A Brush-up Tutorial on Working in Manual Mode « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

A Brush-up Tutorial on Working in Manual Mode

What’s Up?

This blog was adapted from one originally published here on July 3, 2013. I finished this post in the lobby of the Albatross Hotel on Sunday, December 14, 2014.

Along with the rest of my shipmates I boarded the Ortelius on the afternoon of 15 DEC. We get back to dock on the the morning of 9 JAN. There is no wifi on the ship. That means that I will effectively and absolutely be without internet at least from 14 DEC through 9 JAN. At present I am further behind with answering e-mails than at any time since I have began answering folks’ photography-related questions about 25 years ago.

Please therefore refrain from e-mailing me at the usual samandmayasgrandpa e-mail address until I get back home on 13 JAN. You can reach my right-hand man Jim Litzenburg by e-mail here or reach Jennifer here as usual.

Important Blog Notice

I have been preparing a few new blog posts today to be published during my absence with the help of either Jim or the invaluable Peter Kes, the BAA webmaster. In addition, my plan is to resurrect a collection of older but important educational blog posts (like today’s) and have them re-published during my absence. Please enjoy. Please consider signing up for an IPT. And please continue to do a great job of using my B&H and other affiliate links while I am gone.

[Not a valid template]

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

In the above situation with a large bird occupying a good portion of the frame it is imperative to figure out the correct exposure in advance by checking the histogram to make sure that it is well to the right without any blinkies. Here I probably started at -2/3 stop in Av Mode. Once you determine the correct exposure, set it manually; that is just what I did in this case. By doing so your exposure will not be thrown off if there is more black in the frame one moment and more white the next. Do understand that it is not mandatory that you start off in Av mode; you can begin in Manual mode as detailed below. Where you start is simply a matter of personal experience.

To learn basic 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. And follow that up by mastering the principles in the section on “Exposure Simplified” in the Art of Bird Photography II (ABP II: 916 pages on CD only).

Working in Manual Mode Re-visited

It has been more than two years since I first ran Working in Manual Mode on the blog. You can see the original post here. That one has an interesting link that is not included in this blog post. Right now I probably work in Manual Mode about 75% of the time. I use Av mode about 15% of the time and Tv mode about 10% of the time (the latter when creating pleasing blurs or when I need a minimum shutter speed). I use Program mode only on rare occasion, such as when photographing folks at a party with flash or when using fill flash for songbirds.

If you are not working in Manual mode most of the time you need to study the info below and learn to become competent in it.

Here is an excerpt adapted 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 do not because working in Av mode and entering exposure compensation is faster whenever the background is of a relatively constant tonality. When the background tonality might be changing from moment to moment but the light is constant, it is pretty much mandatory that you learn to work in Manual mode. In either case, At all times, I rely 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 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.

#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 if you are way overexposed or a small triangle at the bottom 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: When you work in Manual mode it is not possible to set exposure compensation. To come up with the exposure that you wish, 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.


Card and design by Denise Ippolito. Scroll down here to see lots more of Denise’s Palouse images.

Palouse #1. The Palouse A Creative Adventure/BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tour (IPT)/Eastern Washington State. May 29-June 2, 2015/5 Full Days: $1699/Limit 12 photographers/Openings: 2.

Due to a cancellation, we now have a single opening on this long sold out trip. See item next for additional details.


Card and design by Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART.

The Palouse A Creative Adventure/BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tour (IPT)/Eastern Washington State. June 5-9, 2015/5 Full Days: $1699/Limit 12 photographers/Openings 2.

Rolling farmlands provide a magical patchwork of textures and colors, especially when viewed from the top of Steptoe Butte where we will likely enjoy spectacular sunrises and possibly a nice sunset or two. We will photograph grand landscapes and mini-scenics of the rolling hills and farm fields. We will take you to some really neat old abandoned barns and farmhouses in idyllic settings. There is no better way to improve your compositional and image design skills and to develop your creativity than to join us for this trip. Two great leaders: Denise Ippolito and Arthur Morris. Photoshop and image sharing sessions when we have the time and energy…. We get up early and stay out late and the days are long.

After 6 days of back-breaking scouting work in early June 2014 we found all of the iconic locations and, in addition, lots of spectacular new old barns and breath-taking landforms and views. We will teach you what makes one situation prime and another seemingly similar one a waste of your time.

What’s included: In-the-field instruction, guidance, lessons, and inspiration, our newfound but very extensive knowledge of the area, all lunches, motel lobby breakfasts, and Photoshop and image sharing sessions when possible.

You will learn and hone both basic and advanced compositional and image design skills. You will learn to get the right exposure every time. You will learn to develop your creative eye. You will learn the basics of HDR (high dynamic range) photography. You will learn a variety of in-camera creative techniques; Canon 5D Mark III bodies are a plus. And most importantly you will learn to see the situation and to create a variety of top-notch images. Do see both of our blogs for lots more on that in the coming weeks. You will learn how the quality and direction of light combine to determine the success of your images. And–please don’t gasp–we will be working quite a bit with sidelight when creating landscapes. Lastly, we will be touching on infrared photography.

A non-refundable $699 deposit is due now. The balance will be due on January 29, 2015. If you cancel and the trip fills, we will be glad to apply a credit applicable to a future IPT for the full amount less a $100 processing fee. If we do not receive your check for the balance on or before the due date we will try to fill your spot from the waiting list. Whether or not your spot is filled, you will lose your deposit. If not, you can secure your spot by paying your balance.

With the unpredictable nature of the photography business, I have not said this often lately, but it seems quite likely that this one will fill up very quickly. Please let me know via e-mail that you will be joining us. Then you can either call Jim or Jennifer at 863-692-0906 during business hours or send us a check; the latter is preferred.

Please send your deposit check made out to “Arthur Morris” to us at Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART, PO Box 7245, Indian Lake Estates, FL, 33855. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via e-mail. You can also contact denise via e-mail here

IPT Updates

Would you like to visit some of the great bird photography locations on the planet? Would you like to learn from the best? Click here and join us.


Be sure to like and follow BAA on Facebook by clicking on the logo link upper right. Tanks a stack!

Support the BAA Blog. Support the BAA Bulletins: Shop B&H here!

We want and need to keep providing you with the latest free information, photography and Photoshop lessons, and all manner of related information. Show your appreciation by making your purchases immediately after clicking on any of our B&H or Amazon Affiliate links in this blog post. Remember, B&H ain’t just photography!



Those who prefer to support BAA by shopping with Amazon may use this link:

Amazon Canada

Many kind folks from north of the border, eh, have e-mailed stating that they would love to help us out by using one of our affiliate links but that living in Canada and doing so presents numerous problems. Now, they can help us out by using our Amazon Canada affiliate link by starting their searches by clicking here. Many thanks to those who have written.


In all blog posts and Bulletins, feel free to e-mail or to leave a comment regarding any typos or errors. Just be right :).

2 comments to A Brush-up Tutorial on Working in Manual Mode

  • Jon

    Artie hope I am not taking your point out of context -currently in hospital with pneumonia. I beg to disagree it is indeed possible to set over under expose in manual mode I do it regularly on 1 DX

  • Ray Rozema


    Thanks for all your great instruction/advice

    Would you please elaborate on your statemnet ” I use P mode … when using fill flash for songbirds.

    Ray Rozema