See the Difference: Auto vs. Manual Mode

As I have worked on my photography skills over time, and upgraded my equipment, I get many compliments and well meaning comments about my gear.  One that always makes me chuckle is the question, “What kind of camera do you have? It takes great pictures.”  While I take it as a compliment, I chuckle because I know that my camera does not really take great pictures… without my help.  Don’t get me wrong.  If you have taken my classes, you have heard me say any camera can take great pictures.  You have also heard me add the caveat of “if you know its limits and how to use it.”  Really, most cameras take great pictures in good light outside.  But when faced with challenging backlight or dark situations, they don’t do as well.  Below are two pictures I took within seconds of each other using my Canon 6D camera.  The one on the left was taken with the camera set on Auto mode.  The one on the right was taken with one attempt using manual settings.  Honestly, with a little tweaking it could be better.  Below those is my style of clean editing applied.

manual_vs_auto_photography_So with DSLR camera technology being advanced, and a “nice camera”, why is there such a difference?  In this case, the camera is confused by the bright background which causes the total image to be overexposed.  Also, when the camera selects the focal point, it doesn’t know that the model’s face is most important.  In manual, I chose the model’s face as the spot for exposure, and focused on her eyes, resulting in a the exposure and focus on her being more pleasing.  For those thinking the auto picture is better, keep in mind, we weren’t going for a dreamy sunflare look here.  Even if we were, having sharp focus would still be important. To make the picture even better, off-camera flash could have been used to bring out the color in the sky, but for this example I just wanted to compare auto and manual settings.  Below are the minor adjustments  made in Photoshop to perfect the manual image.


While the auto mode did not do a terrible job, it did not take the picture I intended it to take or one that is considered “professional” by most experts.  Now, if you want to step it up and go from good to great, add light. Using off camera flash will balance the foreground and background even better and brighten the eyes and control the shadows to define your model and space.

Lovely comments so far...

  1. Hi KJ – This is a wonderful article demonstrating what manual mode can do and how you can use that for creativity, but it would be very helpful if you could add some tidbit on how you did that. I understand that I am asking something you would typically teach in your classes, but people like me, who do not live in NC have no other options. Let me know if you have online classes, and I would be happy to join. Thanks!

    • Hi Krish, Thanks for your comment. Honestly, learning to shoot on manual takes practice. Education is definitely helpful, but you can start by reading your camera’s manual. It may seem very technical but you would be surprised at the information included. As you read each section, practice with the feature from that section before moving on. I had planned to add an online class but haven’t had time so that may not happen soon. Best of luck!

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