In previous Beginners Photography articles I have looked at Automatic and Creative Auto Modes of your Digital SLR. Now, let's consider Manual Mode. To many people new to digital photography, just the words "manual mode" are enough to turn their knees to jelly. Surely, one of the benefits of modern cameras is that much of the tough decision making is taken out of your hands, so that you can concentrate on picture composition? Whilst this is largely true, there will always be times when ultimate control should stay in the photographer's hands - such as tricky lighting conditions.
The information here is based on a Canon 450D, but will be similar for a Nikon or equivalent model. Firstly, switch the Mode dial to M. The camera is now safely in full manual exposure mode. Scary huh? Not a bit of it! The main dial behind the shutter will now give you access to shutter speeds. Typically these range from Bulb setting (shutter stays open for as long as you press it) to 30 seconds to 1/4000 sec.
Let's look at Aperture. Using an 18-55mm IS lens the range is anything from f3.5 (widest) to f/22 (smallest), varying with the amount of zoom being applied. Hold down the Av +/- button and rotate the main dial to change the aperture. You could refer to my previous beginners photography articles concerning Aperture if you need to know more about this subject.
Checking Exposure. The main point of using Manual Mode is that increased exposure, either through slower shutter speeds or larger aperture, results in brighter pictures. Conversely, less exposure makes for darker images. To check the exposure level, lightly press the shutter, and read the Exposure Level Indicator on the back of the camera. It will show as a linear reading from -2 to +2.
So, in what sort of situations will manual Mode help you out? If you are taking portraits, strong backlighting is sometimes used. You can adjust aperture and shutter settings if the usual maximum exposure compensation is not enough. In a flash portrait scenario, you can set longer or shorter manual exposures to brighten or darken the background - the flash will adjust itself accordingly to give correct exposure to the subjects. And in night cityscapes, auto exposures can leave your image in pitch darkness. Using apertures of f/8 or f/11 in Manual Mode should help - with an exposure of about 10 seconds (note: a tripod would help in this situation).
In Manual Mode, you have more influence on the resulting image - rather than relying on auto modes which can allow the camera to dictate and interpret a situation incorrectly. For beginners, photography should be about taking the chance to experiment, for it is here where you will ultimately learn what works and what doesn't, in any given situation. After all, after reviewing your images, you can delete what you don't like. When the images are safely on your PC, take time to review the shooting data of the files (images) that worked - so you know what settings to select next time you use Manual Mode.