Using Manual Mode with Auto-ISO for Street Shooting.

Note: the following discussion is for Olympus OM-D cameras but most of it should apply to any camera that allows using Auto-ISO while in manual exposure mode.

The first time I heard about using Auto-ISO with manual exposure mode I thought: this mode doesn’t make sense, why would I need that? But as I started doing more street photography I realised that this is a fantastic way to handle the wildly variable lighting conditions one encounters when shooting in the streets. Sometimes in street shooting you can take your time composing your shot and fine-tuning the exposure, as in the shot below. But more often than not you’re trying to capture “the decisive moment” and you only have time to point the camera and press the shutter button.

Littering Prohibited, Parque Santa Ana, Panama
Littering Prohibited, Parque Santa Ana, Panama

It may seem ironic that using manual mode would be suitable for handling wildly varying light conditions, but hear me out. My first instinct for handling such situations would be to use Program Mode but then you have no control on depth-of-field (DOF) or minimum shutter speed. When trying to shoot fleeting moments you want a wide DOF so you should elect an aperture like f/8.0 (equivalent to f/16 DOF on a full-frame camera) and you also want a relatively high shutter speed to freeze movement, something like 1/250 sec. So whether you use Program (P), Aperture Priority (A) or Shutter Priority (S) mode, you’re always losing control of at least one of these important variables.

This is where using Manual (M) mode with Auto-ISO comes in handy. You set your aperture and shutter speed to what you want to ensure the maximum probability of sharp images and you let the camera adjust the correct exposure level by varying the ISO. This really works brilliantly.

Waiting for the bus, Parque Santa Ana, Panama
Waiting for the bus, Parque Santa Ana, Panama

So how do you set this up on your OM-D camera? First go into the Custom Menu / E (for exposure) and adjust the following settings:

  1. Set “ISO-Auto” to All, otherwise Auto-ISO will not be available in M mode.
  2. Set “ISO” to Auto
  3. Set “ISO Step” to 1/3EV (if you set it to 1 EV the camera will not be able to adjust the exposure precisely)
  4. Set “ISO-Auto Set” to the maximum ISO you are willing to use and the “Default” to 200.
  5. On the second page of the menu, I like to set “Metering” to ESP mode to allow the camera to adjust to the widest possible set of lighting conditions.
  6. (optional) I also like to set “AEL Metering” to Spot, this way I can use the AEL button to occasionally meter on a smaller area to help the camera find the proper exposure in very contrasty situations.

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And that’s it, you should now be able to shoot in M mode with the camera selecting the appropriate ISO.

One thing to keep in mind is that the camera will do its best to keep the exposure correct but at times the camera may not be able to set the ISO sufficiently high or low for the actual lighting situation. In those cases the camera will simply under or overexpose. To alleviate this I like to look at the exposure in the brightest light and make sure my shutter speed and aperture allow the camera to manage this with ISO Low (100). I also try to find a dark shady area (like inside a doorway) and make sure my max ISO can handle that situation as well. What max ISO should you use? Personally I find that ISO 1600 is the minimum to handle most daytime street situations and it allows the noise to remain very manageable. However, when I’m doing street photography I generally convert to B&W and I really do not mind some graininess, so I do not hesitate to use 2500 or even 3200 ISO.  Heck, I prefer a noisy ISO 6400 picture to an underexposed picture or no picture at all.

Some other settings I use for street shooting are:

  • I shoot RAW + Large-Fine JPEG and I set the Picture Mode to Monotone so the JPEGs are in B&W.
  • I set AF Mode to C-AF, helps to deal with situations where people are moving.
  • I set the shutter mode to Continuous Low (5fps) with Anti-Shock. Some people like to use Silent Shutter instead.
  • I set Custom/C/Release Priority C to On. This will allow some out-of-focus shots but it will ensure you do not lose “the decisive moment”.
  • I set White Balance to Auto.

I save all these settings in MySet2 (MySet1 holds my normal settings) and I assign MySet2 to the “ART” position on the mode dial so I can return to my street settings whenever I want.

Let me know if you found this useful and happy shooting!

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