (M) and semi-automatic modes (Av,Tv) let you control the image you get.

You can increase or decrease the depth of field to get clear or blurry background, you can freeze or blur motion (and also control the amount of motion blur), you can decide to use the flash as your primary light source or to just fill in the shadows a bit - and more.

The modern camera does a pretty good job at setting exposure on full auto mode, it's not perfect and there are some situations it can't handle but for someone just starting out the camera will do a better job then you (at first).

If you just want to take ok pictures to remember things the auto mode is fine, if you want to make great pictures and actually control the result than auto mode isn't going to cut it.

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Been there, done that, still finding my way out (with T2i).

I find the best way to learn is discover the situations where the Auto mode is not quite working and then see how a specific mode will help out.

Here is a couple of examples:

  • In auto-mode, you don't get to chose your focal point. I found that often the camera will focus on the wrong thing. So, I switch to P(rogramme) mode and set the focus point to the center only. This means, I can quickly point the camera at the right item and take picture. More advanced version would be half-shutter and recompose or post-processing crop to fake the rule-of-thirds composition. That's all later though. Just understand that fixing your focus point allows you to control that aspect better and let's you take more pictures in-focus faster.
  • I just took 400 pictures of a soccer game. Not being a professional photographer, I switched into TV (shutter priority/velocity) mode, set it to 125, ISO to 400, center focus point, no flash. Let everything else be automatic. So, I could basically point the camera at the right person/item and press the button. If the person moved fast, but not terribly fast, I would get an in-focus picture of them, but people around him/her may or may not be blurry (because aperture would change based on light available). Also, a person moving too fast would be artistically - if I say so myself - blurry for the fast part of their body. Lots of shots with blurry feet or blurry ball. People loved it.
  • Similarly, I was trying to do macro shots and create shallow depth of field effect. So, I switched to AV (Aperture Priority/Velocity) and set it to the smallest number I could get (3.5 unfortunately). Then, I took pictures with Auto ISO or with 200 ISO and did not care about shutter speed (the flower did not run). Have some nice shots - again, in my own opinion - there.

So, just think about those situations and practice this basic just-out-of-the-box options. After a while, you will start to get the feel for what the different settings and values really do and then you can get to the next step.

Finally, I was really afraid of the M(anual) mode, as I did not think I knew enough to even bother. Then, I actually switched into it and realized that there is an indicator at the bottom that shows you whether the camera thinks your picture will be under or over exposed for the particular setting of ISO/shutter/aperture. Just having that floating indicator and seeing it going back and forth as I change random settings was liberating and also instructional. I have a wide-range lens and only while doing the zoom in the manual mode I realized that the most open aperture (3.5) is only available when I am NOT zoomed in. As I zoom in, it rapidly closes to start at 4.5 and even 5.5 (I think). Doh! But now that I understand that, if the picture is too dark, I will unzoom and get more close to the subject.

I still don't use manual mode much at all (takes too long to set it all up). But I am starting to see the situations when it would become useful.

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When you say "manual mode", are you referring solely to the M(anual) setting on your camera or are you including the Av and Tv modes as well? Each mode will give you something different. I won't describe what has already been said but try this link for some info on what the different modes are good for.

Most cameras will make using Av or Tv (or P) mode pretty. On my EOS 450D, using M isn't much fun as I need to hold in a button while rotating the dial to change aperature. I'm sure more advanced models don't test your abilities as a contortionist.

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In manual mode, you can take the camera beyond the default maximum range of exposure compensation, by which I mean if you want to over- or underexpose by more than 2 stops, using manual mode is usually your only option (some cameras may allow 3 stops but even this is not enough in some cases). Additionally, if you are shooting in consistent lighting conditions, once you've set your camera up for the conditions, leaving the camera in manual means you won't need to meter every single subsequent shot. Finally, and this is more subjective, using full manual mode means you have full control over the exposure and you are not leaving it to the camera to decide. Cameras are getting better and better at working out exposure, but they will never be able to second guess the photographer's intentions.

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There are certain times when conditions may fool light-meter, therefore you find the best exposure settings by experimenting or using zone system and then you simply set it in camera and you doesn't have to worry about exposure. When shooting action/events sometimes you hardly have time to focus (there is trick with MF for this as well) not mentioning playing with exposure - I have made this mistake only one time.

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"should I be constantly adjusting my settings between every unique shot to get the best out of it?"

I guess it depends if you are taking snapshots or photographs...

Personally, I adjust every possible setting every time I am taking a photo. I visualize the image in my mind and adjust every setting that allows me to achieve what I want to see on the final photo. After settings are adjusted it's time for composition; sometimes this also means waiting for a cloud to pass, road to clear of traffic, a wave to splash in just the right way or the "mood" to be just right. Now that is just the part when I capture the initial "digital negatives" Processing raw images, adjusting, cropping, etc, comes next and that part is even more time consuming and equally as creative and exciting but this is not a part of your question...

I use full auto for snapshots; If I want a snapshot of my self and my kids and need someone else to take the picture. (Although, when its my wife I still put it on aperture priority and kind of set things up and let her compose.) I also use auto when someone hands me their camera to take snapshot for them.

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If your camera meter does a good job judging exposure of the scene in an automatic program mode, which it will do in most cases, then using the camera in manual mode would not have made a better exposure, and no one will be able to tell the difference. If your pictures look right, then they probably are right.

There are some cases (for example backlit subjects, bright beaches, water and snow) where many cameras will see a bright background and underexpose the subject. You can overcome that by switching to manual or using exposure compensation.

In your example of shooting in the forest, well it depends on the light. If you are taking some shots in full sun, some in dappled light, some in shade then if you are in manual you will need to adjust the exposure for each scene. A program mode will adjust automatically. In changing light, there is nothing wrong with using a program mode. Just get in the habit of checking your LCD (and preferably the histogram) to make sure the camera did in fact get the exposure correct. If not, use exposure compensation to adjust. You will soon learn in which scenarios your camera does misjudge exposure, and in those cases you can switch to manual or check the histogram and dial in exposure compensation

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"using the camera in manual mode would not have made a better" - it is not only the correct exposure, but rather creatively correct exposure! Your statement is too inclusive. –  ysap Jul 14 '11 at 3:07
    
good point, you may want to deliberately under or overexpose compared to what a meter might tell you. –  MikeW Jul 14 '11 at 3:33
    
Not only that, but you may want to keep the same exposure with different DoF/motion blur/grain than the ones set by Auto mode. –  ysap Jul 14 '11 at 5:26

Speaking as a complete beginner, in manual mode I make a lot of mistakes, a lot of errors. This actually means that I have a lot of fun, because I am improving step by step. I look at a photo and I say: "Ok, my judgement has been wrong (again)." or "The exposimeter told me that everything was right, and it turns out that it wasn't"... and if I look at the photo that I am shooting now they are (for me) better than those that I took some weeks ago.

So if you accept the risk to lose a shot in exchange for having fun and learning, manual mode is a good way to go.

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It's important to note that it's fantastic when we can get good results from a camera's automatic modes. Sometimes switching to a more interactive mode will yield the exact same photo. A less automatic/more manual mode is useful when you need to make adjustments to get the photo you want.

So, the process could go like this: camera in auto mode, snap the photo, see an unexpected result, make some camera adjustments, snap the photo, be pleased with the result. Once you're familiar with how the camera works and more theory of light and photography you might take the same picture like this: use interactive/manual mode, make some adjustments, snap the photo, be pleased with the result -- much simpler!

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To start off, I never use auto mode. I always use semi-automatic modes. I rarely use the full (M)anual one because I would have to set all the parameters, including ISO, by myself, for every single picture, which (I tried) is really time-consuming and prone to errors. The (P)rogram and (A)perture-priority modes are my favourite ones and I ofteen keep auto-ISO: my camera automatically makes the best decisions allowing me to save time and, shouldn't the exposure metering work correctly for the subject, I can still tune the exposure compensation and set the appropriate metering mode to best match my needs.

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I never used full auto mode on my cameras (first were totally manual machines, then came EVF Fuji S9600 and now DSLR Pentax K-x).

I often found the semi-auto priority modes more useful as I have a lot of comfort for common shooting while I can also influence my photos by changing F number or exposure time etc. Sometimes the exposure measuring results in for example too bright or too dark image, so I also use the exposure correction to get better result.

I tried the full auto mode, but it was always something like "Why the camera sets ISO400? It is sunny day, you will use ISO200!" (.. switched to Av :-) ) or "Shutter speed 1/1000 and f5,6 is nice, but I would rather use bigger f number" (.. back to Av :-) ) ... I use the exposure measuring like a suggestion, not an order.

Okay, sometimes I also use the "motive" programs like "Animals" when I want quickly take a photo of our dog or cats as they move very quickly :-) But mostly I use Av or Tv.

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