6 Reasons Why You Should Learn Manual Mode in Photography

a fall scene around an lake in the mountains
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It has been about 6 years since I taught myself how to shoot in manual mode on my first DSLR.

I struggled for a couple of years after that before I felt like I really had it down.

Now it is like second nature to me, but for awhile I thought I would NEVER get there.

I would read tons of tutorials, watch videos and even took a couple of classes before I learned it.

Why would I spend all of that time and energy learning this skill?

I wanted to. . .

  1. be a professional photographer
  2. learn how to use my new camera to its fullest
  3. be able to take control of my photos
  4. learn to take pictures of people with blurry backgrounds
  5. learn to use the light I had without the flash
  6. be able to shoot in RAW to edit however I wanted

Couldn’t I do all of these things with a smart phone?

Then, no. I had a flip phone back then and the pictures were TERRIBLE.

Now, maybe. My iPhone 8Plus takes pretty good pictures.

But a iPhone doesn’t replace a DSLR. I discussed my opinion on the subject in this post—> 6 Reasons the DSLR Isn’t Dead (From an iPhone User)

And if you want to use your DSLR to the fullest, you need to get out of auto mode and move over to manual.

So let’s break this idea down to see just exactly how manual mode can help me achieve this list above.

6 Reasons Why You Should Learn Manual Mode

To Take Control of Your Exposure

a fall scene around an lake in the mountains

A DSLR is a complicated tool with many functions. When you are shooting in auto mode, you are only scratching the surface of what this tool can do.

When you go into manual mode, you can control the exposure triangle (ISO, Shutterspeed and Depth of Field). These are key components to any photograph. You don’t want the computer to guess these things for you. You want to control them yourself for every photo.

I discuss more about the exposure triangle in this post—> Exposure Triangle Basics for Shooting in Manual Mode

I love this photo I took in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado on a fall afternoon. Because I chose my own settings, I was able to capture this beautiful day in all its glory.

To Take Control of Your Available Light

sunset in hawaii

When you are in auto mode, the camera uses the light available and determines if it is enough to take a proper picture. If it is dark outside or indoors, the camera will kick on the flash to boost the light.

But the on camera flash makes photos harsh and leaves dark shadows behind the subjects. It isn’t flattering at all. You want to avoid the on camera flash at all costs.

But by using the manual settings, you can use your available light to your advantage. This helps you produce a soft, manageable light that makes for great pictures.

Sunsets are almost impossible to capture properly in auto mode. I took this one on North Beach of Oahu, Hawaii a few years ago.

To Take Control of Your Focus

a close up shot of a boy with a green shirt on

Focus is a key element of a good photo. It draws in the viewer and lets them know what you think is the most important.

Now, obviously, you can nail focus in auto mode. But to really get the focus you want, you need to use Shutterspeed and Depth of Field to make it pop.

For instance, if you are taking a photo of a small lizard on the ground, you want to choose your focus carefully to make sure it can be seen among everything else going on in the photo. You could use a high shutter speed and small depth of field to isolate the lizard from the background and make it the subject. If you shoot in auto mode, everything would be in focus and your subject would be lost.

I took this picture of my son a few years ago (he is 15 now). I wanted to focus close up on his face just the way it was in that moment. I especially wanted to focus on his beautiful eyes, long eyelashes and cute freckles. I did this by using a wider aperture and letting everything in the background just fade away.

To Take Control of Your Vision

light trails in the city under the subway station

Anyone can pick up a point and shoot camera and take a photo. My kids do it all the time. But to really craft a piece of art, you need to have a vision.

That vision may include a subject with a blurry background, star trails in the night sky, or a silky smooth waterfall. All of these visions will need to have custom settings using manual mode to make them happen.

Once you learn manual mode, you will be able to consistently and thoughtfully be able to share your vision of the world around you through photography.

Vision in photography moves your photo from okay to awesome. It may even have people asking, “How did you do that?”

In the stock picture above, the photographer used their vision (and long exposure) to create the light trails of the city and subway system you see here. In auto mode, this would have looked just like a normal city street without the wow factor.

To Take Control of Motion

a silky smooth waterfall

Do you want to freeze time in your photo? Increase your shutter speed.

Do you want to shoot a light trail on a freeway full of cars? Decrease your shutter speed.

By evaluating how you want your photo to look and then changing your settings accordingly, you can take control of the motion in your photos.

The difference between a waterfall with choppy water or smooth water? Shutter speed. That is why you need to learn how to shoot in manual mode.

In this stock photo, the photographer used a long exposure to get the silky smooth water of the waterfall in motion.

To Take Control of Your Editing

an HDR shot of a green forest

Editing is the last step in making a good photo great.

You can’t save a terrible photo with editing. The picture needs to be fairly decent to start with, and editing in software like Lightroom or Photoshop can bring it to the next level.

This is where a DSLR comes in. You need to be shooting in RAW, not Jpeg. This gives you the ultimate control over your image. And while you can shoot in RAW in auto mode, the more you know about your camera settings, the more you can manipulate them in post processing to get the look you want.

In the stock photo above, the photographer used several RAW files and compiled them together for this HDR (high dynamic range) shot that could not have been shot with auto mode.

As you can see, shooting in manual mode is all about control. Controlling your camera so you can control your photo so you can control the final product. Auto mode will never give you that level of control of your photography.

Action Steps:

  1. Get a DSLR camera (even if you have an iPhone).
  2. Learn how to shoot in manual.
  3. Practice, practice, practice until it becomes second nature.

Are you lost on where to start with manual? We are going to be starting a series every other week for several months to help you learn all you need to know to make manual shooting part of your workflow.

Edited: I have a blog series about shooting in manual mode. If you want to find out more, start with this post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: Holding Your Camera.

Until then, what has been the hardest part of manual mode for you? Please let us know in the comments below. And if you found this post helpful, please share. Thanks!


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