Will Goodlet

Why I Love Manual Mode

Will Goodlet

I like to photograph active birds. The ones that flap around all over the place, have fights, fly, catch things and chase things. Birds are what first attracted me to Africa and eventually set my feet on the path to living here.

When photographing static or slow moving things we often have time to compose and set our exposure. With fast moving birds, we have less of an option and most of the time they wait for a heartbeat before they are gone with only our expletives hanging in the air.

 Grey-headed gull, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Grey-headed gull, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

There are a number of recommendations out there about the best settings to use to capture birds in action and they all probably have some merit. The difficulty always arises, especially for those new to photography, in the realisation that there is no one 'best' camera setting.

You could capture your subject and scene in any number of different ways, with different equipment and with different settings and still have a beautiful shot.

So, why then, do I love manual mode more than the others? For the most part, it has a lot to do with the kind of subject I photograph and its background and behaviour.

 Grey-headed gull, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Grey-headed gull, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Most of the time the bird is very small in the frame and it's moving around very fast. You may think that this is a perfect situation to use Aperture Priority mode (AV on Canon bodies) because in AV mode, you set the depth of field and brightness and the camera comes up with a shutter speed and (if you allow it) ISO. Why would anyone have a problem with that?

My problem with it is that a lot of the time the camera exposes for the background and not the subject. Try using AV mode with a small bird against the sky and let me know what you think!

 Yellow-billed duck, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Yellow-billed duck, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Of course, we can correct the underexposure in the example above simply by dialling in some compensation. If we face the problem often we have probably also learned the amount of compensation off by heart. This undoubtedly works but I still don't like it!

The reason I don't like it is twofold. First, the shutter speed or ISO might change unpredictably. Second, if the bird dips below the horizon the settings need to be adjusted again. Very few people are fast enough to manage this all the time.

 Cape Shoveler, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Cape Shoveler, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

I would much prefer to have the settings stay the same and concentrate on actually trying to focus on the little blighter and get it in the frame without a clipped wing.

What about shutter priority mode (Tv on Canon cameras)? it has exactly the same problems, now with depth-of-field and ISO and the same need to compensate manually.

The same thing goes for Auto ISO. The problem is very simple, the camera is unlikely to be able to accurately evaluate exposure for the very small bird in front of the very big background, especially, if like me, you enjoy your birds against darker backgrounds.

 Grey-headed gull, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Grey-headed gull, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

This is why I love manual mode because despite its name, which seems to signify some kind of added effort on our part it is actually the opposite. It requires much less effort to correct exposure.

It works especially well if you are photographing in steady light from a static location and even if the light is not constant and you are walking or in a vehicle, you can make it work with a few special techniques.

 Wildebeest at dawn, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Wildebeest at dawn, Kruger National Park, South Africa

In a steady light, the trick is to set your exposure for the bird and not the background. This way, if the bird hops down to the ground and catches an insect and then flies up into the sky you need to do nothing at all except focus on getting the bird inside the frame. There is no need to compensate for the sky all of a sudden half-way through shooting.

It's easy in steady light or with slowly changing light. Every two to five minutes simply reset/recheck your exposure against a middle tone. I often use a greyish tree trunk or lightly shaded reeds or grass and match the exposure to that. Please note, I use a centre weighted average meter pattern, not spot meter or average meter modes.

 Grey-headed gull, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Grey-headed gull, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

In changing light it is more difficult and one needs to be more cautious. It's often the case that clouds are rolling across the sky and one minute we are in bright sunlight and the next in shade. Often, the pattern is obvious and relatively slow. Just reset to a middle tone in sunlight and shade. Most of the time, the difference is the same for each successive cloud and you can memorise the setting or dial it in as a custom setting and flick the switch between custom settings as the light changes.

If you have focused on a particular target animal like birds, manual mode works very well. However, there are two difficult situations where one needs to be cautious, particularly in the African context where we are often not just concentrating on bird photography and have an eye out for other wildlife surprising us as well.

 Cheetah, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa.

Cheetah, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa.

When on a game drive, we are often confronted by surprising and sudden activity as the game is flushed by our vehicle. Most of the time the light is different on one side of the vehicle - either into or away from the sun. This is a situation where one of the semi-automatic exposure modes can more reliably capture the shot by compensating more quickly to the light on either side.

However, we still have the problem of manually compensating for the sky. If the light is flat and even or the sky overcast, try manual mode instead.

© Will Goodlet