Scenic Outlook – Embrace Manual Mode

Modern cameras are truly wonderful devices, every time a new one comes out it’s seems to be packed with more and more cool stuff to temp you into parting with your cash. Of course many of these features can be quite useful in certain situations but for the most part a good proportion of functions will rarely be used. This is very true for the landscape photographer. Sturdy build, good glass, a decent viewfinder, a reliable light meter and the ability to alter the aperture and shutter speed separately is all it needs to do. The question of resolution/pixel count really comes down to what it is that you’re going to be doing with your images, and if you never print larger than A4, a 6MP DSLR will do the job just fine. 12MP seems to be a good amount for the majority of folks but even the lower end cameras are now offering more resolution than this; cool if you want huge prints or to aggressively crop your images, but most of us just won’t utilize the full resolution of our cameras.

So, your camera will come with a number of exposure modes; Program, Shutter priority, aperture priority, Auto, Manual and in addition to this there will be a selection of scene modes to choose from. I only ever use two of these modes; Aperture priority and Manual. Aperture priority is great in situations where you have to work fast; you get to choose the aperture and thus the depth of field, and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed to get a good exposure, or at least what it deems to be a good exposure.

So why use Manual mode?

Firstly, it is not to impress your other camera friends or to make out that you are somehow a “proper” photographer because you don’t use those other automatic modes meant for “novices” ( they are not). I have met a fair few of these sorts of people; they seem to be more obsessed with having the latest gear and how they are perceived rather than the love of capturing the picture.

Manual mode is about taking control of your camera.

As clever as modern cameras are they do not know what it is that you are pointing it at or how you want to show the scene. By switching to manual you set both the aperture and the shutter speed and it is the cameras light meter that you will use to base your decisions around. Firstly set your camera up on a tripod, then compose and focus on the scene. By all means use autofocus if it helps and aim to focus about one third into the scene; as a general rule this is a good place to focus when using small apertures to achieve maximum depth of field. At this point I like to switch the focus to manual as well, this will prevent the camera from trying to refocus when it comes to taking the picture. Things that are moving within the scene (such as swaying crops in a field) can sometimes cause the camera to refocus and we don’t want that.

Next set your aperture; for landscapes f16-f22 are good apertures to work with but ultimately it is your choice. Looking through your viewfinder you will see a scale that reads from -2 through 0 to +2, this is your light meter and it will show whether it thinks there is too little or too much light coming into the camera depending on the shutter speed selected. So now you need to change your shutter speed to get the meter to 0 on the scale. Take a shot, look at the histogram and see if you are happy with the exposure. If too bright then select a faster shutter speed, too dark select a slower speed, or perhaps you want to deliberately over or underexpose the scene. Take a second shot and review again. Camera light meters are fairly accurate but can bee fooled in some situations, especially when shooting Contre-jour.

With inbuilt light meters, setting up the camera in manual mode is a straight forward process, and by having your camera locked to your chosen setting you can get on with taking the shots you need without the worry of anything altering between shots. A change of location or of light, then a quick refocus and a change of shutter speed is all you need to do. All this slows you down a little but you’ll spend more time getting things right and hopefully end up with a greater number of “keepers” as a result.

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