Techniques, Reviews and Commentary

Sometimes Manual is Best

Consider first that many of the controls on your camera are actually there to override the stupidity of your camera for example, you need exposure compensation to stop your camera from making badly guessed exposures!

You need manual white balance options because the auto white balance can be easily fooled leading to rubbish colour!

You need manual focus because no focus system is perfect every time!

You need aperture and shutter controls because auto options often choose inappropriate settings!

Frankly no camera yet made nails everything every time and ultimately the additional time it takes YOU to override all the cameras auto errors leads to lost pics and lost shooting time!

Believe it not going full manual for everything may actually be much faster and more reliable... If you really know what you're doing!! And folks I have to be honest here, even amongst professional photographers there are more than a few who have little idea of how to really shoot in full manual mode so don’t feel bad if the whole concept sounds terrifying.

Lets discuss a recent bus tour the Lovely Miss Wendy and I took around San Francisco. It was great fun, we saw heaps and it was cheap ($25.00 each), our guide was also just brilliant! Miss Wendy and I sat on the top deck which was open and this made for a great view of the streets as we whizzed around on what was a sunny but slightly cool SF day, which we were reliably informed is typical of the Bay area in Summer.

Now here is the set-up I used. I put the Sony 18-55 OSS lens on the NEX 5N, I have lots of other options but image stabilization is pretty much essential if you’re shooting from a moving vehicle which is bouncing all over the place. The lens was set to 26mm since I know from my tests that 26mm is the sharpest and best performing focal length on the 18-55 OSS and this allows for easy cropping yet still leaves me with a very sharp image unless I crop to a totally stupid degree.

What about ISO, easy 400. Why 400? This offers excellent overall image quality, sufficient latitude to keep the shutter speed high enough under most light conditions encountered and most importantly 400 ISO means the look of my images is consistent. Choosing auto is less than ideal as I find with almost any camera it leads to variations in clarity, saturation and colour that are best avoided, and let's not forget that consistency in these matters makes editing much easier.

Now consider for a moment that 26mm offers a fair bit of DOF, if you want to take photos that have overall clarity you don't need to stop the lens way down, ideally you only stop down to the point where diffraction starts to limit clarity and no more. Once again rigorous testing revealed to me that f6.3 is the sweet spot at 26mm on the 18-55 OSS, and that where the aperture is set.

The shutter was set to 1/1600, which gives an excellent exposure under bright sun without clipping so long as I don't desire to retain full texture in whites. Now here is the clincher should we go into shade I can quickly turn the shutter speed down 1/800 and if I need to retain bright white textural details ramp it up to 1/2000. And that folks are the only changes I make and as it turned out on this little trip even that adjustment wasn't needed often, bear in mind also that if I shot RAW it would have been quiet feasible to simply use 1/1250 sec and let the latitude of the NEX 5N's sensor take care of the dynamic range and use recovery and exposure adjustments in the RAW conversion to compensate for any issues.

Contemplate that exposure for a minute, generally if everything is illuminated by the same light at the same intensity why would the exposure need to constantly vary, yet that is exactly what happens when you leave things on auto exposure of any type! The subject in the frame changes along with its reflectance and up and down the shutter speeds we go despite the light illuminating the scene being identical! And you then spend your precious shooting time fighting it with exposure compensation guesses and adjustments that need you to reshoot, and heaven forbid, should you be using a scene mode on most cameras you won’t even be able to compensate for the cameras stupidity. The net result is of course missed shots.

My white balance was fixed to sunny which I have fine tuned via testing it to give as good as possible colour out of the camera for photos that include mixed shade and sun, any further adjustments are handled in the editing but honestly I don't need to tweak anything much, and particularly with the 5n I find that simply lightening the darker areas of the image in post renders pretty neutral colour results even though the shadows may look a little too blue prior to editing.

Since I was shooting JPEGs it was important to set the parameter settings to render files that are suitable for printing straight from the camera. I have some pretty firm views on this, most folk I feel set the saturation and contrast way too hot, which renders a visually dynamic image on the LCD but causes considerable tone and colour clipping when they try to print the images. Tweaking a low saturation/low contrast file is as easy as falling off a log but taming an overcooked one is normally an exercise in futility.

On the NEX 5N I set the creative style to portrait and adjusted the saturation to 0, the contrast to -1 and the sharpening to +1, the resulting files show little clipping unless you are well out with the exposure and helpfully gives you a little more latitude if you are.

The D range is left on auto, and this is the only auto option I enable, basically there is no reason to turn it off.

Finally the focus, this is fixed in manual, I set it using the 14x zoomed in view to ensure that the infinity focus objects are just rendered sharp which is important as it prevents you from trading off your close range object clarity. Lets not forget that with 26mm anything beyond a few metres will be perfectly sharp without extra fiddle focusing and for this type of shooting you can be sure everything is at least 3 metres away so why allow the auto focus to hunt around and risk soft shots? Importantly most cameras, the NEX 5N included respond quicker to the shutter release in manual focus mode!

So what do we have, a fully manual set-up, with only one thing to adjust (shutter speed) and even then only occasionally. A set-up like this makes for super fast shooting if the camera is left on and allowed to go to sleep after say 1min. Touch the shutter button before bringing the camera to eye level and click, instant response, no waiting for exposure or focus lock, no apertures to fiddle with, basically it is point and shoot in the truest sense.

And does it work? Is the Pope Catholic? Is Christmas the 25th December? Is San Francisco in California..... Yes it works perfectly and and the editing is easy peasy.

I have attached a couple of snaps ( and I mean that in the truest sense ) from the tour, basically they are technically perfect, not great pics mind, just tourist snaps from the top of a moving bus but sometimes snaps is all you're after.

So yes there is a place for full manual and if might just be where you think you would use it least!



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