Do ‘real’ photographers shoot in Manual?

Do Real Photographers Shoot in Manual?One question I get asked again and again by photographers, is whether they should be shooting in manual?

In many cases, their friends have advised them that in order to become ‘real’ photographers they need to come out of all the other various auto modes (particularly Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority) and learn to use the camera properly.

Manual mode is what professionals use and it gives you greater creative control over your images.

When you shoot in manual, there’s a sense of having achieved the heady-heights of Jedi-Photographer, it’s on a higher plain of existence than lesser mortals.  It’s a photography-nirvana, where all things become known and other photographers hold you in awe.

Let’s be honest, unless you shoot in manual, your photos will never be amazing.  You’re always be at the mercy of the camera’s algorithms as it calculates the exposure for you.

In aperture priority, you choose the aperture and the camera chooses the shutter speed for you.  Yes, the camera chooses it… not you.  How can you genuinely argue that the photo is of your making?  The camera has done all the work.

Its the same process in shutter priority.  You select the shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture.  C’mon, where’s the skill in that?

You might as well let your iPhone take the photo!!

Wedding-Freestone.-Phone-shot-2.jpg

Reality check

Some people actually believe this crap!

If there’s one thing that bugs me about the world of photography, it’s the never-ending waffle I hear from self-opinionated photographers with dogmatic views.

Here’s a few that I often hear in Facebook groups and on-line photography forums:

  • Never shoot in jpg, you should always shoot in RAW
  • Street photography photos should never be edited or even cropped
  • Black and white is better than colour
  • Primes are better than zoom lenses
  • Nikon is better than Canon
  • Canon is better than Nikon
  • Sony is better than everything
  • Crop sensor cameras are rubbish
  • Natural light is better than flash
  • Never shoot in auto ISO
  • In-body-image-stabilisation (IBIS) is absolutely essential
  • Real photographers don’t edit their photos, they get it right in the camera
  • Real photographers don’t take photos on their phones
  • Face detection is for dummies
  • Auto focusing is for dummies
  • Film is better than digital (yes, I still hear that)

This list is not exhaustive (sadly).

Many of these opinions are passionately felt and argued… and I often despair at the ferocity of the arguments.

Here’s a thought.  Photography is an art form

Would anyone disagree with that?

Photography is a creative medium that allows us to capture and create images in almost any style we wish.

Subscribing to someone’s dogmatic viewpoint about image composition, construction and tools used (ie: which camera, flash, filters, editing techniques, etc) would simply limit our own means of expression.

Not only that, what gives any one individual the right to dictate our choices for us?  Everyone has the right to their opinions, but no one has the right to impose them upon us?

BatMan & robin.jpg

Getting back to shooting in manual

I am always disappointed when students come in saying they were told they should be shooting in manual.

I would be equally disappointed if they were told they should be shooting in any other mode.  Different situations often call for different solutions.  Horses for courses. Sometimes manual is best, other times aperture priority or shutter priority are better suited.

In manual you make decisions about the exposure based on what the camera is telling you in the viewfinder readout.  So, if the camera suggests you take the photo at f/4 and 1/250th sec, that’s what you do.

In aperture priority, the settings won’t be any different – they just get done for you by the camera, and a lot quicker (with less chance of missing the shot).

Coping with difficult lighting

Some will argue that shooting in manual makes it easier when photographing in unusual lighting situations.  You can choose to over or under expose the image if you wish.

That’s precisely why camera manufacturers give you an ‘exposure compensation‘ dial to let you under or over-expose when you’re shooting in aperture or shutter priority modes.

Most cameras these days will allow you to increase or decrease exposure by +/- 5 stops.  More than enough for most situations.  And what if you need more?  On those extremely rare occasions, shoot it in manual!

There are some shooting situations that are genuinely better suited to manual though.

In wildlife photography, imagine a bird flying left to right.  First with trees behind it and then open sky, and then back to more trees.   Getting the exposure locked in manual beforehand, means the bird will be correctly exposed, regardless of its background.

Try shooting that in one of the priority modes and the camera will likely render the bird  as a silhouette against the open sky.

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 14.21.48

Red Kite, shot in manual. 400mm lens, f/5.6, 1/1500 second, ISO 400

With flash, shooting dynamically moving subjects on the fly, perhaps at an event or party, I prefer to set the camera to manual and the flash to ETTL.  That way I can choose exactly the aperture and the shutter speed I want, and let the flash & camera talk to each other to regulate the flash power output.  (On-camera mounted speedlight)

As a personal rule, with my Canon DSLRs, I tend to shoot aperture priority most of the time.

With my Fuji mirrorless cameras however, I find shooting in manual gives me more flexibility.  I can see the results in the electronic viewfinder and make an instant decision about my settings.  The controls fit comfortably in my hand with the aperture controlled via a ring on the lens barrel and the shutter speed via a dial on the top plate.

But here’s the thing.  No two situations are the same and I will readily switch into any mode that I think will give me the shot I want.

At a wedding reception, when some guests are sat against large bright windows and others are sat in dark corners, I can easily switch between aperture priority and manual, as appropriate.  Or I might stay in aperture priority with my thumb continually whirring the exposure compensation dial.

It’s WHATEVER WORKS.

So the next time someone tells you that you should be shooting in manual, I hope you’ll be able to tell him (and it will be a bloke, ladies are far more chilled) that no one method is the best for all situations.   Tell him you are a free-thinking creative individual who will use whatever tools are best suited for the job.

Blimey, there might even be the odd occasion when you might want to shoot in auto!


I would love to hear your views, and you are of course allowed to completely disagree with me

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Kevin Ahronson

Kevin is a full-time professional photographer and has been teaching photography since 2009. He founded the Hampshire School of Photography where he runs photography workshops and gives one to one mentoring to photographers at all levels, from complete beginners through to those who want to turn professional

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9 Responses

  1. Baldy says:

    f/8 and be there 😉😁

  2. Simon Smith says:

    Mark Seymour who spoke at Yateley CC this week, (really really good, you should have gone!) is a minimalist photographer. He almost exclusively uses a Nikon D850 with a 35mm prime. That’s it. He back button focuses, but sets his camera to f/4 and 1/250 and burst mode. He will set the ISO to what ever is appropriate in the circumstances and that’s it. A stop or two either way can be recovered from Lightroom

    Mark specialises in street photography the world over and his absolute requirement is for instant response. He is also one of the country’s top wedding photographers who specialises in documentary style photography and definitely doesn’t go in for the traditional formal. Again he uses his f/4 and 1/250th setting, but has been known to use a 28mm and/or 50mm lens too!!

    • Kevin Ahronson says:

      A perfect illustration of someone who has their own individual way of working.

      It may not suit everyone, but it works well for him. And that’s all that matters.

  3. ozonenut says:

    I almost always shoot in Aperture priority, varying the aperture depending on what I’m concentrating on – the detail or the bigger picture. I’ll also often tell the camera to underexpose, because I know it wants to grab All The Light, which is often not the look I want, and indeed can make something else go wrong. The only times I go fully manual are when I want a long exposure and want to be in control of all the variables, for example moving water, night sky, fireworks.

    • Kevin Ahronson says:

      When you’re underexposing, to keep the highlights, what would you typically crank it down by? Do you find it varies quite a lot, or do you find you can relably do the same for most shots?

      • ozonenut says:

        On a normal day, normal shot, I always under-expose by 1/3. If I’m under-exposing because I don’t want the shutter open for longer than I can hold the camera still, then anything from -2/3 to -1 1/3. If, despite the under-exposure, I’ve blown out the highlights, I’ll fix that in lightroom.

      • Kevin Ahronson says:

        Thanks, I’m constantly fascinated by everyone’s personal techniques. I’ve often heard it said that Canon cameras slightly under-expose on purpose, to help with highlights. What make of camera do you use?

  4. Phil Hutton says:

    Best tool for the job, I like manual with auto iso if I don’t know the environment for each photo as I can control all three with the shutter & aperture controls. But aperture or shutter priority also work well if they are the most important control, like if you must have a narrow depth of field, or moving targets if you need a fast shutter speed and low ISO and let the camera sort out the aperture. And if I have no idea and not enough time to fiddle about I use auto (cameras are pretty clever these days), if the most important thing is I get a usable photo in unrepeatable situations.

    • Kevin Ahronson says:

      Hi Phil. You echo my thoughts. The situation dictates the solution. And of course, often there is more than one solution, more than one way to acheive the desired result.

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