Manual Mode Rocks!

December 3, 2009

Photo Tips

Getting a good exposure when shooting live events, well, all events, is a balancing act between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Because I have no control over the lighting, and because I can’t ask the performer to stand still for a minute, I need to get it right the first time. That’s why I shoot most of my concerts with my camera set to the manual mode.

To understand why I choose manual mode, we have to think about how the other modes function. It doesn’t matter if you shoot in Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority or Program mode. All those modes give the camera some control over your exposure. The camera reads the scene with its built-in light meter and calculates the best shutter speed / aperture or both for the given scene. Fast moving concert lights can really play havoc with the built-in light meter.

Widespread Panic

When you look at the stage shot of Widespread Panic, you can see that there are a group of lights along the back of the stage. As these lights move, the light meter in the camera keeps adjusting and when the scene gets brighter the camera will start to underexpose the rest of the scene. As the lights go down the scene gets darker and when the camera adjusts and the scene gets overexposed. Shooting in manual mode allows me to keep the shutter speed / aperture and ISO settings I want and the camera won’t adjust anything as the light changes.

Widespread Panic

So when the lighting is tricky, remember: Manual Mode Rocks!

The top image was shot with a Nikon D2X and 17-55mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens at 1/60 of second at f/2.8 at ISO 200 while the bottom shot was taken with a Nikon D700 and 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens at 1/160 of a second at f/2.8 at ISO 1600. Both were taken using Lexar Professional media.

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This post was written by:

- who has written 10 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Alan is a concert photographer based in San Diego. Alan strives to bring the energy and excitement of live shows to his images as he captures concerts 3 songs at a time. Alan teaches workflow using Adobe Bridge, Lightroom and photoshop. You can follow Alan on twitter at

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9 Responses to “Manual Mode Rocks!”

  1. Rodney Says:

    Good article, informative and what I was looking for, I’m interested in concert photography and this helps. P.S. Slayer rules, great shot of Tom Araya. >:)


  2. Dave Cruikshank Says:

    I haven’t had predictable success at shooting concerts, just for myself. Probably because I was using Aperture Priority. So how did you determine your exposure for these shots. Thanks, Dave


    • Alan Hess Says:

      Hi Dave
      I will be covering that soon.
      Next up will be the importance of the correct metering mode and then how to pick the best starting point for concert situations.



  3. Greg Taylor Says:

    Great post. It took me a long time to get comfortable with using the Manual mode. However, once I did the concert photos I take now are so much better. Not only that there are more images of quality that I have the luxury of sorting out before delivery the show photos to the client.


  4. Wes Gibson Says:

    30 years ago, when I first got into photography, I was taught that light meters are totally unreliable at concerts and to forget about them altogether. We would push our 400 speed color and B&W films to 1600, open the lens wide open (f/1.4 or 2.8) and shoot at 1/125th of a second. If the stage got very dark, like during a solo, we would drop down to 1/60th of a second. I always got fantastic results with this formula. I use the same techniques with digital, and am still getting great results.


    • Alan Hess Says:

      Hi Wes,
      Those setting are a pretty good start.
      I will be talking about my specific settings and which metering mode works best to get a good starting point this week.
      I remember that Fuji made a color slide film that could be pushed from 200 to 1600 and even had little boxes on the side to fill in with the speed used.
      Used that at 1600 all the time…. back in those ancient times when we shot film that is.


  5. Dave Menasce Says:

    Interesting article. Thanks for the tips :)

    Started using Manual Mode a few weeks back and am now playing with and using it for everything.




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