Getting Messy with Photography – 5 Reasons Manual Mode is Cheating

Welcome to my series on getting down and dirty with photography.

This series is meant to be digestible for the amateur but a challenge the seasoned.

Manual Mode is cheating

You can shoot while you’re running

     You can shoot while they’re running

            You can shoot a subject right in the shade

                You can shoot a subject right in front of the sun

                        You can shooting with light dancing and changing

I think using Manual mode (M) is cheating. Since I like things as easy as possible and I want my images as good as possible I use M almost exclusively. Let’s talk logistics about M, Shutter priority (Nikon-S, Canon-TV) and Aperture priority (Nikon-A, Canon-AV).

A couple things to research if you aren’t the guru on the concepts of exposure, metering and the histogram. I won’t explain them here. 

Screen Shot 2012-12-16 at 10.37.18 PM Screen Shot 2012-12-16 at 10.36.54 PM

Reasons I cheat.

  1. The background light is changing. The camera uses the parts of the scene you aren’t as concerned about to bias your subject. (*It’s an issue I’ll explain below.) Take a look at this picture of an athlete. If I shot in Auto, AV or TV my subject would have been way too underexposed. With the technique I’ll explain, as long as the same amount of light  hitting the subject is the same, the exposure will come out right. The photographer and subject are free to move. The background can change dramatically from dark trees to direct sun light, as in this shot..
  2. I don’t have all day. Even in a stationary shot, to use AV or TV, I would have to make an exposure compensation to get the subject exposed correctly, for example EV +2. This way takes longer, is harder to get right and has to be adjusted each time anything changes.

When Dionne Warwick was handing out psychic abilities she forgot to give them to your camera. It does not know what part of the picture you care about. It tries, and the technology is getting better and better, but ends up messing up most the time. Hey, that’s what Instagram is for right?

My 5 second fool proof* technique for perfect exposure

Start in M mode

    1. Hold you hand out in front of you so that the light on your hand is about the same as your subjects will have. Try to have your hand fill the frame. Focus doesn’t matter.
    2. Twist knobs until exposure is at *zero.
    3. Take a picture.
    4. Look at your *histogram. Make sure nothing looks clipped and try to get them to favor the right.

I wish I could make it harder. For this simplified technique it really isn’t though. I hope you aren’t disappointed. I’ve shot thousands of pictures of all types of subjects with this; kids playing on playground, dogs running in a backyard, even bald eagles swooping above me in the sky.

Twisting those knobs

The order in which you twist them depends on what you are going for and how much you know about what you’re doing. For me it’s usually;

  1. ISO -200
  2. Aperture- as desired for the needed Depth of Focus range to get the subject(s) in focus and to cause desired background blur (bokeh) to draw attention to the subject.
  3. Shutter speed- to get exposure at *zero while considering; focal length thumb-rule (adjusted for IS). Also it could be limits of flash sync speed, creative effects.

This assumes you know what Aperture, Shutter speed, and ISO do. If you don’t know what you are doing it doesn’t limit this technique for getting exposure correct. Just spin those knobs until it says *zero and go. Over time you’ll notice some negative consequences of bad shutter speed, aperture and ISO choices. As you learn the terms and what they do you’ll see why, how to prevent them, and how to use them to create something beautiful.

I address what to do with White Balance in this article.

I won’t cheat

I won’t cheat when the amount of light on my subject was changing too quick to use this technique between shots. It’s all about amount of light on the subject. I’d probably switch over to AV at this point and pay close attention to the light off the subject. I say off the subject to anticipate your camera sensor being fooled.

Thats it.

Now your camera is set so to be a tool so that you can focus solely on placing the camera, tweaking the composition, watching light, getting the subject to look magical, and then timing the shot.

Tell other people Manual is actually cheating and is easier then auto, Aperture or shutter priority.

*Disclaimer for those really getting serious with this craft

I don’t want to hide the truth from you all. This technique is not perfect. It’s for from it. It’s limited by the technique and the technology in the camera.

  1. The first step has a flaw. You skin is not the 18% grey tone the camera needs to register 0 exposure. This means using this technique will make you off by as much as an exposure at the beginning. I tested this for myself and know that if I aim for EV +1 I’m better off.
  2. The camera’s internal light meter is a Reflected-light meter. It will still be fooled by portions of the scene that you hand does not cover. This is why it’s important to fill the frame with your hand. Both these issues make the histogram portion of the technique crucial.
  3. The camera’s histogram is actually showing you tones from the JPEG preview, not your RAW. It approximates the RAW histogram but the RAW pixels will have a wider tonal range. The in camera histogram is not the best tool to use but is crucial to my method. That means this method is not the best. It means you may, in the field, think you are clipping a shot but you aren’t. How can you adjust for this? You won’t know if the clipping is being avoided. You won’t know without tethering and seeing the RAW histogram.

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 10.56.29 PM Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 10.55.43 PM

The camera has weaknesses

Well there is a technique that is not hindered by these limits. The technology is called an Incident-light meter. If you add that to your workflow you will get a better exposure then this method. My article is for those with no access to a light meter.

This technique is the best  and quickest way to get exposure right.



  1. Dale Hall · · Reply

    Ok using TV (canon speak) or Shutter Priority (Nikon speak) is not a manual mode! The camera is still very much in control. Camera computer systems are just computers. In other words the camera does not “know” what you are trying to do.

    This is why it is imporant to learn how to shoot in RAW file format. Again this is just a file format; just like jpeg. The article is correct in that the camera computer averages out the beauty of each shot so that the shots are average looking shots.

    In true manual mode things get interesting and amazing! By learning to set your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed you can control your camera and get the shot you want with the effects you are looking for. Remember you are shooting in RAW. So, if your ISO is off by just a little bit you retain control of your shots.


  2. As a Newbie, I am always searching online for articles that can aid me. Thank you


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