Kin Chan | Why use fully manual controls for street photography?

Over the last few years many of my friends have asked me for advice on photography and one question that regularly pops up is what settings to use to take better photos.  I always start by asking them what type of subjects they prefer to shoot but usually the conversation ends up with them wanting to know whether they should just go straight to full manual controls instead of learning how to use the semi-auto modes such as Aperture or Shutter Priority modes (Av/Tv).


My usual advice is to start with Aperture Priority (Av) mode with a view to moving onto full manual controls only after they start to feel that this semi auto mode is limiting their creativity. This argument against jumping straight into manual controls relates to the technical difficulties of shooting in manual mode as it can be quite frustrating learning how to manually adapt all the settings to enable a decent photo to be taken. For most people the perceived quality of these photos will drive their decision whether photography is the hobby for them (or whether they need to buy more needless equipment) and it is a shame that many are put off photography because they jump in at the deep end and struggle.


This brings me onto the qualitative side of using manual controls as that should be the measure of whether or not to use it.  Many aspiring photographers such as my friends consider the use of fully manual controls (Shutter speed, Aperture, ISO) as a good sign of progress as a (street) photographer and I certainly set it as a personal goal when I first picked up my first camera back in late 2009.  As I have gone through the transition from semi-auto modes to full manual control over the past 2 years, I am a firm believer that full manual controls do enable the photographer to take better quality photos.  This is not to say that you could not take the same good photo with semi auto modes but I have come to realise (sorry if this is blatantly obvious to all out there) that the camera is just a translation tool for the “WHY” and “WHAT” in photography.


“WHY” is probably the hardest aspect of developing as a photographer as the source of your passion is critical to moving forward.  To become enlightened in “WHY” you want to take a photo drives the photographic process and the camera enables that process.  The use of fully manual controls is the only way to be in full control of how to create the “WHAT” that satisfies your “WHY”.  Although semi-auto modes reduces the complexity of setting up your camera, it does take away a large element of control and without full control then it is hard to be satisfied that you have fully translated your “WHY” into a “WHAT”.  Using Aperture Priority (“Av”) mode is a popular mode amongst street shooters and it may be quicker and sometimes you get the correct result but you can’t fully guarantee the results will be as you want it.

Kin Chan

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