Working in Manual Mode Re-Visited « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Working in Manual Mode Re-Visited

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Hopefully, I am somewhere in Namibia feeling well and having fun.

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This Bald Eagle juxtaposition image was created from a rocking boat in Alaska with the Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens, the 1.4X III TC, and the long-ago Canon EOS-1D Mark IV (now replaced by the Canon EOS-1D X. ISO 400: 1/1250 sec. at f/8 in Manual mode.

In the above situation with a large black and white bird occupying a good portion of the frame it is imperative to figure out the correct exposure in advance by doing a histogram check: make sure that you have data well into the rightmost box of the histogram without any blinkies on the bird’s head. Work in manual mode and go darker or lighter as needed by adjust either the shutter speed or the aperture. Once you determine the correct exposure set it and forget it until the light changes. You do not need to worry about how much black and how much white occupies the frame. You do not need to worry about the background tonality. You have determined the correct exposure for the bright whites and that exposure will remains correct as long as the light does not change. Your exposure will not be thrown off if there is more black in the frame one moment and more white the next. To learn exposure theory study the chapter on exposure in the original The Art of Bird Photography; it is the great strength of a book that has sold more than 35,000 copies and laid the foundation for many of today’s great bird photographers.

Working in Manual Mode Re-visited: April, 2016

Though I still work in other exposure modes on occasion, and made 100% of my Kolmanskop images in Av mode, I have, for the past few years, been working in Manual Mode most of the time. Today I’d say that I work in Manual mode about 85% of the time, Av mode about 10% of the time, Tv about 4% of the time (when creating pleasing blurs), and Program mode (when working a family party with flash, and very rarely when using fill flash for songbirds) about 1% of the time.

If you are scared of working in Manual mode–many folks are for no reason at all–you need to study the info below and learn to become competent in it.

Here is an excerpt adapted from from The Art of Bird Photography II (ABP II: 916 pages on CD only) for those who need help with working in Manual mode.

Working in Manual Mode

Many professional and serious amateur photographers work in Manual mode most of the time. I occasionally work in Av mode with exposure compensation in situations were the subject size and the background tonality are relatively constant. When the background tonality is changing from moment to moment but the light is constant, it is always best to work in Manual mode. In either case, I rely 100% on Evaluative Metering. Here are some examples of rapidly changing backgrounds: a shorebird on a rock along the edge of the ocean with waves breaking behind it. Birds flying against a blue sky with occasional white clouds. Cranes flying by in front of a variety of backgrounds that might include sky, mountains, yellowed grasses, or water.
As many folks are confused as to how to work in or set exposure compensation when working in Manual mode, I offer the following basic tutorial.

#1: When you work in Manual mode you select and set the shutter speed and you select and set the aperture. With my Canon cameras the default has you changing the shutter speed with your index finger dial and the aperture with the thumb wheel. Please note: there is no exposure compensation per say when you are working in Manual mode. You determine the exposure level (+1 stop or -1/3 stop, for example), by looking at the analog exposure scale in the viewfinder as detailed below.

#2: After selecting Manual mode, point your camera at a scene or stationary subject and lock your tripod head so the framing remains constant. Next select and set the desired aperture. Then adjust the shutter speed until the analog scale in the viewfinder nulls out to zero. With Canon pro bodies this scale is laid out vertically along the right side of the viewfinder display (when you are working in horizontal format). With many of the pro-sumer bodies the analog scale is laid out horizontally at the bottom of the viewfinder display. The zero or null indicator is at the center of the analog scale. The three full stops above the null symbol (marked in 1/3-stop increments) indicate overexposure. The three full stops below the null symbol (also marked in 1/3-stop increments) indicate underexposure. If you change the aperture and you do not see the small square moving, check either the top or the bottom of the analog scale. You will note a small triangle at the top (or right) if you are way overexposed or a small triangle at the bottom (or the left) if you are way underexposed. If the former, rotate the dial and choose faster shutter speeds, if the latter, choose slower shutter speeds. In either case, you will soon see the small square moving up or down the analog scale. At first, you will simply want to practice nulling the meter, that is, getting the small square to rest on the null symbol. This indicates that you have now set the metered exposure (as determined by the camera’s Evaluative Metering system.

#3: As above, when you work in Manual mode it is not possible to set exposure compensation. To come up with the exposure that you want, simply change the aperture or shutter speed as above until the small square indicates the amount of over- or under-exposure that you desire. If you wish to work at +2 stops, you need adjust either the shutter speed or the aperture until the small square rests on the symbol that is two full stops above the null symbol. If you wish to underexpose by 1/3 stop, you need adjust either the shutter speed or the aperture until the small square rests on the symbol that lies just below the null symbol.

With a bit of practice you should quickly become comfortable whenever the need to work in Manual mode arises. Do note that with lots of Black Skimmers that the Nickerson Beach IPT is a great place to learn how to work in Manual mode. See below for details


From upper left clockwise to center: Black Skimmer head portrait, American Oystercatcher dining on surf clam flesh, Common Tern at sunset, Common Tern adult swallowing flatfish, Black Skimmer in flight, newborn Common Tern chick, American Oystercatcher with chick, fresh juvenile Common Tern (with fill flash), and Common Terns copulating.

Nickerson Beach Terns/Skimmers/Oystercatchers Instructional Photo-Tour (IPT): July 18-22, 2016. 4 1/2 DAYS: $1899

Meet and greet at 3pm on the afternoon of Monday, July 18. Limit 10.

The primary subject species of this IPT will be the nesting Common Terns. The trip is timed so that we will get to photograph tiny chicks as well as fledglings. There will be lots of flight photography including adults flying with baitfish. Creating great images of the chicks being fed is a huge challenge. In addition to the terns we will get to photograph lots of Black Skimmers courting, setting up their nesting territories, and in flight (both singles and large pre-dawn flocks blasting off). Midair battles are guaranteed on sunny afternoons. And with luck, we might even see a few tiny chicks toward the end of the trip. We will also get to photograph the life cycle of American Oystercatcher. This will likely include nests with eggs and tiny chicks, young being fed, and possibly a few fledglings.

Nesting Piping Plover is also possibly. There will be lots of gulls to photograph; most years I am able to find a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls of varying ages in addition to the Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed Gulls. You will learn to identify and age the various gull species. There will likely be some Willets feeding along the surf and with luck we might get to photograph a handsome juvenile or two. In addition to the locally breeding shorebirds, we will likely get to see some southbound migrant arctic-and sub-arctic breeding shorebird species such as Sanderling, Semipalmated Plover, and maybe even Red Knot.


From upper left clockwise to center: Black Skimmers with tiny chick, Common Tern landing with baitfish for young, fledged Common Tern chick in dunes, American Oystercatchers/display flight, adult Common Tern with pipefish for chick, Common Tern fledgling in soft light, American Oystercatcher on nest with eggs, American Oystercatcher 3-egg clutch, battling Black Skimmers.

The IPT Logistics

The tour will begin with a meet and greet on the afternoon of Monday, July 18, 2016. That will be followed by our first shooting session at the beach. From Tuesday through and including all of Friday we will have two photography sessions daily. Our morning sessions will start very early so that we are on the beach well before sunrise. We usually photograph for about four hours. Then we will enjoy a group brunch. We will always have a midday break that will include a nap for me. That followed by our daily afternoon classroom sessions that will include image review, workflow and Photoshop, and a review/critique of five of your trip images. Folks are always invited to bring their laptops to brunch for image sharing. I always have mine with me but heck, I am a big show-off. Afternoon in-the-field sessions generally run from 5pm through sunset.

Breakfasts are grab what you can. Four brunches are included. Dinners (if at all) will be on your own as we will often get back to the hotel at about 9pm. There is a fridge in every room and a supermarket within walking distance of the hotel so nobody should starve. You will learn a ton during the nine shooting sessions, the four in-classroom sessions, and even at lunch. Early morning and late afternoon parking is free. If we want to head back to the beach early we will need to arrange tight carpools and share the $30/vehicle parking fee. Non-photographer spouses, friends, or companions are welcome for $100/day, $450 for the whole IPT.

Save a space by calling Jim or Jen at the office at 863-692-0906 and arranging to leave your deposit of $599–credit cards are accepted for deposits only. Your balance will be due on April 18, 2016. I hope that you can join me for what will be an exciting and educational IPT.

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14 comments to Working in Manual Mode Re-Visited

  • Like Jon I work in manual using Auto ISO. However I use exposure compensation by reprogramming the Set button on my 7D MkII. This is very simple and is my preferred way of working.

  • avatar Gary Murray

    So glad I learned exposure shooting film for 10 yrs, with the help of “The Art”, and John Shaw’s book!

    Thanks Artie!

  • avatar Barry Barfield

    Jon. I stand corrected by your reply. I have a 1DX and did not know you could do this. I will look further into my custom control functions.
    Thanks for some great education via these posts.
    Barry, Brisbane, Australia.

  • Like Jon I use manual with Auto ISO so that I control the aperture / shutter speed combo. However with the 7DII the Set button can be reprogrammed to enter exposure compensation with manual and this is my preferred way of working.

  • avatar Jon

    Barry no that is not correct, if you see my recent posts of linnets in the bird forum they are +0.3EV, the ISO was set to Auto but I overrode the setting to give an overexposure of 1/3 this was because the background was causing the bird to slightly underexpose. To get the over exposure I did not change shutter speed or aperture I changed ISO by +1/3. This is not possible on all cameras but it is possible on the 1DX.

  • avatar Jackie M

    Artie, Manuel Mode is the reason I wanted and why I have a DSLR….I guess I like having control. I do use AV, TV when I’m in a situation that is changing quickly and I’m moving in different lighting conditions with fast action (and when I feel lazy).

    I love the image, stunningly sharp!!…question: Should the subject closest to you always be the focal point? Is there ever an exception to this rule?

    Can’t wait to see more Images from Namibia, Jackie

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      It is almost always best to focus on the nearest subject; I do that > 99% of the time.

      And I feel that it is vitally important for photographers to know how and when to use all of the various exposure modes when they need them. See the “At Long Last, As Promised: the Greatest, Most Educational Blog Post Ever? Manual… Av… Tv… Program… Which is The Best Shooting Mode?” blog post here to learn a ton more.


  • avatar Barry Barfield

    Jon, if I read your reply correctly then the Auto iso is going to give you a constant null on the meter ( or zero exposure ) and not an over or under exposure as Art has indicated should you wish to. Barry Barfield.

  • avatar Kerry Morris


    I love this image! Thank you for laying this out step-by-step. Planning ahead definitely makes a difference. You mention the various modes you work in, and how often. However, in the situation you describe above rocking boat), that makes it even more challenging to get the image you want. Would this be a situation for AEB bracketing, as described in your book? Also, were you using your tripod for this image?

  • avatar Jon

    Artie, If I am reading correctly in point 3 I have to disagree. I use manual mode and Auto ISO most of the time, the logic being I know which aperture and shutter speed combo I require. Should I need to over/underexpose I do not change the aperture or shutter speed, I change the ISO. This is done by setting up a Custom control function.

    • auto iso combined with manual. is not true manual mode. You still allowing your camera to think for you in auto ISo mode by nulling the meter. In manual mode as Art points out you don’t worry about ISO shutter or aperture until light changes

      I really thank Art for his great educational posts. No other has explained manual mode so well.