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Quick Start Guide for Manual Mode Photography

For boneheads or those too busy to learn.

Photograher, Grand Teton Sunrise, Grand Teton National Park (© Daryl L. Hunter - The Hole Picture/Daryl L. Hunter)
Photograher, Grand Teton Sunrise, Grand Teton National Park
Camera on manual setting

Camera on manual setting

Shooting on the manual mode setting isn’t as hard as most people think because they haven’t given it any thought. Today’s DSLRs have opened the door to shortcuts, I love shortcuts!

One of the many hats I wear to keep my life afloat is that of Wildlife Safari Guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park. Most tours are not photography tours however, everyone brings a camera. Me as a pro photographer and instructor I often teach those willing to listen while we travel between moose, pronghorn and hopefully bears. I have worked out a simple way to communicate intuitive shooting for manual mode I share with my guests. Yes it is abbreviated, yes it is over-simplified, and yes it works.

Often, my guests are very successful and some of the smartest people in the country or world yet they rationalize they don’t have time to delve into the intricacies of step two of camera operation – manual mode. Before I explain, bonehead manual I’ll explain why you need to know.

Light Beams, Thunderstorm, Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park, Crepuscular Rays (© Daryl L. Hunter - The Hole Picture/Daryl L. Hunter)

Light Beams, Thunderstorm, Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park, Crepuscular Rays. Vast expanses of dark punctuated with beams of very light are a tough one for an exposure algorithm to dissect.

When we choose to shoot in auto exposure modes instead of manual mode we forfeit our judgment, when we forfeit our judgment we are outsourcing our thinking to a computer. Auto exposure settings on camera computers are great, but they calculate input to achieve an average; achievers don’t like average!

Today’s cameras do a fantastic job of rendering a scene into a perfect photo as long as your subject’s perimeters are programmed into your camera’s computer algorithms. Here is the rub, although today’s DSLRs do an amazing job in ordinary light, they aren’t programmed for dynamic extraordinary light. Calculated algorithms are great for good results in average light but algorithms fail in extraordinary light.  Extraordinary light averaged by algorithms result in an averaged exposure at best; however, extraordinary dynamic light often defies algorithmic data sets. The camera’s computer often meters off the wrong part of the subject rendering important parts of a potentially dynamic photo either over or under-exposed. Great photographs are nothing but extraordinary dynamic light. Extraordinary light isn’t anything to squander so a few simple steps opens the door to the ability to capture extraordinary light. Learn to shoot in manual mode

The Procedure

Set camera on manual mode, preliminary settings should priorities include; if you have a moving subject choose a fast shutter speed to stop action. If you are shooting a landscape choose a shutter speed that is as slow as you can hold steady without camera shake, 1/60th of a second minimum if hand holding. Then look at your exposure meter through your viewfinder and with either the Aperture selector dial or shutter speed dial put the exposure meter needle in the middle of the meter then shoot. Then immediately look at your recorded image on the camera back to check the exposure. The image on the camera back will appear either light, dark, or right on. If light or dark adjust the dial that affords the most fungibility, the shutter dial for scenics or the aperture dial for moving subjects. Then shoot again and look.  Soon you will be able to make on the fly adjustments without having to look at your meter through your viewfinder. Simple as that!

Yes of course there is more to learn but the above procedure will get you started, and you can fine tune your exposure education from there, nothing to it. For those who have read enough – happy shooting!

What you see through the viewfinder of a DSLR, except the grizzly. On the left is the shutter speed, in this case we are focused on a moving object so we want it fast enough to stop motion of an animal.  The 5.6 is the aperture setting, this is a wide open (large hole) to let in a lot  of light. The exposure meter is to the right of the aperture, when setting preliminary you want the movable arrow (red here) to register somewhere in the middle. To the far right is the ISO indicator.

What you see through the viewfinder of a DSLR, except for Swiftcurrent Lake. On the left is the shutter speed, in this case we are focused on a Landscape so we want it as slow as possible and still prevent camera shake because the slower the shutter the more we can close down the aperture to increase Depth of Field. The 22 is the aperture setting, this is a closed down to the smallest setting (small hole) to maximize Depth of Field. The exposure meter is to the right of the aperture, when setting preliminary you want the movable arrow (red here) to register somewhere in the middle. To the far right is the ISO indicator.

What you see through the viewfinder of a DSLR, except for Swiftcurrent Lake. On the left is the shutter speed, in this case we are focused on a Landscape so we want it as slow as possible and still prevent camera shake because the slower the shutter the more we can close down the aperture to increase Depth of Field. The 22 is the aperture setting, this is a closed down to the smallest setting (small hole) to maximize Depth of Field. The exposure meter is to the right of the aperture, when setting preliminary you want the movable arrow (red here) to register somewhere in the middle. To the far right is the ISO indicator.

Moon eclipse over Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park. (© Daryl L. Hunter - The Hole Picture/Daryl L. Hunter)

Moon eclipse over Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park. A nighttime photo like this can’t be done in automatic modes.

For those who want more understanding lets take a look a bit deeper so we can understand the mechanics of the procedure above.

Photography is capturing light which is exposure. In photography, exposure is the total amount of light allowed to fall on the camera sensor during the process of taking a photo. This requires that a finite quantity of light reaches the sensor so the photo is sufficiently exposed.

There are several ways to achieve the same amount of light to achieve good exposure.

Quantity of light = X

X = time value + aperture value

Time value and aperture value are your variables, and each has a cost and benefit. Your subject will dictate your priority of selection.

Aperture value is how big the lens opening is on your camera F 5/6 – F8 – F11 etc., the higher the number the smaller the hole that lets in the light.

When you have a big hole (aperture), you can use a higher shutter speed to stop action; the price is less depth of field. Depth of Field – depth of field (DOF) is the portion of a scene that appears sharp in the image.

A smaller aperture requires a slower shutter speed and often a tripod to keep the camera steady; the risk is a blurred photo. Conversely, a large aperture facilitates shorter shutter speeds to stop action; the price is less depth of field.

Prancing Bull Elk, Sunrise, Grand Teton National Park (© Daryl L. Hunter - The Hole Picture/Daryl L. Hunter)

Prancing Bull Elk, Sunrise, Grand Teton National Park. A backlit subject like this an exposure algorithm can’t understand. Time Value is an important consideration on this one as you need to stop the action.

Time Value = Shutter speed, the higher the number the faster the shutter. When shooting with a telephoto as we do for wildlife you will want a high shutter speed. A rule of thumb is to match your shutter speed to the length of your lens. A 300mm telephoto would need a minimum of 1/300 of a second. I try to double that when possible.

For sports and wildlife you need to stop action so you would want a fast shutter speed that normally requires a large aperture hole, which dictates a small number like F5/6.

For shooting landscapes maximum depth of field is desirable dictating the smallest possible aperture   and a slow shutter speed. When the shutter speed gets below 1/60 it becomes necessary to use a tripod to prevent camera shake. This will maximize “depth of field” that is the distance your photo is in focus from near to far.

My field workflow

I usually arrive at my first shooting location at shortly before dawn. If I am shooting wildlife I set my camera’s ISO first, for before sunrise that would be about 1250 ISO, I then pre-set my shutter at 400, usually this will be too dark but may be just right after finding something to shoot.  These are starting points sure to change as soon as a critter appears. I take regular test shots and check my LED display. If it is a clear day, I drop my ISO to about 640 as soon as the sun comes over the horizon. As it gets brighter I may again drop the ISO to 320, shooting test shots all the while.

Silhouette, Darby Wind Cave, Grand Tetons, Alta Wyoming

Silhouette, Darby Wind Cave. A backlit silhouette in a cave, no chance in hell of capturing this image in automatic mode.

ISO stands for the International Standards Organization and the numbers are the camera’s sensitivity setting for light. The lower the ISO the better saturation your photos will receive but when the light diminishes increase the ISO setting only as much as you need to achieve the minimum shutter speed mandated by the shooting situation.  I hate to exceed 1250 ISO as it introduces noise (missing pixels) to your photo. Use high ISO’s with caution and with lower expectations. That said every generation of DSLR is getting better at noise reduction at higher ISOs.

Good DSLRs have a “highlight alert” setting – turn it on!  Wildlife and dynamic light are often very fleeting, and we need to make exposure adjustments on the fly; the highlight alert flashes repeatedly on your LED display areas that are over-exposed. When I take a shot I always look at my LED display to check exposure, if the highlight alarm is flashing I increase my shutter speed or close the aperture a bit until the highlight alarm stops.  If the highlight alarm is flashing that means portions of your photo will have no detail. I often expose my photos a bit on the light side because highlights have four times as much color information then the shadows; therefore, if the shadows are closer to correct the highlights can often be salvaged in post processing.

When shooting landscapes, landscapes demand maximum depth of field so I start with a small aperture setting of at least F16 than set the shutter speed accordingly. I then take test shots and look at the LED just as I explained in the Manual Quick Start Procedure.

Gone are the days of waiting a week photo processing to see whether our exposures were as we had hoped, digital technology and LED displays have removed the mystery as well as the importance of the exposure meter.

Daryl L. Hunter leads photography tours

The Hole Picture Photo  Safaris

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10 thoughts on “Quick Start Guide for Manual Mode Photography

  1. Jerry Pyle says:

    I used to shoot Aperture Preferred all the time but changed to shooting all manual since I read this …getting to like it very much and getting much better pics…thanks for this post!!

    • Glad to help Jerry, your stuff was already good but we all like to polish up what we can. I think you will find some of the funny (tricky) light that once was unachievable can now become prize photos. ~ cheers

  2. Linda says:

    Thank you so much for the explanation! Have been doing photography for a few years in auto mode but am going to start shooting in manual. My pictures come out so much better but a lot more practice is needed. Enjoyed your page and your photo’s are wonderful!! Linda

  3. Oscar says:

    Thanks for simplifying this topic. I found it very helpful. I have been shooting in manual mode for a while now and much prefer it.

    I’ve read where other wildlife photographers prefer to shoot in Aperture mode. Any thoughts on this approach? Frankly, I have struggled using it, but would love to learn your opinion on it.

    Great site…and great photos, Daryl. Thanks again.

    • Oscar, glad you found the article about manual exposure helpful. I know many wildlife photographers also that leave it on aperture priority, I also have found this problematic. As a Yellowstone/Grand Teton wildlife safari guide I wish aperture priority delivered better results for me because when my first concern is for my guests, my photography gets subordinated leaving me not time to indulge myself in thoughtful photography. I have been shooting on manual for three decades, I did recently find out that one mistake I was making when attempting aperture priority was I having been a spot meter guy for decades that I needed to take the meter off of spot metering and put it on matrix metering or some kind of averaged metering. That said, I still rarely venture there.

      Thanks for visiting and thanks for the comment 😀

  4. helen e reed says:

    Hi, just discovered your website and no time to book a tour. Wish we could. We will be spending two days traveling around Pinedale and Hoback Canyon, Jackson Hole and on to Idaho. Would really like to see some moose and elk; some in my party have never been out of Texas. Also porcupine and badgers. Have you any recommendations? It’s a group with special needs so wouldn’t be able to do strenuous hiking. Any help you can give me is appreciated. My dad used to guide hunters out of Moran back in the 70s. Thank you.

  5. Mike Holcomb says:

    Love your work…You have a great eye friend. Great teacher to, nice guide, like hearing how you work and seeing the results.

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