Course Content

Total learning: 7 lessons / 3 quizzes

Why to photograph in the manual mode?

Photography means “writing with light” and that is what you do. The more you know about your camera and the principles of photography (shutter speed, aperture and ISO), the more influence you have on your endresult, the photograph you are making! You become less dependant on lucky shots and know more and more how your photograph will look even before you take it.

Why would I stop using the automatic mode?

Camera’s are getting smarter with the smart mode, why would I stop using the automatic mode? Well, it is true cameras are getting smarter and better, but they will never be truly able to guess what you want to achieve. The best they can do is make an educated guess. With this, they get good results most of the time. Don’t you want to get good photographs all of the time? There are so many situations in which your camera simply guesses wrong. And you will end up with a sub-optimal result, not what you were going for.

How does your camera determine the right exposure?

Your camera assumes the whole world when imagined in black and white, is overall (18%) grey. This assumption is correct most of the time, but not all the time.

18% grey is like the image below:

When you are photographing in a light and airy scene or in a dark and moody scene your camera won’t be able to make that distinction. Instead, your camera will convert the image it sees to black and white and add all tones together and calculates the average. This you could compare to blurring the whole image into a monotonous colour to see what the overall tone is. For example if you look at the images below of the arctic fox. The overall tone in the top image is lighter than the 18% grey your camera is aiming for. But the exposure is the way you’d probably like to see. Most of the image is white (the snow and the white fur of the arctic fox) instead of grey.

While the photograph below is the way your camera would try to expose it. As you can see, this is grey and the image became darker and duller. This is a typical case in which your camera would guess wrong by itself.

When your camera guesses wrong…

There are so many examples where your camera makes the wrong guess as to what your settings should be. For example image this: You are at the beach with your family, the day is fantastic. You are enjoying yourself and see the sun setting in the sea. The sky is coloured red and orange, quite a spectacle! You brought your camera because you were hoping to get some good silhouette shots at the end of the day. Your children make some acrobatic moves. You point your camera at them (leave it on the automatic mode) and ….. end up with grey children and a slightly overexposed sky….. But this was not your intention?! Not at all what you had in mind. But why is this happening? Well… Your camera tries to expose correctly to prevent under- or overexposure. But when you take silhouette photographs you are actually underexposing your photographs a bit so your subject becomes black and the background is exposed correctly. No matter how smart your camera is, it could not have known you wanted to achieve this. Do you want to make more about taking silhouette photographs? Read my 7 essential tips here.

Silhouettes of children Photo by Nicolas Alejandro
Silhouette of a girl Photo by Ralf Steinberger


Or maybe you can imagine this: you are in Austria, and you were able to arrange a few horses to run around in snowy pastures. It’s early in the morning, the light is amazing. The sun is shining and the colours are so clear, early in the morning. The horses are running through the snow, snorting noses, waving mane, tails high in the air. This situation is absolutely amazing. You point your camera at the herd and you start photographing. Many fantastic things happen in front of your lens. Excited you return to your apartment where you stay, load your photographs to the pc…. end then …. the photographs are dull and grey… How did this happen??

Your camera once again tries to correctly expose your photographs at medium grey 50%. But since you are photographing in the snow, mostly white (instead of grey in tone) your camera will guess the wrong settings. It should have ever so slightly overexposed the photograph, that would have ended you up with much better results. Your results would have been much clearer if you would have chosen your own settings.

Austria photo in the snowPhoto by Merel Bormans Photography
Austria photo in the snowPhoto by Merel Bormans Photography

And what about this one? You are on an excursion with your boy- or girlfriend during a holiday. You are walking in the Alpes, the surroundings are amazing! You brought your 18-105 mm lens because it is so versatile and you can use it in many situations. You are taking photographs of the mountains but also take some portrait shots of your partner. You want the photographs of the mountains to be sharp from front to back because those are landscapes. For those portrait shots you want the emphasis to be on your partner, so you want the background to be blurry. When you are using the automatic mode, you can almost count on your camera not knowing you want to achieve this. So for the portrait shots your camera will probably not choose the biggest aperture for you (the smallest f-number), so the depth-of-field will probably be bigger than what you had in mind (and thus, the background will be less blurry).

Mountain Photo by Tony
Photo by Kateřina Chadimová

The automatic mode can arrange a lot for you, but not everything is guessed correctly. There are many situations in which your camera guesses wrong. That is why it is so useful to be able to arrange the settings yourself. You can choose which situations you want to have full control and in which situations it is ok if your camera takes some control.

And photographing in manual mode is not so hard, I will show you!

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