How to Decide: Manual Exposure or Auto Exposure?

Chanterelle mushrooms in the studio. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

I have a simple, quick calculation I make when deciding whether to shoot something on Manual exposure or one of the Auto exposure settings on my camera.

I shoot a lot of very, very different types of photographs. I love to get out and shoot nature and landscape photographs for myself. I also do a fair amount of work in a studio setting. In both of these situations, I always set my camera on Manual exposure. Why?

Because I have the luxury of doing so. Landscape and studio work both involve controlled situations: movement, action within the frame, is not part of the equation. Because of this, I’ll always want to shoot whatever I calculate to be the correct exposure, and then I’m going to shoot a bracket around that exposure. Probably a couple of additional versions that are slightly darker, but depending upon the shot, it might be two additional shots ½ stop on each side of the main version. Even shooting RAW files, I like the additional images when I have the luxury of shooting them.

Jazz funeral, New Orleans. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Now switch to situations in which action is key to the shot: a tennis match, a football game, a news situation (accident, fire, etc.)….or in New Orleans, even a jazz funeral.  Now I’m shooting images that will only happen once. Obviously, now you only have one chance to get it right. And if it’s a fluid, moving situation, you don’t want to take a chance on missing the entire thing due to over- or underexposure. So I’ll switch over to the Shutter Priority Auto setting on my cameras. I want this flavor of auto exposure because even though I can’t bracket exposures, I still want to be in control of the motion within the frame. (With Aperture Priority mode, you’ll lose control over shutter speed, and thus any motion blur, in the frame.)

Youth soccer camp, New Orleans. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

A common version of this issue occurs when shooting football under artificial light, whether outdoors at night or in a domed stadium. The lighting is all optimized for the field of play. When a player scores and goes into the endzone (which is where lots of great jubilation photographs happen) the light falls off 1 to 2 f-stops. So suddenly the correct exposure on the field, say 1/2000th @ f2.8, slides right down to 1/500th or even 1/250th @ f2.8. The Auto Exposure mode takes care of this for you, but if you had been shooting on Manual, you’d probably find yourself with some very dark images to try and salvage.

So remember: situations where you have the luxury of bracketing exposure, use Manual mode. Whenever you’ll only have one chance to get it right, always shoot Automatic.  Do this and you’ll come away with more great photographs!

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

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Proper Digital Photography Exposure at The Discerning Photographer

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How Well Do You Know Your Camera? at Epic Edits

Metering Modes Explained at Digital Photography School

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

10 Comments on "How to Decide: Manual Exposure or Auto Exposure?"

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  1. A great post there. I think it is important for people to trust the camera. I use M,P,A,S modes depending on what I am shooting. I must admit I have learnt to trust P and use it alot of the time. You can set your min shutter speed and Max ISO, then trust the camera to keep everything in check. I then tend to chimp using the ev setting. It has taken a while for me to trust the camera, but it gets it right in most conditions!!!!

  2. When I was a beginner I was going for auto exposure but one day I decided I was going to take the step forward to improvement and I went for manual.

    At first it was really hard, then I got much better and now my pic quality is much better,

    I highly recommend it.

  3. Roy says:

    Thanks for a very helpful post. Using manual settings does seem to give more scope for distinctive and artistic photographs in many situations, in fact at one time with my old Canon EOS I used to use manual much of the time. However the more advanced cameras get the more automatic settings seem to do the job. I think my wife showed me that when she used her 3 year old cell phone camera to take some great shots of the royal wedding………off the TV screen!

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Roy. Off the TV screen, huh?

  5. Roy says:

    Yes indeed. Shows how much flat screen TVs have advanced.

  6. Steve says:

    Not sure David Bailey would go taking photos from TV footage lol yes does go to show how they have impoved! In all seriousness, you cant beat manual for a bit of artistic flair, automatic will give you nice clear shots for most things but you can get something a little bit ‘special’ through going manual. Thats my opinion anyway.

  7. Michelle says:

    Awesome tips! I think using Manual Exposure gives you more control of your photographs. I’ll try to use it more instead of using Auto Exposure. I’ll let you know if my photographs improved.

  8. Tammy says:

    Yes! 🙂 Come to think of it, your bases for choosing whether or not to use the manual mode makes a lot of sense. Why sacrifice being able to capture the moment when you can guarantee it with an auto mode? After all, I think that’s what photography is really about — being able to capture wonderful moments in the best possible ways. It’s not just all about creating shots that are awe-inspiring what with all a photographer’s skills in the craft.

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