Manual Exposure Mode is Not Just for Purists

by | Apr 28, 2020

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

A few years ago I was teaching a class on travel photography at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre filling in for a famous photographer who canceled at the last minute. While I was doing my Lenny Harris imitation, a couple of the students asked me why I was not shooting in Manual mode. I pointed to the camera’s dial, showing all of the different letters saying I prefer to use the mode that fits the subject and what I was planning on shooting. It seems that the instructor at another workshop they attended told them she only shot in Manual mode because it was the purist form of photography. Me, I’m not a purist just take pictures.

For sure, accurate exposure starts with correctly setting lens aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Today’s DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras let you choose to set the exposure manually or let the camera do it for you, including ISO. Some purists claim that using manual exposure is the only mode to use and you can use either a separate hand-held light meter or the metering system built into your camera. And the truth is that for 90% of photographs that you’ll make, any one of the camera’s automatic modes 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 darkness. Lighting situations like these extremes can sometimes confuse even the most sophisticated automatic exposure system. That’s why manual exposure can be 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 useful for those shooters who would rather drive a car with a stick shift than one with an automatic transmission. But while purists claim manual exposure mode is the only one to use, outdoors I tend to use all the letters on the dial.

How I Made This Shot: In the studio when shooting with electronic flash, manual mode is the only way to go. For continuous light, I’ll use one of the other letters on the dial, including Program mode surprisingly. For this portrait of the amazing Erin Valakari I used manual exposure mode with my studio’s electronic flash shooting with my problematical Panasonic GH4 with the non-problematical and image stabilized Lumix G Vario 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 40mm (80mm equivalent.) Exposure was 1/200 sec at f/11 and ISO 400.

Lighting for this portrait was provided by a Paul C Buff DigiBee DB800 with 52x38x14-inch Plume Wafer Hexoval softbox placed at camera right. At the back and camera left of my studio, I placed  another Paul C Buff DigiBee DB800 with the 48-inch Dynalite Quad Square black/silver umbrella attached. The muslin backdrop was from Silverlake Photo and is hanging from my falling apart JTL background stand.

Tip: Sometimes when shooting portraits with electronic flash on location, 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.

Tip2: 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.

Note: What subjects and when do I shoot in Manual mode? I’ll share some information on that in next Tuesday’s post. Stay tuned…

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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 $34.95 or starting at the bargain price of $6.94 used, as I write this. Kindle version is $19.19 for those preferring a digital format.