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.
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.)
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!
Hi, 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
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