Does Manual Give You Full Exposure Control, or Is Its Use Just Old Fashioned?

Does Manual Give You Full Exposure Control, or Is Its Use Just Old Fashioned?

Using manual exposure is considered professional use by many photographers. Sometimes, it is even considered the only serious way of using a camera, giving you full exposure control. But is this true, or is manual exposure just old fashioned?

Do you exclusively use manual exposure settings? If you do, why? Is it because you believe it is the only way to be a serious photographer? Or do you believe it will give you full control over the exposure? Perhaps it is just because it is just your preferred way of using your camera.

The cameras I have used throughout the years
The cameras I have used throughout the years.

Many photographers believe manual is the only way to have full exposure control. Although it is understandable, it is also not true. The ability to set both aperture and shutter speed at a given ISO setting doesn't give you full control. You are always limited by the amount of light that is present. 

But before I dive further into this, I want to take you on a small trip back in time. Let’s have a look at a few moments I believe will tell a few things about manual exposure.

1. The Light Meter of the Praktica MTL3

Let’s have a look at the Praktica MTL3, an old analog camera with full manual control and a built-in light meter. It might not be the first camera with a built-in light meter, but it originates from that period.

You had to press a button to activate the through-the-lens light meter (TTL light meter). It measured the amount of reflected light, and a small lever in the viewfinder gave an indication if your settings would give a proper exposure. The lever had to be horizontal for the correct exposure, exactly in the middle of the circle.

A simulation of the Praktica MTL3 viewfinder. The exposure is indicated on the right side of the viewfinder. In this case it shows underexposure.
A simulation of the Praktica MTL3 viewfinder. The exposure is indicated on the right side of the viewfinder. In this case, it shows underexposure.

If the lever was pointed towards the minus sign, the image would be underexposed. When the lever was pointed towards the plus sign, the image would be overexposed. You could manipulate aperture and shutter speed until the lever was in the horizontal position, resulting in a correct exposure. 

2. The Light Meter of the Minolta X-500

Let’s fast-forward a decade or so when the Minolta X-500 was one of the more advanced cameras around. Again, it was also a camera with a built-in TTL light meter. But it also had a computer that could change the shutter speed for you. No matter what aperture you chose, the computer made sure the correct shutter speed was used for proper exposure.

The lever inside the viewfinder was replaced by a list of shutter speed numbers and a row of red LEDs that indicated the calculated shutter speed. The beauty of the system was that it would make the correct exposure for you. Now, the photographer could give all his or her attention to the creative part of photography. There was almost no need to check the exposure anymore.

Manual exposure as seen through the viewfinder of the Minolta X-500. The blinking LED is the shutter speed that is chosen. The other LED indicated the right exposure. In this case the image would become 2 stops too dark.
Manual exposure as seen through the viewfinder of the Minolta X-500. The blinking LED is the shutter speed that is chosen. The other LED indicated the right exposure. In this case, the image would be two stops too dark.

Manual exposure was still possible, of course. If you used manual control, the camera would still indicate the recommended shutter speed, but it also indicated which shutter speed you had set by a blinking LED. This way, it became easy to adjust the shutter speed or aperture until you reached the right setting. The blinking LED had to match the burning LED.

3. The Light Meter of a Modern Digital Camera

Now, we have arrived in the digital age. Although the Minolta X-500 was modern at its time, it feels primitive compared to modern digital cameras. The blinking LEDs in the viewfinder are now replaced by a computer overlay that offers an enormous amount of information.

The cameras have different light meter possibilities and a lot of other automatic systems depending on the camera brand and type. If you use all the automation, the only thing that you need to do is point the camera, make a composition, and press the shutter.

Two modern Sony cameras next to each other. The LCD screen already shows the result of the manual settings. But it also mentions it is 1 stop overexposed, which is based on the measurement of the light meter.
Two modern Sony cameras next to each other. The LCD screen already shows the result of the manual settings. But it also mentions it is one stop overexposed, which is based on the measurement of the light meter.

But if you insist on using the manual exposure settings, nothing has changed. Just like the old analog cameras, the information in the viewfinder gives a value that tells you how much the current settings deviate from the advised setting. The image of the two Sony cameras is a good example. The current settings in that image are off by one stop compared to the measured amount of light.

Manual Exposure Is Old Fashioned

I know, it is a bold thing to say manual exposure is old fashioned. But if you look at the three examples I gave, using manual exposure with a modern camera is still the same compared to the Praktica MTL3 or the Minolta X-500. Every camera gives an indication of how much the settings deviate from what the light meter has measured. It is up to you to change the settings until it matches. Bottom line, if you use a manual exposure setting, you are using the built-in light meter, but you are also using the camera in an old-fashioned way.

Three generations, but these all do the same when using manual exposure. It shows how far the settings deviate from the measured exposure.
Three generations, but these all do the same when using manual exposure. They show how far the settings deviate from the measured exposure.

Although manual exposure may be considered old fashioned, it is not wrong to use it. On some occasions, it is even the best possible choice, and it will lead to better results. Bu,t I know manual is not the only way of getting the exposure right, despite some beliefs. In the end, it doesn't matter how you obtain the correct exposure. It is about the end result, not about the way you reach that goal. So, don't feel wrong about using automatic exposure and don't feel obligated to use manual. Both ways offer full control over your exposure.

The PASM wheel on a modern Olympus digital camera. Feel free to use whatever you like. Every setting of the PASM wheel will give full control of the exposure. You don't have to stick to manual for that.
The PASM wheel on a modern Olympus digital camera. Feel free to use whatever you like.

What if the Light Meter Measures a Wrong Exposure?

Every light meter has its shortcomings. Under certain circumstances, it will give a wrong setting. Some people may point out this is the moment when a manual exposure prevails over an automatic exposure. It's the moment when these photographers think to have full control. And indeed, in the manual, it is possible to deviate as much as wanted from the advised exposure. But that is also possible in automatic exposure.

Deviating from the advised exposure is called exposure correction. The deviation will be visible in the viewfinder of a modern camera. It's the EV number that is also visible in the image of the two Sony cameras.

The exposure correction dial offers the change to deviate from the exposure as measured by the light meter. It gives full control of the exposure.
The exposure correction dial offers the chance to deviate from the exposure as measured by the light meter. It gives full control of the exposure.

The funny thing is, almost every camera has exposure correction built-in. You can activate it with the plus-minus sign on some cameras. Other cameras have a dedicated exposure correction dial. In other words, if you use an automated exposure, the exposure correction allows you to deviate from that value. Often, you can change it up to three stops, sometimes even more.

Does Manual Exposure Still Have Value?

I showed how you can obtain a correct exposure both with manual and automatic exposure. It offers the same result and just as much control over the exposure. The automatic exposure is faster, and it also acts on changes in the light situation without problems most of the time. You would almost think manual exposure is old fashioned, just as I suggested.

But that is absolutely not true. Manual exposure is essential in certain situations. Manual exposure is also highly advisable when using flash.

Indoors and flash photography wil benefit from manual exposure settings. The results will be more consistent.
Indoor and flash photography benefit from manual exposure settings. The results will be more consistent.

On the other hand, when the light situation is not constant, it might be much easier and more flexible to let the camera set the right shutter speed for you. It is much quicker and accurate under these conditions, allowing you to give all attention to composition and the creative part of photography.

What I Think of Manual Mode

I believe there is nothing like an old fashioned way of using the camera. Under certain situations, a manual exposure setting is the best way to go. In other situations, automatic exposure is the better choice. Don't be misguided by believing automatic exposure is a bad thing. It is just like using the autofocus possibilities and all other modern functions. It helps you achieve focus in the most efficient way, but sometimes, manual focus is more reliable. Exposure is no different.

What do you think of manual exposure? Do you use it exclusively, or are you using all the possibilities available to get the right exposure in the most efficient way? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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35 Comments

Paul Wang Gosselin's picture

From what I get, same views here. By default, aperture first with exposure compensation and keeping an high on the computed shutter speed when on the field. Manual when using speedlights or when keeping a constant exposure is crucial (for example, when I plan to stitch several pictures together).

Nando Harmsen's picture

That is what I think also... use the setting that suits your photography the best

Tony Clark's picture

If you understand the way the meter is measuring light and the picture you’re striving for manual mode is rather fool proof. The real test is when you’re in a backlit situation or introducing flash to the scene.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Manual is not fool proof. I see so many photographers who feel the need for manual, but don't understand why their results are not good.

Tony Clark's picture

Nando, why do you feel compelled to respond to everyone's comments? It makes you look insecure, we can read and comprehend so stop trying to control the conversation.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Why not? It's like having a good discussion. It's great sharing ideas and opinions with others and talking about it.
Or do you think I should write the article and ignore every comment that follows?

Tony Clark's picture

Because you come across as trying to correct everyone you don't agree with.

Nando Harmsen's picture

That is not my intention

Holger Genenger's picture

Its much easier to control depth of field and motion blur in manual mode (if this is needed).
Anyway: Many roads lead to Rome.

Nando Harmsen's picture

True, many roads lead to Rome. :)

Mike Dee's picture

In Aperture mode you control the depth of field and in Shutter mode you control the motion blur... which is easier than in Manual because the camera takes care of the other parameter. The only thing 'easier' about manual (which I always use btw) is getting the same exposure every shot, no matter how much light/dark parts you have in the frame

Scott Larsen's picture

1. When I'm in full-auto mode, it's too easy for me to be un-intentional, and if I'm being un-intentional then what am I doing with my camera out?

2. When I'm in one of the two Priority modes, then too often camera tends to go more extreme than I want (e.g. in Tv it'll open the aperture too wide for the needed focus, or kick ISO higher than I want, etc.). Also, I very often find myself switching from one of the Priority modes to the other. "Extra clicks" so to speak.

3. I often shoot with multi-modal histogram scenes - auto exposure is a hassle in those cases. Yeah, I can shift it around, off the recommendation, but at that point I'm turning a dial anyway: if I'm going to turn a dial, I might as well turn the dial I want on purpose.

If I'm in full-manual I can just pick up the camera, keep an eye on the histograms in real-time, adjust the dial under my finger and the dial under my thumb, and shoot and get what I want, on purpose. It's way less "clicks," way less mental overhead, and super easy for me to be intentional. As Tony says: modern manual is fool-proof (assuming live view in the view finder, etc.)

In other words: it's _less_ work for me to shoot manually, and I get the results I want on purpose.

So, I'd reverse the question: Why _not_ do it full-manual? It's easier, less clicks, and encourages intentionality.

(Answer: when there's not time (e.g. journalism, streets, etc. - I get all those and for those: yeah, go full auto for sure) )

Nando Harmsen's picture

If you know how a camera and light meter works, Av and Tv modes work perfectly and don't lead the camera to go extreme. In all my decennia of photography, I never experienced that kind of behaviour.
You use your dials (aperture and shutter) to get the exposure right.
I use just one dial to get the exposure right (EV compensation)
In the end it doesn't matter, as long as the exposure is correct. :)

Mike Dee's picture

but Nando... you say you use only one dial.. but everytime you have a different frame and include more/less sun.. or shadow you have to turn that dial again. Scott.. in manual mode.. can keep shooting, no matter how much of the white bride (for example) is filling his frame

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

If the light changes enough, you are going to have to turn a dial regardless if in manual or not.

Nando Harmsen's picture

If the light is changing you also have to change the manual setting. But I agree, if the light is not changing at all, a manual setting will be better.
In both aperture priority and manual you have full control of your settings, regardless what some say.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I primarily use manual when using flash. Or, when the shoot is slow paced enough and I just want to hear and feel the clicks. "Click. Click click click. Click."

Naruto Uzumaki's picture

I typically use full manual, with occasional use of auto ISO in situations where the lighting on the subject can change too rapidly and metering errors will be less of an issue than potentially larger issues with manual ISO. For example, when I was taking photos of a cute rabbit, I used auto ISO, but kept the shutter speed and aperture on manual. The reasoning was that the rabbit would randomly move around and go to locations with varying light.

I avoid any auto control over shutter speed or aperture because those are things that the camera cannot reliably determine. The camera will follow certain rules related to focal length, but they do not take into account the subject. e.g., if a subject stops moving and I have the framing right, I will go with the safe shots, and then gradually reduce shutter speed and ISO in an attempt to lean more on OIS and potentially get a better SNR.

When you get a feel for a camera and lens combo, you can more reliably determine how far you can push things based on what is needed to photograph the subject.

Nando Harmsen's picture

If you use auto-ISO the camera will correct the ISO setting according to the light meter measurement. You keep shutterspeed and aperture the same, but as long as the ISO is on auto, you are not using full manual control

Ed C's picture

Nando you are being captain obvious. That is just repeating what the OP said and how many of us use manual with auto iso.

Naruto Uzumaki's picture

Agreed, that is why I do not use it often. One occasion was when I was tracking a cute rabbit. The cloud coverage was frequently changing and the rabbit was unwilling to hold still for a portrait session, and was also unwilling to alter his or her paths to avoid locations with low lighting. In that case, I know which shutter speed I needed, as well as which aperture I wanted, as I was not taking pictures as he or she was running, and use those moments when the rabbit stopped for a second or 2 to look around. While auto ISO is not the best solution since the metering does not always make the right decision for the scene, it is better than trying to manually adjust in a situation where the subject is not cooperating, and not holding still for long.

Outside of situations like that, I use manual ISO as well as then I can avoid situations where it picks the wrong ISO for the scene, and the post processing that I have in mind.

Metering is never fully accurate, and exposure compensation (which can also bias the auto ISO), is not the best solution since if the metering is not wrong in a consistent manner, then you are simply adding an offset to an erroneous constantly changing initial value. Think of it like trying to calibrate a rifle scope using only a single shot between adjustment attempts on a windy day.

Michael Piziak's picture

Most of my lens for my Pentax are manual. So I use manual, but I hit the "green button" which then stops down on the lens and determines shutter speed/exposure. So I "kinda" use manual.

Anthony McKee's picture

Every time I have switched over to the auto settings on my camera I have been disappointed by the results, so I shoot manual mode 99.99 percent of the time. Then again, most light meters are designed to work with average lighting conditions... but I often work more in challenging light conditions with dark backgrounds or strong backlighting.

Nando Harmsen's picture

If you are talking about full auto, I can image the results are dissapointing. ButAv or Tv modes should give good results. Even in challenging conditions. Learning how the light meter works is important here, and using the exposure compensation.

Michael parker's picture

I'm surprised you don't have a section in the article about Auto ISO/ISOmatic/SemiManual mode. Back in the days of film you could mess with your ISO if you wanted to but generally, you set it once for a roll and left it. Modern digital cameras can choose the ISO for you (if you like). I think these days some people say "manual" without being explicit about whether they are letting the ISO be determined by the camera or if they are shooting "fully manual". Speaking personally, I'm still figuring out what I want to use in each situation,

Bruce Hunter's picture

I will agree with you for everything that you addressed. However, what is missing is incident metering. I find that I have my best results when doing outdoor portraits is this method. It does not consider clothing colors or skin colors. It works well for me.

Nando Harmsen's picture

It requires a portable light meter, and indeed. It is not influenced by the color of the subject. Unfortunately it takes time to use it, which isn't always available

Shaun Whitson's picture

I like Pentax's Hyper Manual mode which is really underrated. It stays in Program mode but can then automatically shift between Aperture priority and Shutter priority. Pentax even offers TAv, unlike anyone else. http://www.ricoh-imaging.co.jp/english/explore/technic/002/?utm_source=r...

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

I use Manual about 99% of the time, just because I'm a control freak about my camera settings. I hate when the camera automatically changes an exposure setting without me being the one telling it to do so. I think I'm also just used to it because I shoot enough various film cameras that don't have auto exposure anyway that it's just a "default" approach now.

Used to be very pretentious about shooting Manual, but now I just do it because it's what works best for me.

wim gelders's picture

Can somebody teach the writer of this article how to use manual exposure CORRECTLY.
Of course a lightmeter isn't always right.
You have to do the interpretation of the scene yourself. You can see if you have backlight and expose correctly for the situation, the camera doesn't know. If there is snow in the photo and you want it to be white instead of grey, you have to adapt the exposure, the camera doesn't know, and so on.
You can also use different ways of measuring the light. Center weighted, matrix, spot metering, ..., each mode can result in different exposures.
For more than 20 years, I do concerts, weddings, nature, lansscapes, ... Always fully manual, mostly using spot metering, and I have correct exposure 95% of the time ... because I know what I do AND because I decide upfront what I want the photo to look like. With enough exercise and an average IQ, anyone can do it.

Nando Harmsen's picture

It is clear you don't understand the things I tried to say in my article.

Mike Dee's picture

I'm always on manual.. except for when the surrounding light keeps changing. In a room.. or when the deck of clouds move fast and I dont want to keep turning my dials all the time.

Michael Clark's picture

Manual exposure is one tool in the toolbox. It's a very valuable one that often leads to the best results in many use cases. But there are other tools (i.e. exposure modes) that are sometimes more appropriate for other use cases. An important part of being a skilled craftsman in any field is being able to identify which among all of the tools at one's disposal will maximize the chances of getting the desired result, and then selecting that tool for that task.

Wallace Thrasher's picture

This is really scraping the bottom of the barrel for content. The first two paragraphs are oddly passive aggressive.

Doug Blake's picture

SCreaming*UnderbreatH