Manual Exposure is Not Just for Purists

by | May 24, 2018

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

Accurate exposure starts with correctly setting lens aperture, shutter speed and ISO. With today’s DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras, you can choose to set the exposure yourself manually or let the camera do it for you.

Some purists claim that manual exposure mode is the only one to use and to do that you can use either a separate hand-held light meter or the metering system that’s built into the camera. For 90% of photographs you’ll make, any of the automatic modes that modern cameras offer do a fantastic job in producing correct exposures but its those last 10% that’ll kill you.

Sometimes you have to shift into manual mode, especially when the light is at the extreme ends of brightness or maybe darkness. Lighting situations like these extremes can confuse even the most sophisticated automatic exposure system. That’s why manual exposure can be especially helpful when dealing with high subject contrast and strong backlight or when a specific mood is desired. (But not the current Instagram trend of underexposing portraits to create a low key look; that really doesn’t work, IMHO.)

I also think manual mode is also for those shooters who would rather drive a car with a stick shift than one with an automatic transmission. (Admission: Both Mary and my daily drivers are automatics.) But while  purists claim manual exposure mode is the only one to use, outdoors I tend to use all the letters on the dial. But in the studio…

…I’ll use manual exposure mode with electronic flash, such as this portrait of the gorgeous model Ashley Hannah made with a Panasonic GH4 image stabilized Lumix G Vario 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens with an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/8 and ISO 200. Lighting for this portrait was provided by the Alien Bee and DigiBee monolights in my home studio.

Sometimes when shooting portraits (with electronic flash) in various spots around my home, I’ll use a fairly slow shutter speed to pick up some of the ambient room light and a smallish aperture to maintain sharpness throughout the portrait.

Tip: Many cameras offer a Bulb mode where the shutter stays open as long as the shutter release is pressed. This allows you to make really long exposures for subjects such as holiday lights or fireworks or special effects such as long exposures of carnivals and amusement parks to get light streaks. Time exposures like this should be made using a sturdy tripod and you can reduce the risk of camera shake by tripping the shutter with a cable release.

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If you’re interested in learning how I shoot portraits and how I use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio and on location, please pick up a copy of Studio Lighting Anywhere which is available new from for $20.26 or starting at the bargain price of $5.00 used, as I write this. Kindle version is $19.25.