I tried posting this on your "How to shoot in full manual mode" thread, but for some strange reason it won't let me, so here's my response. I'll start with your post and then give my response...
bcalvary: I have a D200 and D700 and I'm "almost" happy with my the way I've been shooting but I can see that shooting in aperture mode is limiting. I want to start shooting in full manual mode to get the most out of the camera. Now please be kind, how is the best way to start learning how to do this all the time?
You may say just start shooting but to be honest I just can't think that fast. Do you look at what you want to take an image of and say to yourself.... F8 and then look at the cross hairs of the camera and try to get it in the center? Isn't that the same as shooting in aperture mode at F8? I'm just a wanta be trying to learn so please be kind. Thanks in advance
My reply: Shooting in manual mode and having the pointer in the viewfinder centred all the time will give you the exact same exposure as S, A or P mode, (perfect exposure according to the camera), providing you have your exposure compensation set to zero. It just means you have to fiddle about to get exactly what S, A or P mode would give you automatically and therefore it is a pointless exercise and a complete waste of time. If you want the exposure that the camera chooses for you, then save your time and energy and use S, A or P mode.
The reason for using manual mode is so that you can decide to shoot at a stop or two above or below what the camera identifies as a perfect exposure (pointer in the centre), because a camera only exposes perfectly in perfectly average situations (which is all it knows how do), but not all situations are perfectly average, especially when there are highly contrasting light and dark areas. For example, you might want to stop down to avoid blown-out highlights or stop up to avoid loss of detail in the dark areas, the equivalent of using exposure compensation in S, A or P mode, although manual mode gives you much better control.
In manual mode, use your "spot meter" and press shutter button half way to meter for light in a specific area of what you are going to shoot. The idea is to initially spot meter an average tone (mid-tone) in your desired shot first (the equivalent of a grey card) and zero (centre) the pointer in the viewfinder while metering it. Now that is your average, or mid-tone recorded light-wise.
Now if you leave the pointer where it is and spot meter (half press of shutter button) the highlights and dark areas, you will be able to tell you if they are blown out or underexposed (black/blocked), i.e. the pointer will move to either the plus or minus side of the centre. If it's just a stop or two, you're probably OK, but if either one goes off the scale and starts flashing, then you've got a problem, as both blown out and black/blocked/underexposed areas (the result) are areas that have no detail, i.e. the detail cannot be retrieved in an editing suite. These will make poor shots.
The same thing can be done, but in a different way, in S, A and P modes, but you will have to rely on your eye and using your monitor and histogram post-shot, which as you'll probably know is tricky in certain lighting conditions, i.e. it's difficult to see what's what on a monitor in bright sunlight. The idea is that you look at your monitor and if the first attempt at a shot gives you blown out highlights, then you adjust your exposure compensation accordingly, i.e. dial in a minus value. If areas are too dark and you can manage to do it without blowing out highlights, again, adjust your exposure compensation accordingly, i.e. dial in a plus value. However, like i said above, this is much more inaccurate and prone to error than using the method described above, i.e. using the camera's own light meter and spot metering for the correct exposure.
If a balance of dark and bright areas can't be established to give you the desired shot because the light and dark areas are too contrasted, then you're left with two other options. You either need to use a neutral density filter of the correct value to cover the highlights (usually sky), thereby toning them down whilst exposing for the darker areas (which WOULD have left the sky blown out), or you take multiple exposures (tripod necessary) of the exact same shot at three or more different exposures, i.e. expose for the highlights, the mid-tones and the dark areas and blend/merge the 3 images together in photoshops HDR mode.
These are called high dynamic range images, or HDR images where the bright, mid-tone and dark areas are all exposed perfectly to produce something that the camera couldn't have done on it's own due to the lighting in the shot not being ideal, i.e. perfectly average.
The following link is for a set of seven video clips describing what I've explained above, but in greater detail. I'm hoping my preamble may help by giving you the big picture if you want to watch them. They are the best tutorials covering this subject that I've ever come across ~ real easy to understand. If you persevere with them and watch them all from beginning to end, there's no reason why you shouldn't up and running in manual mode in no time. As always, the ground work is so very important, essential even....here's the link for those tutorials...
Here are some examples of HDR images
I hope I've been able to help you out here. You'll love manual once you know what you're doing and it's nothing to be apprehensive about. The worst that can happen is that you delete a few shots while you practice. Good luck.