Manual Mode – Overcoming the Intimidation

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When I first purchased my Canon Digital Rebel, a little over two years ago, it represented a significant step up from the point-and-shoot model that I owned previously. As a novice to photography, I was content to use the automated settings on the dial. For months I shot in Program Mode, which set the shutter speed and aperture for me. Or, I used the settings for portraits, landscapes, action shots, and the like. I felt accomplished when I figured out how to change the ISO settings (the principles of which I understood, basically, from my old film camera days). I left the White Balance setting completely alone, on “auto”.


All the while, that “M” on the dial, with its cohorts Av (aperture priority) and Tv (shutter priority) lay dormant on the dial, mocking me every time I looked at them. “You should have stuck with the point-and-shoot,” they seemed to say. “You’re not using a fraction of your camera’s capabilities.”

And I certainly knew it. I knew this treasure of a camera had a whole selection of photographic capabilities of which I had yet to avail myself. I knew I had only an inkling of an understanding of the flexibility that this camera had to offer me. It was like having the key to an undiscovered world – one that would make my photographs better, more captivating, stronger – all I had to do was figure out how to unlock the door.

I started, as any good camera owner would, with the manual. The instruction manual that accompanied my camera was heavy on how to change the settings, but light on the theory behind what the settings can do for an image. So, I turned to my tried-and-true, go-to guide, the Internet. I muddled my way through gaining a basic understanding of apertures and shutter speeds, focal lengths and exposures. I taught myself some tricks, such as the smaller the aperture, the more blurry the background of my subject. The bigger the aperture, the more in focus the entire shot will be.


It was a long, long while before the term “bokeh” ever entered my vocabulary.

I abandoned the “why” of the theories, and just taught myself the “how”. I would take a shot in Program Mode, and then look at the file data to see what aperture and shutter speed the camera chose for that shot. Then I’d set the camera to Manual mode and duplicate the settings until I got adept at making the required changes. I’m ashamed to admit, it took me ages to stumble upon how to use the meter. Far longer than I care to admit, here. Who knew that when the arrow is centered between the -2 and the +2, that the shot will be properly exposed? Subsequently, I took hundreds of under- and over-exposed shots, adjusting and tweaking the aperture and shutter speed each time, until I came up with the combination that worked. Until, one day, I thought, “There’s GOT to be an easier way to do this.” And lo, my eyes looked down and suddenly noticed the meter, as I was gazing into the lens, and the thought popped into my mind, “Huh. I wonder what that’s for.”

Eventually, gradually, my understanding grew. Through trial and error, a handful of excellent websites, and a couple of invaluable photography books, I built upon my knowledge and experience. I took three hundred pictures of my cats, testing exposure. I bought flowers and practiced macro shots. I got a tripod and took shots of the moon with a remote shutter. I practiced and practiced and practiced some more, so that when the day came that I needed to handle my camera with expertise in order to capture a photographic opportunity, I would be ready.

It takes a certain amount of courage to leap from the comfortable known, to the intimidating unknown. In a creative venue such as photography, that leap can be all the more frustrating because you can see in your mind’s eye the image that you want to capture, but may lack the understanding and ability to successfully do so. I’m here to tell you that if I can do it, anyone can. Start slowly, and practice a lot on the shots you don’t need before you’re faced with the shots that you MUST have. Dedicate a few helpful tips to memory, those items that are your particular sticking points. And above and beyond everything else, remember to have fun.

Because that, after all, is the point.

Written By Laura Charon from snerkology

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