As tech progresses further and further we find more and more that we need to do less and less to make things happen. Cars can now swap cogs, brake automatically, and in some respects drive far better than people can manage. Homes are becoming ‘smart’, with auto lights and heating, and Wi-Fi enabled everything. The great march towards automation is the Holy Grail for manufacturers, and will in all likelihood come to define and dramatically shape how we live our lives this century. Naturally of course, the drive of automation has been embraced by camera manufacturers too over the last half century or so, with the arrival of built-in light meters, auto winders, automatic exposure modes, motor drive, autofocus and TTL flash – the list goes on and on. And all this is hardly surprising. There’s a lot to think about in photography, and auto modes take so much of the hassle out of the process, paring it back for the majority of users so all they need to worry about is pressing the shutter. As well as their portability and always-with-you convenience, a big aspect of the success of smartphones and iPhones as cameras is the effectiveness of their fully auto camera controls. With each new phone or software update the technology gets better and better, with the phone doing more and more of the work to easily produce great looking pictures exactly how the user envisaged. Hell, the newest iPhone can now even make ‘professional’ style shallow depth of field portrait photos! But there remains something brilliantly satisfying about using manual controls in photography, in much the same way as it’s great fun to drive a fully manual sports car. And in street photography in particular, I personally feel that shooting fully manual is the best way for me to get the results I want, and get maximum enjoyment from the experience. Why? Well, let me first explain exactly what I mean by ‘fully manual” and then give you my personal run-down of the 10 reasons why I shoot in manual mode for street photography.
What is Manual Mode in Street Photography?
To clarify, when I talk about ‘manual mode shooting’ or ‘fully manual’, I’m actually describing two things. Firstly, I am describing the fact that I use my camera to shoot street photography in the fully manual exposure mode. This means I am in full control (and have to set myself), my shutter speed, aperture and ISO in order to achieve an exposure. If I get any one of these elements wrong I end up with an overexposed or underexposed photo. To set my exposure I use my camera’s in-built exposure meter to take a reading of the light (usually but not always in spot metering mode – more on that later) and adjust my settings accordingly. I can review my exposure with my EVF or LCD display if necessary too. Mostly my exposure settings will be a shutter speed of 1/500, and aperture in the region of f/16 to f/5.6 (more on that later), and an ISO between 500 and 6400 (roughly following the sunny f16 rule). Within this range I am able to accomplish most of what I want to do with mostly natural light on days when the weather outside is sunny, dry, overcast, or even slightly rainy. The camera shutter is also set to single shot mode as opposed to motor or continuous drive mode.
The second part of my manual street photography experience is setting my lens to manual focus mode. As I have mentioned on several other occasions, for the majority of my shooting I like to employ the zone focusing and hyperfocal distance technique in street photography. I select a small aperture (for a large depth of field), set my 28mm lens focus distance to around 1.5m, and can work safe in the knowledge that 95% of the subjects I want to capture will fall into my desired focal range, which at something like f/16 is from around just under a metre to about 4 metres – perfect! So, now I’ve covered my method very briefly, allow me to explain exactly why I like manual street photography so much.
This more manual approach to street photography allows me to work really really quickly. Because I have made all my settings in advance, my only delay is the shutter response on my camera. I don’t have to worry about waiting for an autofocus system to hunt for focus, which I know from bitter experience with my Canon 6D can be unbelievably frustrating. There’s nothing worse than mashing the shutter button in a decisive moment, only to see the little red focus lights flash futilely, the viewfinder go blurry, and the autofocus motor whir manically to no avail. Grrr!
Use the Camera like a Compact
This is a little hard to quantify, as on the surface it would appear that manual shooting would be more complicated, but I personally find it allows me to use the camera more like a compact camera. As I’m working preemptively with exposure and focus set, all I have to worry about is composing my shot and firing the shutter. Weirdly, manual street photography pares back the specific shooting experience to something that feels very basic and more akin to using a compact camera, especially as I can’t vary my focal length or field of view because zone focusing forces me to stick with one focal length or refocus.
It doesn’t need fancy or cutting-edge gear
Not only does manual street photography make my camera feel like a ultra simple and wieldy compact, but it’s also really useful because it doesn’t require the fanciest or most cutting edge gear. Provided your camera has the ability to manually control exposure and focus, you’ll be able to use it in this way and get great results. The Program, Aperture or Shutter Priority and autofocus street photographer needs a camera with a beefy enough autofocus system to handle the fast past dynamic scenes thrown at it (which in my experience tends to mean a relatively new (and expensive) camera), plus a decent enough and intelligent processor and metering system to produce the right results. No such problems if you shoot fully manual, which means you can potentially get hold of a nice older used DSLR, mirrorless or compact camera for street photography and enjoy using it to get great photos.
It’s Easy with Digital
If you’ve read about my experience with using an analogue film camera for street photography you’ll know that my manual approach to street photography came a cropper a little when teamed with a film camera. That probably says more about me as a photographer than anything else though, and the good news is that the manual first approach is just so easy with digital! For instance, when setting exposure manually with a digital camera I can either review exposure live with an EVF or LCD, or even take a test shot and chimp the photo afterwards – even using a histogram if necessary! So, if it comes to it, I don’t actually need that much knowledge to practice fully manual street photography – I can learn a lot from trial and error and test shots. The same is true of course for using manual focus and zone focusing – it’s really easy to take test shots of objects about the same estimated distance as my subjects and check to make sure the depth of field and focus is set right – perfect!
It’s Great for Flash
Full manual shooting is also a great technique if you like to practice flash or off-camera flash street photography too. Rather than relying on the expense and rather flat look produced by automatic TTL flash, shooting in full manual mode allows me to get really creative with my lighting and achieve some really nice effects. With a cheap flash with manual power settings and my lens manually focused with a large depth of field, I can experiment with all kinds of exposure levels on my camera to get some different looks. I can raise the camera exposure to bring out the background and sky and use the flash as a fill light, or set my exposure really low so that most of the light comes from the flash. There’s loads of flexibility, and I can achieve all this in a really simple and cheap way by shooting manually as I only need a basic flash, plus wireless triggers or cable if I’m going off camera. Great news!
I’m in Control
Full manual mode street photography absolutely puts me in the driving seat. Any mistakes are down to me, and any successes (such as they are) make me feel good. It’s nice to have the sensation that I know exactly what the camera is going to do at any moment, and also that I can set the controls and exposure to suit my style entirely. As I’ve mentioned I like to keep my aperture small for a big depth of field for zone focusing, and also my shutter speed at 1/500 where possible so I can freeze the motion of my subjects and avoid any camera shake if I’m moving quickly. While some auto and semi auto exposure modes would allow me to do this to an extent, I’d still be surrendering some control, whereas in full manual I can prioritise the settings I want and make the decisions myself in order to achieve the exposure I’m after, rather than ending up with an undesired compromise the camera has taken because it can’t second guess my shooting style or my subject. Similarly, I enjoy the control of a single shot shutter mode over a continuous burst as I can decide (hopefully) exactly when I want to release the shutter in order to grab my shot, rather than relying on a burst a frames which may not be timed correctly for the specific “decisive moment” I’m after.
It’s reliable and predictable
One of my biggest bugbears with auto exposure modes and autofocus is how erratic the two can be. Because you are having to leave yourself at the mercy of a machine you can get some really weird results because the camera does not see things as you do. For instance, it is possible to take a photo of two almost identical scenes and get different results in an auto mode if a small factor has confused the camera. While metering and AF systems are very reliable, they can still get foxed by weird surfaces or scenarios and produce crazy results. By contrast, if I’m fully in charge of the controls I can roughly predict the settings I’ll need for a particular scene and then use my exposure meter to refine them. This actually means I can work quite quickly and react to changing situations and with relatively predictable results.
It teaches me more
It may sound a little idealistic, but I really value practices which I feel are teaching me something and helping me develop. Street photography has taught me a lot, and I am continually learning from the genre every day I head out on the streets because of its challenging nature. It is through practicing street photography that I came to know and embrace zone focusing and the hyperfocal distance technique, and it has also taught me to be more confident using manual exposure modes too. By moving my exposure mode to full manual I’ve learned to really focus on the act of shooting, and most of all to really consider the lighting in a scene and also to pre-plan and act preemptively to set my camera up ready for a potential scene involving a subject. This is beneficial for all my photography, not just street photography!
It encourages me to pay attention to light
Much like my point above about manual shooting teaching me to think preemptively, having the full responsibility for my camera’s settings has also encouraged me to really study and pay attention to light. I’ve developed an increased understanding of the power and intensity of natural light on sunny, cloudy and rainy days, and got to grips more with the sunny f/16 rule. As a result of manual controlling my exposure, I know I can achieve some nice effects by exposing for the sunlight and leaving the shadows really dark (often using spot metering), so I purposely plan and seek out scenes where people are lit by natural sunlight against a dark background. Had I not spent so much time working in fully manual I might never have developed the same appreciation for natural light that I have, and it certainly would not have been as satisfying when I did!
I can shoot from the hip if need be
While I am not the biggest fan of always employing hip shooting in street photography, the technique can certainly have its uses, and is certainly made so much easier if you’re in full charge of things in manual mode. If you can’t be entirely sure precisely where your lens is pointing because you’re shooting from the hip you can’t be certain that your exposure meter hasn’t been thrown off by something, or even that your autofocus point has selected your subject and not something else altogether. If you’ve already made all your settings you’ve no such worries however, so you can focus entirely on lining up the camera as best you can and grabbing your shot!
Abysmal Auto or Manual Madness?
So, what side of the street do you stand on in terms of street photography shooting techniques – auto or manual? Or perhaps even somewhere in between with a semi automatic mode – perhaps manual shutter speed and aperture but auto ISO? I am certainly the first to admit that full manual does not entirely suit all scenes and moments, and there are definitely specific times when autofocus can be essential in street photography and I would not be without the feature. Shooting techniques are very personal and should complement the photographer’s preferred way of shooting, deliver good results, and most of all be fun to practice! What’s more, techniques evolve and change over time as our shooting styles and interests morph too, together with our progress as street photographers. What works today may not be as useful in a year’s time and vice versa. Whatever happens, the process of shooting should be both enjoyable and a constant learning experience as far as I’m concerned. What do you think?