Why You Don’t Need to Shoot in Manual Mode

There are better camera modes available!

When we first take the plunge into learning the art of photography, one of the first things we hear is that we should always shoot in manual mode.  While it’s true that you should never shoot in auto mode, there are other modes on the camera that can actually result in better images. In this article we will cover which modes you should be using, and how they can benefit you more than just shooting in manual mode all the time.

READ OR WATCH: This blog post is also available in video form! If you’d rather watch me explain this content, simply watch the video below. Otherwise you can find the text guide below. Just keep scrolling!

What is Manual Mode?

Is it really that great?

Before we start bashing on it, we should probably have a good understanding of what manual mode actually is. Manual mode is a mode on our camera that allows us to control all 3 aspects of the exposure triangle: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO (pictured below).

All three of these settings regulate the amount of light that enters our camera. This is important to ensure our images are properly exposed and not too bright (over-exposed) or too dark (under-exposed). Yet, these three aspects don’t only control the amount of light entering the camera. They each have their own unique creative affect on our image as well. 

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode

The Creative Affects of Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed

Exposure is pretty easy to understand, but this is where things get interesting. Understanding the creative effects that Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed have on your images is essential for every photographer. Until you fully understand these, the camera will still act as a barrier between you and your creative vision. This is the reason why I still recommend all beginner photographers learn how to properly use manual mode.



Aperture’s unique creative effect is its ability to control the depth of field in your photo. A wider aperture (lower number) will result in a much more shallow depth of field. While a smaller aperture (higher number) will result in much more sharpness throughout the frame. This can be used in a creative way. For example, a portrait photographer might want to use a wider aperture (such as f/1.8) to ensure the background behind his/her subject is blurry, while a landscape photographer might use a smaller aperture (such as f/16) to make sure everything in the image is sharp and in focus. Here are a few diagrams to explain the relationship between aperture and depth-of-field.

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode
Here you can see the difference in depth of field between two apertures. f/1.4 on the left, and f/16 on the right. Photographers use aperture creatively when taking photos.


Shutter Speed

Shutter speeds unique creative affect is its ability to freeze or blur motion. This is only relevant when there is motion in your frame. This motion can come from your subject (i.e a person walking or leaves blowing in the wind), or from you (hands shaking while holding the camera or moving the camera while photographing). Typically, we aren’t shooting things that require us to shoot at a fast shutter speed (such as sports or other fast moving objects). However, since we are often hand-holding our camera, we need to make sure our shutter speed isn’t so slow that our images are blurry due to our shaky-hands.

Below is a diagram that shows how shutter speed affects motion blur in our images. A slower shutter speed will result in more motion blur, as the sensor is exposed to light for a longer period of time.

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode



ISO’s unique creative affect is that it adds “digital noise” into our images. Digital noise looks like colorful little dots in our photo. In short, it doesn’t look good. Film grain from old film cameras has taste, but this does not! In order to combat this, we want to keep our ISO as low as possible. Once we raise our ISO, we start to lose image quality. 

ISO is a bit different from aperture and shutter speed in the sense that we use all ranges of aperture and shutter speed in order to get a certain creative look. With ISO, we don’t use it’s full range because we want to. Rather, we only increase our ISO because we HAVE to (when there is not enough light in our scene). 

Here is a diagram showing the relationship between ISO and digital noise.

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode
As you can see, higher ISOs simply don't look good!

Why You Should Stop Using Manual Mode

Don’t miss shots!

I just finished explaining the importance of manual mode, and now I am going to tell you why you shouldn’t use it.  You might be thinking to yourself… “Sean, you’re not making any sense.” And, you might be right.

But just hear me out!

While manual mode is an important camera mode for us to master, it’s not practical to use it all the time. This is especially the case when we are in dynamic situations in which we are moving often, or our scene is changing. We can’t always keep up with changes in our lighting scenario, and sometimes it’s easier to just let the camera do the exposure work while we focus on the creative aspects of a scene. 

For example, let’s say you are shooting at sunset. If you’re facing the setting sun, you will need to adjust your camera settings to ensure your exposure is good. If something happens behind you and you want to capture it, you’ll have to turn around and completely adjust your settings in order to capture that shot. Why? Because the lighting scenario has completely changed! Even though you’re in the same spot, simply changing the cameras perspective in accordance to the sun can completely alter the lighting environment. Even the most experienced photographers can’t keep up all the time. That’s why we let the camera do part of the work. Cameras are pretty smart, and while we won’t be using full auto mode, we can meet them half way!

What Camera Mode Should You Use?

Auto mode?

Well first off, it’s certainly not full-auto mode! In fact, you should never be shooting in full auto-mode. When you do this, you are surrendering all your creative control to the camera. You might as well shoot on a point-and-shoot camera if you are going to shoot in auto-mode. That’s how bad it is!

No, there are other modes available that strike a perfect balance between maintaining creative control of the camera, while still allowing it to make some decisions. Those two modes are aperture priority, and shutter priority. Let’s dive into them! 

Aperture Priority

Aperture priority is a camera mode that enables us to select our aperture, while the camera selects the other two settings (ISO and shutter speed). This is great, as most of the time aperture is the only setting we really care about. Unless we are shooting motion or shooting at night, aperture is going to have the biggest impact on our image. 

Aperture priority is designated as “A” or “AV” depending on your camera manufacturer. Simply flip over to the aperture priority mode, adjust your aperture, and start shooting! 

Aperture priority is what I am using most of the time while I am shooting. It allows me to be efficient, and focus more on composing my shot instead of worrying about my camera settings. 

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode

Shutter Priority

Shutter priority operates similar to aperture priority, except instead of choosing our aperture, we choose the shutter speed and the camera chooses our aperture and ISO. This is great if you are shooting moving scenes such as sports or wildlife. Shutter priority mode is designated by “TV” or “S”, depending on your camera manufacturer.

Because I am not often shooting moving scenes, I don’t use this camera mode often. Aperture priority is my preferred camera mode as depth of field is always playing a big role in the outcome of my images, while shutter speed is not (because I am not often shooting movement).

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode

How to use Aperture and Shutter Priority

It’s easy!

Using aperture or shutter priority mode is quite simple, yet we still maintain a good level of control over the camera. To use either of these modes, simply turn the dial on the top of your camera to either aperture or shutter priority, then adjust your setting (aperture or shutter speed). Once you adjust your setting, the camera will assess the light in your environment and adjust the other two camera settings to create a balanced exposure. 

However, the camera is not always correct in its exposure assessment. Sometimes we need to take back a bit of control over the camera to ensure our exposure is perfect. We can do that in a few ways!

Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation is a super handy feature that allows us to override exposure settings picked from the cameras light meter. While the camera usually does a great job at setting the exposure of our scene, challenging lighting scenarios might cause the camera to adjust the camera settings too aggressively resulting in an under-exposed (dark) or over-exposed (bright) image. When this happens, we can use the exposure compensation feature to manually override the cameras settings and choose the exposure ourselves.

For example, say we are shooting in the middle of the day on a bright sunny day. Our scene might have dark shadows as well as bright highlights within it. When the camera sees this situation, it might expose our image based on the shadows, resulting in an image that is overexposed in the highlighted areas. In order to combat this, we can adjust our exposure compensation to something like -1. This will direct the camera to adjust the scene to -1 stop of light, resulting in a more balanced exposure in our image. 

Adjusting exposure compensation will depend on the make and model of your camera. It’s usually found in one of three places. If it’s not in one of these locations, it must be adjusted via the camera’s menu system.

For Nikon cameras, you will likely find it on the top of your camera like the image below.

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode

Canon cameras typically have the exposure compensation button on the back of the camera, pictured in the image below. 

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode

Many cameras also have a physical dial on the top of the camera. This is the most efficient way to adjust exposure compensation.

Why You Don't Need to Shoot in Manual Mode

Minimum Shutter Speed (Aperture priority)

Minimum shutter speed is a setting that allows us to choose the minimum shutter speed the camera will use while shooting in aperture priority. In low light situations, sometimes the camera will choose a shutter speed that is much too slow, resulting in blurry images due to our shaky hands. In this situation, we can simply set the minimum shutter speed in order to restrict the cameras ability. I often have my minimum shutter speed set to 1/125 sec, or 1/60 sec. in dark environments. Since I am often hand-holding my camera, allowing the camera to use shutter speeds slower than these speeds might result in blurry images. If you are using a tripod, it is advised that you disable minimum shutter speed and allow your camera to choose the best shutter speed for your situation.

Disable Auto-ISO

While shooting in aperture or shutter priority modes, sometimes our camera will choose an ISO that simply isn’t suitable for our situation. As stated earlier in this blog post, we always want to ensure we are keeping our ISO as low as possible. Why? Because high ISO doesn’t look good in our images! We only increase our ISO in low light situations when there simply isn’t much light available to us. It’s a “last resort” type of setting. 

When our camera starts increasing our ISO when it doesn’t have to, we can go in and manually adjust our ISO. This means only one setting will be chosen by the camera (aperture or shutter speed, depending on which mode you are in), and we will select the other two.

This just allows us to take back a bit more control over the camera, while still allowing it to choose our exposure. I often set my ISO when shooting in aperture or shutter priority, as I know the camera doesn’t need to be increasing the ISO. On a sunny day, I set my ISO to 200 and leave it there. If its slightly dark, I will set it to 400. Beyond that, I just switch back to auto-ISO and let the camera choose! 

Note that by manually setting your ISO, you are limiting your cameras freedom. Most of the time this will be fine, but if you don’t feel like you have a good understanding of ISO yet, I recommend leaving it on auto-ISO. Reason being, if you limit your camera too much it won’t be able to expose in dark situations, meaning you will miss the shot altogether!

So, is manual mode bad?

Why you should still use it

You might be thinking to yourself, “Sean, why the hell should we learn manual mode if you just told us not to use it.” Simply put, if you don’t learn how to use manual mode, you will never truly understand how to use the 3 settings of the exposure triangle creatively. As photographers, it’s essential that we develop a thorough understanding of these settings and how they interact with each other. This deep understanding is what allows us to remove the camera as a barrier for us and gives us the ability to capture whatever artistic vision we have in our minds.  

Plus, manual mode is still a mode I shoot in often. In low-light environments, it doesn’t always make sense to allow the camera to choose our camera settings. In a studio environment, manual mode is a necessity and auto-modes should never be used. If you’re using a flash, you will need to shoot in manual mode. The list goes on. 

In most situations, aperture priority is going to be the best setting for you to use. In situations where movement is involved, you might find yourself using shutter priority. Yet in others, we resort back to manual mode.

In short, part of the process of becoming a good photographer is identifying which mode is best for any given situation. This will come with time, and you will know when you get there. It is an amazing feeling to have truly mastered the technical side of a camera, and it’s only a short time until you get there yourself!

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