Some thoughts on shooting weddings in manual mode
The infamous manual mode. Some claim it has mystical powers which can transform the most untalented of snappers into world-class photographers. Just turn that dial to M and you will immediately ascend to greatness, achieve facebook group guru status, attract groupies, present workshops…
Of course, I’m not being serious (heaven forbid) but there is a lot of BS and artistic snobbery around shooting in manual (M) mode. In a world where today’s cameras can make decisions about exposure and focus faster and more accurately than a photographer, why would you even want to shoot in M, away from the studio or flash?
M was old fashioned and obsolete for my style of work. Or so I thought.
Like many of my peers, I started my career shooting with a manual medium-format camera and a handheld light meter, both in the studio and for weddings. Set up the shot, take a meter reading, apply it to the camera. Perhaps the purest form of manual photography. This method is consistent and accurate and works well for a lot of pro photographers. I still shoot some portraits this way.
When I decided to shoot weddings with a 35mm SLR in the mid 90s, I used the aperture priority (A) mode. This setting helped me to shoot quickly, concentrate on the shot, and take pictures in mixed lighting without the need to keep altering my camera settings. My photographs were about observation and reaction, not static poses and contrived situations, and letting the camera do the heavy lifting regarding exposure, allowed me a degree of freedom which I hadn't experienced before. M was old fashioned and obsolete for my style of work. Or so I thought.
My wedding work started to attract brides who were getting married during the winter months, and it wasn't long before my 35mm gear began to struggle with the light levels I was working in. I needed to find something that would work in near darkness.
I learned to estimate the speed of the shutter just by the noise it made.
Given the amount of work I was doing (70 weddings a year) I felt I could justify buying a very expensive Leica M6TTL rangefinder camera and Noctilux lens. I knew it didn't have an automatic mode, but I reckoned I would use my existing Canon EOS 1V gear for most of the day, and the Leica for darker environments.
The problem was I fell in love with the Leica. The combination of a mirrorless camera and the world's fastest lens, allowed me to work in light levels which were once the domain of flash. In dark situations, I would press the camera into my face to help with stability and adjust the shutter dial with my index finger. The camera didn't display the shutter speed in the viewfinder, so I learned to estimate the speed of the shutter just by the noise it made. The addition of an automatic winder improved stability and removed the need to move the camera slightly while winding the film on. I started to use the camera for all of the wedding coverage. I added a second body, and then a third, and a fourth. Half-a-dozen lenses followed as my SLR gathered dust on my shelf. I was back to shooting manually.
aperture priority remains the fastest, most efficient way of working for me.
My continuing obsession with low light shooting inevitably led me to digital capture and a reunion with my favoured aperture priority mode. It was like slipping on an old pair of shoes. I experimented more and spent less time fussing over the exposure. The way I worked became more fluid - I lost the stop/start way of shooting which M forced on me. I went from using four bodies to just two, with each body set up so that if I changed lenses, the aperture wouldn't change. I've shot in aperture priority for the past fifteen years. Even my digital Leicas are used in A mode (Leica did eventually catch up!!)
M mode certainly has its place on a wedding. For flash users it is essential, and a lot of photographers who stage their work wouldn't use anything else. In a controlled lighting situation where there is time to work, it makes a lot of sense to use M especially when it comes to editing. As a documentary photographer, the ability to move from one lighting situation to another without having to alter anything on the camera is a huge advantage. Shooting in aperture priority remains the quickest, most efficient way of working for me. My cameras work faster than my brain, so why not let them do the job they were designed for?
A sequence of wedding images showing the veil and dress being taken downstairs for the bride to put on. Two cameras, both in aperture priority mode, allowed me to get different perspectives and a lot of variety in a short space of time, and in different lighting conditions. I couldn't have shot these images as fluidly in M mode.
To see more of my wedding work (shot in A mode), please check out www.jeffascough.com