There is no snobbery in knowing your settings, what they mean or how to use them. Yet there is plenty of snobbery between those who do know and those who do not. Let us remove the snobbery and try to understand why we should be aiming to use our camera in Manual Mode. Firstly it is the mark of a professional and knowing how to use the tools of your trade to their full potential will give you very many more creative options and control. One of the most powerful tools within our creative toolbox is your mind and artistic vision.
Herein lays one of the fundamental problems. Our creative vision is only taken so far when we use our cameras in an automatic mode such as full auto, aperture or shutter priority. Why? Because the camera is deciding the final action for you. The exposure. Of course there is a place for the auto modes, Aperture Priority especially and I use this mode on a few select occasions.
So why Manual Mode?
To understand why allowing the camera the final say in the exposure is not great, let us carry out a quick exercise.
Go and get yourself two pieces of paper, one white and one black. Tape them together along the longest edge and pin it onto a wall where there is a constant and consistent light, one that is not going to be changing intensity or direction every few minutes.
Next compose your camera on a tripod filling the whole frame with the taped together paper with one half of the frame white, the other black. Select an automatic mode such as Aperture Priority with whatever number you wish and then press the shutter button to take the photograph. Check out the result on your computer!
For those who want to just get on with it, I have done it for you!
The paper most certainly was black and white but what is the final image showing?
You will notice that the black is more a muddy brown and the white is more grey like yet this is what the camera has chosen as an exposure for me. It is true that when faced with such extremes of contrast between black and white, the camera and final image will always struggle however if the camera is doing this here, it is doing it on every photograph you take. It is simply taking an average photograph.
Why does it do this? Because handheld light meters or those within the camera (through the lens metering TTL) are all calibrated to 18% grey, if you want to know the history of why and how go and read Ansel Adams excellent books The Camera – The Negative – The Print (all highly recommend). What you need to know right now is that the camera does do that and more importantly what this means practically.
Also pay attention to the exposure settings - 1/60 at f4 iso 400
Taking Greater Control
So what can we do about this problem? Well we can use handheld light meters for a start.
When we use the meter within the camera we are taking a reflective light reading, one whereby the light is reflected from the subject into our camera. With a handheld meter we can take an “incident” reading whereby we record the light that is falling on to the subject in the first place.
Reflective = Recording of light being reflected from the subject
Incident = Recording of light that is falling onto the subject
Carrying on with the same exercise, I immediately took an incident light meter reading with a handheld light meter with the same lighting conditions and composition as before. Below is the result.
What do you notice now?
Well there is still a lot of grey in the image! Why? Because all light meters are calibrated to 18% grey no matter how you measure the light!
You will also notice that the settings are different. The aperture and ISO are the same yet the shutter speed is different. Two stops difference in fact yet the light within the room didn't change!
So what are we supposed to do with “average” problem?
Fortunately there was a great photographer who devised a system. Like any system it can be used and interpreted in different ways however what is important is that it allows you to achieve your visualisation of your image the way you intend it to be. That could be overexposed, underexposed or however you wish! What is a “correct” exposure is a matter of opinion (I dare you to Google that question), what is the correct exposure is entirely what you intended it to be.
This is going to be important when you are shooting into a backlight and wanting to achieve a high key image, or equally if you wanted to create a moody and brooding abstract bodyscape you are going to NEED to use manual and the Zone System.
Using an automatic mode is ultimately going to work in a lot of situations however there are going to many other situations where it is only going to give you an average image and if you had taken control, you could have achieved potentially an EXCELLENT image. To take full control of how the light is used by your camera (and remember light is fundamentally the most important aspect within photography- no light no photo) than you MUST use manual settings by selecting your aperture, shutter speed and ISO. How the light is measured also has an effect on the final image whether that is reflective, incident or spot metering.
The Next Stage
By using the Zone system in conjunction with spot metering, you will gain maximum control of your images. The Zone System can at first seem very daunting but once you know how to apply it in your own practical way, it is a game changer.
Next Step - Easy and Practical Zone System (coming soon)
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