How many times have you found yourself wondering why two images taken seconds apart appear different? You get back to your computer to view your images only to find that your images lack consistency. Hours later you have your images edited and ready to share with the world.
A Photographer that has mastered the manual settings of their camera has taken control of their camera which results in consistency across the images in their set. Imagine photographing a wedding. During the ceremony, you take about 200 photos. As you review those pictures, you notice the color tones are different on the skin of your Bride and Groom throughout your 200 photos. You might also notice that some photos are darker while others are brighter. Frustrated, you settle into your chair and begin editing in an attempt to normalize all of the photos into some happy medium.
The Photographer who shoots in manual mode views light in a different way as they look through their camera’s viewfinder. As the photographer looks at the scene to be captured there is attention given to the direction of light and how it falls on the point-of-interest.
While there are many different ways a photographer can use manual settings, the most successful often rely on a set of habits they have learned through practice and is why they can capture consistently beautiful shots almost every time they press the shutter.
You can certainly get good photos using Auto Mode on your camera, but the true quality and consistency come only from understanding your camera settings and setting them in manual mode.
Though there is no quintessential list of habits that every single photographer follows, I have found that the majority of photographers I have talked to or studied have these seven habits in common.
The 7 Habits Of Photographers That Shoot In Manual
1. They don’t expect their camera to do all of the work
Cameras are getting smart. The software and processing power inside of today’s cameras are amazing. Consider what Smartphone cameras can do with tiny sensors using processing power and software. Regardless, cameras still operate by doing a lot of math really fast. Cameras evaluate all of the pixels in a scene and in Auto Mode, adjust settings accordingly. The problem is that the camera’s brain most likely will not align with what your brain is seeing when you look through the viewfinder. You can recompose the shot or try some sort of dance to get your camera to consider the point-of-interest over something else in the scene, but it will often be hit or miss at times.
In manual mode, you set the exposure of the camera. You tell it you want the shutter speed faster so you can keep the aperture wide open. The Manual Settings Photographer maintains control over their camera which unlocks the full potential of the sensor and other hardware of their camera.
2. They understand their camera’s strengths and weaknesses
All cameras have strengths and weaknesses. When I switched to Sony from having used Canon cameras for 10 years, it was apparent to me that Sony Alpha Mirrorless cameras were not as good at tracking high-speed objects. Understanding that weakness my Sony camera had, I knew that I was not going to be shooting with that camera at the Daytona 500. Since then Sony has stepped up their game and have industry-leading continuous focus in their latest flagship models, but at the time it was a weakness. Had I tried to shoot that event with my Sony, I would have ended up with thousands of out of focus images.
If you have an older camera and try to shoot photos in lower light situations, you will end up with image noise. This is often exacerbated by using auto mode in your camera. To keep ISO down, your camera will adjust to a slower shutter speed which will increase image blur especially if you are shooting handheld. In my earlier days of photography, I was well aware of this shortcoming in my cameras and lenses. I knew how far I could push the ISO before my images became too noisy to recover from in Adobe Lightroom. I knew how slow I could get the shutter speed while still shooting handheld.
Photographers who have a solid understanding of their camera’s strengths and weaknesses know where their camera and lenses perform best and can set their cameras manual settings to achieve the best possible outcome.
3. They understand light and how to compensate when needed
Understanding how light will affect the image you want to capture is one of the most important fundamentals of photography. The direction of light can change the entire mood of a photo.
A portrait photographer who is shooting a subject outside on a sunny day knows how to position their subject and what camera settings will be needed to exposure their subject properly. With practice, they learn how light affects the sensor of their camera and how to adjust settings to achieve the look they are going for.
A Photographer who understands how to adjust their camera manually can assure their point-of-interest is exposed properly while making sure the rest of the image looks good as well.
4. They know how to read their camera’s exposure meter (light meter)
The key to your first photo being near perfect is to know how to use the exposure meter or light meter of your camera. With experience, you will be able to get your camera settings close without any feedback from your camera; however, the internal metering system of your camera will help you get close. Photographers use this meter to help them adjust their cameras manual settings to produce a properly exposed image.
I use the exposure meter to confirm I am within a reasonable window with my settings. There are situations where I might overexpose my shot just a bit because I want to make sure my subject has enough light on them. Remember that the internal metering system of your camera is trying to do its best from a distance to tell you how your image will be exposed before you take it. The best way to check for exposure is to use an exposure meter and place it near the point-of-interest to assure proper exposure. Regardless, the internal metering system of your camera is a great tool to help you get your settings close.
The exposure meter of your camera is not perfect. Like auto mode, it can sometimes provide you with incorrect data. This is where experience comes into play. A photographer knows their camera and what the exposure meter is telling them. They can also read the scene they are about to capture.
5. They know when to shoot in RAW
Whether you are team RAW or team JPG, pro photographers are almost always going to shoot in RAW. A RAW photo contains much more data than a JPG. A RAW image produced by modern cameras includes a much higher rate of color data which is why you can better adjust white balance and exposure levels from RAW images over JPG images.
You don’t always have to shoot in RAW. Photographers who have a solid understanding of their camera, and it’s manual settings can shoot JPGS because they are confident in the image they are capturing. When I am taking photos of my kids, I will often shoot in JPG simply to save on file size. RAW images are large files and require a lot of storage over time. I have been shooting RAW for over ten years now, and I have over 16TB of photo storage. That is a lot of data.
When I shoot for clients, I shoot RAW because I want to have the most room to work with when it comes to editing my photos.
6. They maximize the gear they have
It is easy to get caught up in gear. Every time Sony releases a new lens, I know what my heart feels. There was a time where I felt that the quality of my photography gear was what would take me to the next level as a photographer.
When you are shooting in auto and have an auto mindset, it is hard to understand what your photography gear is capable of. That can lead you to believe that you are unable to capture great photos until you can afford better gear. That just isn’t the case.
A Photographer who understands how to get the most out of the gear that they have does not get caught up in the gear acquisition rat race. Though you do need a camera that has full manual features, a good sensor and a decent lens attached to it, you don’t always need the latest and greatest to capture amazing photos.
Rather than investing countless dollars into gear, invest time into learning how to make the most out of the gear you already have.
7. They never stop learning
I have been shooting professionally for over ten years and I learn something new quite often. The internet is a fantastic resource, and the photography community is one of the most giving communities out there. Many photographers these days are self-taught. When I decided I wanted to start taking photos, I taught myself how to use my camera. I learned techniques by reading what other photographers had written. I watched some of the early tutorials posted to Youtube, and I continue to do that today.
There are a lot of photographers who teach photography and that just further backs up my statement that the best photographers never stop learning. I believe that there is no way to master photography. You can break it down to a process that is repeatable but change one element and it’s different. Producing the “Ditch Auto – Start Shooting in Manual” course made me better at shooting in manual because I had to refine my own process to the point where it could be explained to others.
The best practitioners are also teachers. Together we learn from each other and become better.
Bonus Habit #8: They learn from their mistakes
I read an article that I can’t find now on the topic of keeping your mistake photos so that you can learn from them. Obviously, I do not need to keep every single photo I captured that did not turn out, but I do keep some photos that were mistakes I don’t wish to repeat. They are reminders of what went wrong.
In the heat of a moment, even the best photographers can get their settings wrong. This happens to me when I forget to change my settings after going from an indoor session to an outdoor session. An unexpected moment happens and as I go to press down the shutter I see that I am still at 1/125th, f/1.8, and ISO 1200. My image is a solid white exposure. Moment lost. (I know that at least one of you is going to say that if I was in auto mode, I would have at least walked away with a usable photo. Touché!)
We condition our minds to minimize error and that comes with practice.
Shooting in manual is a continual practice. Like a martial art, it takes focus and practice in order to achieve the best outcome.
This is not an all-inclusive list of habits top photographers have, but they are habits that I and many others photographers practice on a daily basis.
Have anything to add? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.