Working in Manual Mode « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Working in Manual Mode

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This Bald Eagle juxtaposition image was created from a rocking boat near Homer, AK on the March IPTs with the Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens, the 1.4X III TC, and the
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. 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. Once you determine the correct exposure, set it manually. And 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. 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.

Below is a (free) excerpt adapted from The Art of Bird Photography II (916 pages on CD only). There is a huge on-going thread on BPN that I started a few days ago: Manual vs. Av and Other Modes. At the time I was working on this blog post there were 154 replies and the thread had 2,636 views. Quite interesting to say the least. I began the thread because there are a small number of folks out there who firmly believe that if you are not working in Manual mode 100% of the time, you are not a real photographer. If you read through the thread, you will quickly learn that I disagree most emphatically. 🙂

BTW, thanks to all for the get well wishes. The hand and especially the finger are doing and feeling great. I am in the motel on St. Augustine Beach getting ready to attend the Speaker’s dinner. Now here is the very best news. When I am done at the festival I will write a blog post or possibly several on when and why I use the various modes.

Working In Manual Mode

Many professional and serious amateur photographers work in Manual mode most of the time. Over the past few years I have been working in Manual mode more and more. I still use Av mode with exposure compensation whenever the background is of a relatively constant tonality and the subject is at a constant distance. When the background tonality is changing from moment to moment but the light is constant, it is best, however, to work in Manual mode. In either case, 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 and then dropping below the horizon. 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.

#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. Which is often 🙂

Just Think.

Just think how much you would learn if you purchased the two book bundle (ABP and ABP II) and studied hard….

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear mentioned in today’s post and some other stuff that I use regularly to keep my sensors clean. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens. Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon EF 1.4X III TC. This new TC is designed to work best with the new Series II super-telephoto lenses.
25mm Extension Tube. This vaulable accessory allows for closer focusing.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. The very best professional digital camera body that I have ever used.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod. This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
Double Bubble Leve.l You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am on a tripod and not using flash.
Delkin Sensor Scope. This cool, indispensable device allows you to see sensor dust so that you know where to clean.
Lens Pen Combo Kit. The answer to your sensor cleaning problems. Use the small pen on your sensor, the larger one on your lenses and teleconverters.
Giotto’s Super Rocket Blower. Don’t waste your time with smaller versions; you need to power of this large blower to clean your sensor successfully.

Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card. These high capacity cards are fast and dependable.

I pack my 800 and tons of other gear in my ThinkTank Airport SecurityTM V2.0 rolling bag for all of my air travel and recommend the slightly smaller Airport InternationalTM V2.0 for most folks. These high capacity bags are well constructed and protect my gear when I have to gate check it on short-hops and puddle jumpers. Each will protect your gear just as well. By clicking on either link or the logo below, you will receive a free gear bag with each order over $50.

14 comments to Working in Manual Mode

  • AV mode works best for me for wildlife shots. It’s better to let the camera choose appropriate shutter speeds with shooter pre-selected aperture, WB, metering, ISO and if necessary exposure compensation.

    However, for indoor portrait and landscape shots, I always prefer Manual mode. In fact it’s a necessity.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      In a great percentage of bird and wildlife situations, working in manual mode is a necessity. artie

      • I don’t dare disagree with you Artie. However, I have a feeling, for moving wildlife shots like BIF, what’s your opinion about using AV mode? In case you think Manual is a better option in this case also; could you please enlighten me on that?

        I say so because back in 2009, many of my shots got messed up at Masai Mara, Kenya while shooting in Manual mode at f/8, Evaluative Metering with varying ISOs. As I kept my eyes on the moving subjects; failed to adjust shutter speeds accordingly. At a later stage I switched to AV mode and the subsequent keeper rates were higher.

        Thanks in advance.


        • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

          You need to re-read the post and study it. One thing that folks who are scared of Manual mode do not realize is that Manual mode is exactly the same as Av with the correct compensation…. Re-read and study the info above.

  • Point well taken Artie. I use M, as opposed to AV, primarily when I have an inconsistent background along the shore which is often…various light off water, crashing white surf etc. All learned in ABPII. 🙂

  • Bill Richardson

    I just finished a workshop at the St. Augustine Birding and Photo Fest with another instructor who had us shooting in Manual. By the third day I was getting pretty good with it. Metering off the sky was the critical technique for me. I remembered you discussing that technique in a prior post and it finally clicked. I need to go back and reread your CD book though. One thing that surprised me was the difference in sensors. The mk4 sensor is much more sensitive than my 1Ds3 sensor. I needed to add a full stop to the settings being used on the mk 4.

  • ABP and ABP II… the most expensive books I’ve ever read !!

    I enjoy Art’s conversational writing style, and he is not afraid to call it like he sees it. In this days of ‘PC’, I find that refreshing. I found them very good, definitly better than a number of ‘photography’ books I’ve read over the years. Even if getting into this topic just had me spend yet more on photography tools. (or toys as the wife insits they are ! The only difference between the men and the boys, is the price of their….)

    I am an avid manual shooter of landscapes, to date its been Manual, F/11-16 ish, mirror lockup etc etc, and AV for Street Photography. So far with bird photography I’ve found both Manual and AV have worked well, although I am leaning towards manual when on the tripod with a long lens, and AV when hand held. I would not of gotten the Birds-over-Statue shot in Paris in Manual mode. That lasted 1-2 seconds tops.

    I think the moral of the story is, understand exposure totaly, understand what your camera is telling you in each mode, and use the most appropriate setting for the scene, environment or situation.

    Thanks Art, and the other thread posters for great insight into this topic.

    Lots to learn, keep it up.


  • Kenny Walters

    This is excellent. Before I went totally digital—specifically to the D200, I shot at least 95 percent of every outdoor subject in manual. I trusted myself to know my camera from experience. From the D200 on I shoot probably 70 percent in aperture priority , simply because meters are so much more accurate now. It works. However, there are numerous times when manual is the only real solution to getting the image you are trying to get, as you have specified above. No one knows what mode you shot in when they look at your image. Only whether the image looks exposed in a way that gives them a sense of what you saw at the moment of exposure.I look forward to your mode tutorials, because I definitely don’t get all of my exposures where I want them to be all the time. I do have ABPII, though, and also your very first small book dealing with exposure (which you autographed for me in Haines City at NANPA in 1998). I look forward to all of your very to the point information. Thank you.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Kenny, Good points and YAW. Your thinking in spots is a bit mis-guided as when you say, ” However, there are numerous times when manual is the only real solution to getting the image you are trying to get, as you have specified above.” You are forgetting that with very rare exception, such as when you have your lens pointed into the super-bright reflections of full sun on the water, that whatever you can do in manual you can do in Av or A (Aperture in Nikon). In other words, the right exposure is the right exposure no matter the mode. Lastly, it is the brain and the experience of the photographer that gets to the right exposure by over-riding the exposure suggested by the meter (no matter the mode).

  • Stokes Fishburne

    I am a big believer in Manual mode. To me, the settings are an extension of the ‘sunny f/16 rule’. In fact, using the sunny f/16 rule at f/8 and ISO of 400 gives a shutter speed of 1/1600 sec. This is an excellent place to start. If the subject is bright white in the sunlight, I will use 1/2000 or 1/2500 sec. If the bird is dark, I will start at 1/1600 sec expecting to move to 1/1250 sec. Setting the shutter speed/aperture combination off the low horizon (as Art suggests) also is an excellent place to start – it usually indicates f/8, 1/1600 sec at ISO of 400 – sunny f/16 rule.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Stokes, Good points though I do find that true sunny sixteen with my Mark IV bodies is about 1/3 to 2/3 too dark. With the 50D and other like it, you #s would work well. With ISO 400 I get to 1/2000 or 1/2500 at f/8 only in super bright/super white situations. In Florida my typical white in sun exposure is 1/1600 at f/8 except when I am at a white sand beach. If you are using a MIV it is likely that you could be pushing your histogram a bit more to the right.

  • I’ll have to look in on the BPN thread.
    Ever since reading ABPII I have found myself working in M more and more. This has certainly saved some images that would have been a disaster in Av. In most cases I work in M when the situation mandates, but I also use it when it’s not necessarily required. I find this to be a good mind exercise to keep myself sharp.

    Cheers and proper exposures. 🙂

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      David, See my comments to Kenny…. Bad exposures in Av are due to operator error 99.9% of the time. Manual is Av in disguise….