By using the manual mode on your camera you can create good pictures.  (John Enman photo)

Making Pictures With Professional Photographer John Enman

Manual mode gives the photographer control over the camera’s shutter and aperture

This past week I received a text from a photographer that was having a problem understanding his new DSLR. A well-meaning friend had told him that he has to learn to use his camera on Manual mode if he wants to take good pictures.

I understood where his friend was trying to take him, but a DSLR or a mirrorless camera can capture good images in almost any mode. Of course, the photographer should be using/choosing a particular mode after learning how each mode operates.

I told him what each of his Nikon modes; Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority would do and told him to try each. However, he was fixed on using Manual mode so I searched out an article I wrote last February and selected a few of the highlights to help him on his way.

For those that didn’t read that article and are interested in Manual mode here it is again.

Manual mode gives the photographer control over both the camera’s shutter and aperture.

When the photographer selects Aperture priority he relies on the camera to select the best shutter speed. Or when selecting Shutter priority on the camera he will depend on the camera to chose the Aperture.

There are times when all one is interested in is stopping a fast moving subject and Shutter priority is a good choice, but for controlling the depth of field around a subject Aperture priority would be a much better choice. However, there are lighting conditions conditions and locations when it’s best not to leave that decision to the camera’s computer.

The shutter controls how long the light reaches the sensor and by increasing or decreasing it’s opening one can allow more or less light to reach the sensor.

For those that have never used anything but Program modes I suggest experimenting by making test shots in different lighting.

To expand on that here is an example from when I used to photographed weddings. My two main subjects usually were, one person wearing black and one person wearing white.

If I aimed my cameras’ meter at the black coat the white dress could be overexposed and if I used the white subject for my exposure the black would probably be underexposed.

I wanted to see some detail in both. The solution was to use Manual mode and select an exposure about halfway between (actually closer to 2/3rds on the highlight side). A good rule-of-thumb that one could use is, “Black is about two stops underexposure, and white is about two stops overexposure” (That isn’t exact, but close enough to work with most of the time)

For those that remember film, digital cameras handle highlights and shadows differently than film cameras. For film cameras, experts would advise us to expose for the shadows and let the highlights fall where they will.

Film has an exposure range that has a gradual response in highlight and shadow areas, and it is usually possible to find detail in the highlights, however shadow detail was always a problem.

Digital cameras usually record an amazing amount of detail in the shadows, but once overexposed the detail is gone forever. Digital sensors are great until they reach the maximum value of that tonal range. When that happens (the digital term is called “clipping”) the detail can be lost with over exposure or becomes very noisy with under exposure. We want to record detail in both the shadow and the highlight areas.

To do this one needs to retain control over the exposure, and using a program mode doesn’t always give enough control, however using the Manual mode does.

My advice is always to start using the camera’s Manual mode after testing the A & S modes. (AV & TV on Canon cameras) After some practice Manual mode shouldn’t be something that slows one down, it should be a way of using the camera that helps a photographer understand and control light and shadow.

Stay safe and be creative.

These are my thoughts for this week. Contact me at or

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