The best photography course I've ever done was a long weekend in Goa when we were told to put our camera in manual mode at the start of the weekend and keep it there! I had experimented with manual mode before but, to be honest, it had always seemed a bit too complicated and time consuming. Auto always felt so much easier.
I can honestly say that since that weekend in India, I have had my camera in manual mode almost constantly and I love it! It was the start, for me, of going from being a 'hobby' photographer to really wanting to do it as a profession.
So, why is manual so much better? Here are three reasons (as I've been dreaming of spring recently, I'll use this beautiful bunch of tulips as my teaching aid!):
1. No flash!
The photograph on the left is taken in auto mode. Auto almost always reverts to using a flash when the light is not super bright (so, basically, for at least 8 months of the year in Britain!) so you get a flat, washed-out foreground and a dull background. Also, the reflection from the flash often shows up and is visually very distracting. You can see it here, reflecting in the window behind the tulips. On the right, there's no flash. The light is completely natural and so the colours are more natural too. The light is more uniform across the subject, so you don't get one part (like the yellow tulip in the left-hand image) dominating the foreground.
In manual mode, you are in control. I wanted to capture the light just skating the tops of the flowers. My camera's auto mode didn't know that. It just did what it is best at: got a clear, bright image of what's in front of me. No subtlety. For the image on the right, I turned down the shutter speed a touch to darken the shadows and make the light areas pop (I'll do posts about shutter speed, ISO and aperture in the near future, I promise!). In manual mode, you also get a lot more control over the focus, so I homed in on those two middle flowers that are particularly catching the light. The photo becomes about light and colour rather than just about the flowers.
3. Background blur / 'bokeh', call it what you will.
Bokeh is one of those words that photographers love using because it makes you feel you are 'in the club' and know what you are talking about! It comes from the Japanese word for 'blur' and essentially means a combination of the quality of the background blur and the background light. When bokeh is good, it gives a soft, smooth background that enhances the photo rather than distracts from the subject. Good bokeh is not actually produced by the camera, but by the aperture of the lens (again, I promise I'll do a post about apertures in the future), so it's not entirely to do with manual / auto mode, but if you want a nice, soft background blur, you need to be in manual so you have control over how much light you let into the camera.
I hope this post has encouraged you to switch your DSLR to manual mode and start experimenting! It doesn't come naturally at first and requires a lot of trial and error. But, if you're anything like me, that's the best way to learn!