Friday, April 14, 2017

In Defense of Manual Settings

Death Valley
Canon 6D, 14mm, manual focus, manual everything

It occurred to me that I wrote many paragraphs about the right time to adjust camera aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so you're ready to take that quick snapshot when the moment happens. Now, some people might point out there's a big red "A" on the camera that lets its little computer take care of all that for you. In fact most people will prefer to keep a camera - or camera phone - in auto mode so they're always ready.

I don't want to take pictures like most people.

Two things. One, this is a hobby, and the point of a hobby is to have more to do, not less. Second, the camera will always try to give you a perfect middle-of-the-road exposure, and that's boring. Take this picture of a hiker on a trail, washed out by sunlight and beautiful (at least I think so). A camera in auto settings would not take this picture, the camera's computer would make sure it's properly exposed. But I'm not a computer. The truth is I only got this look because I couldn't keep up with the changing conditions moving from the dark woods to bright sunlight. This picture is over-exposed, by a lot. When I got home and started developing, I found this was one of my favorites. This one goes on the blog, this one gets the Instagram likes, while many other perfectly exposed pictures simply don't. Sure, this happened pretty much by accident, but happy accidents happen, that's where the magic is.

Shooting in auto mode will ensure that most, likely all of your pictures will be nicely exposed, not too bright not too dark. In manual mode there's a higher rate of badly exposed pictures but also a few that come out just stunning. I get a higher "keeper" rate in auto mode, but I find my very best photos are shot in manual mode. And I'd rather have a few spectacular photos than a lot of mediocre ones.

I do use auto mode sometimes. When I'm doing this, for example.

This was a glacier hike in Iceland. it was raining, lightly but constantly, and hailing occasionally. It was cold. My camera was in its storm bag, in aperture priority mode at f/8 and daylight white balance. When I saw a chance to take a picture, for example as our group was going up this steep hill, I wanted to be quick. Take out the camera, snap the picture, towel it off, and put it back. I couldn't walk on ice and shoot pictures at the same time so I had to stop, stand still with crampons embedded firm-footingly in the ice, and you can see the guide at the top of the glacier looking back at me, waiting. Not shown, people behind me also waiting. So in this situation I decided it was best to set it and forget it, or in camera parlance, "f/8 and forget it," so I could concentrate on walking on ice and protecting my camera from the rain.

Manual mode is obviously used for landscape photography when you can take the time to set everything up right. But vacation photos, capturing the beautiful chaos of a family trip? Yeah, they'll look fine in auto mode, they'll look realistic, perfectly adequate, and people will say hey look there you are in that place you went. But will they be artistic? Will they wow? Do you even know what kind of "look" you want? If I know the shutter speed I know if I 'm going to freeze or blur the motion. Aperture setting? Do I want depth of field or a defocused background to make my subject stand out? ISO? What is the right ISO to get enough light sensitivity without too much noise? Or do I want noise, that grainy film look? You can use a camera phone or put your expensive DSLR in auto mode and not worry about any of that. Personally, I'd rather worry about all of that. Like I said, it's a hobby, something to do.

I'll be honest, manual mode is a lot to juggle and you'll spend a lot of time fiddling at first, you'll forget to change the settings, you'll ruin some pictures as you move up the learning curve. But trust me, you'll get better and better until you're shooting so fast your friends will assume you're shooting in auto mode like everyone else. Until they see the results. I think the best compliment is the question, Did you really take that picture yourself?

Yes I did. It was me, not a computer.

No comments:

Post a Comment