8 Situations When Manual Exposure Is the Best Choice

8 Situations When Manual Exposure Is the Best Choice

Some photographers still believe that it’s important to shoot in manual mode, no matter what situation they’re in. As long as the correct exposure is achieved, it isn’t important if this is done manually or partly by the camera itself. But sometimes, manual is indeed the best choice.

Modern cameras offer the ability to set part of the exposure settings automatically. It allows you to achieve the correct exposure much faster. If you like, you can also make all the settings yourself in manual mode. The camera shows an indication if the correct exposure is achieved or how much you need to adjust to get the exposure. This is all based on the measurement by the camera itself.

In a way, setting the correct exposure manually transforms your modern camera into an old camera. You are using the camera just like the first cameras with built-in exposure meter. It will be necessary to dial the aperture and shutter speed until the settings match the measured light.

Using manual exposure setting is like using your modern camera like this old Voigtländer. It's not wrong, but sometimes strange if an automatic exposure setting makes more sense.

Automatic or Manual Exposure, the Result Is the Same

Instead of dialing every setting yourself, it is much easier and quicker to use an automatic mode. Just choose the aperture and let the camera set the corresponding shutter speed for you. Or choose a shutter speed, and let the camera set the aperture. With modern cameras, it’s even possible to use auto-ISO if you like.

No matter what exposure setting you use, the end result will be a good exposure. The only difference is the way the settings are made. But sometimes, manual is the better choice.

There are instances when the measured amount of light doesn’t show the best possible exposure. Just like in manual mode, the automatic exposure modes offer you the ability to correct things. This is the exposure correction, thus giving full control over the exposure just like in manual mode.

Photography is about creating a wonderful image, not about the way you set the correct exposure. By leaving some of the settings to the camera it will give you more time to find the best way of photographing your subject and to choose a great composition.

Still, there are also situations in which the manual setting is the best choice. I have eight situations in which manual exposure setting does indeed offer the most control over the exposure.

1. To Learn About the Relationship Between Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO

If you are a beginning photographer, you might want to learn about the relationship between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. By using manual mode, you have the ability to practice how a change in settings can be compensated by the other.

Do you have time on your hands and want to learn about the relationship between exposure settings? Manual is a good way to learn.

Just make sure to practice only if time is available, because it will take longer to achieve the right exposure. If you don’t have the time, just use one of the automatic exposure settings. Don’t be ashamed to do so. It’s more important to get the image, instead of the way you have set the exposure.

2. When Using Flash Indoors

Perhaps one of the most important reasons to set the camera manually is using flash indoors. To understand this, you need to know the basics about flash photography.

The exposure settings will determine how much of the ambient light will appear in the image. Flash will take care of the exposure of the subject.

Dial in the exposure for the ambient light, and use flash to expose the subject. Manual is the best way to go most of the time.

If the room you’re in has a constant amount of light, you need to set the exposure to the ambient light once and leave it there. This way, the exposure settings won’t be influenced if a bright window appears in the frame.

It’s the same if you’re in a studio. In this case, you don’t want the ambient light to appear in the image. Since flash is the main light source, you have to set the exposure to the flash intensity. The best way is to set the exposure manually.

Since flash will be the main light in a studio, manual exposure settings are almost always needed.

3. Shooting Indoors Without Flash

If you don’t want to use flash indoors or you are not allowed to do so, a manual exposure setting is often the best choice. Indoors, the light is mostly constant, meaning you can set the exposure once and keep it there.

If flash is not possible, you need to use the ambient light. Don't trust the light meter, because it is sensitive to changes in the light you capture, even if the light level is constant.

Again, the settings won’t get influenced if a bright light source or a very dark area appears in the frame. But you have to be aware to check the exposure for every room you use. After all, the amount of light can be different.

Then again, when shooting in a wide variety of rooms, switching over to an automatic setting may prove more flexible. It may prevent the need for changing settings over and over again.

4. Making Panoramas

The amount of light depends on the angle relative to the sunlight. If you shoot panoramas, that angle may change a lot, and the light meter may show a different reading between shots.

The exposure for the left frame is different compared to the right frame of this panorama. Dial in the average for the best result.

To prevent a different exposure setting between the different frames, it’s best to determine the average exposure and set it manually. Although the dynamic range of modern cameras will allow a certain flexibility, it’s good practice to keep a manual exposure for every panorama you make.

5. Night Photography

Depending on the location, it might be necessary to switch over to manual mode when shooting at night. If there’s enough artificial light available, you probably can use one of the automatic settings, but in dark environments, the light meter will try to expose for medium gray, which will lead to overexposed images.

A light meter tries to expose for medium gray (18% gray). In a mostly dark environment, that doesn't work that well. Manual offers more control.

If you want to shoot star trails or a set of images for stacking, a fixed exposure setting is also the best way to go. The last thing you want is a change in exposure settings if the light meter is influenced by some random light source.

6. When the Light Can Change Abruptly

As we all know, an automatic setting will act on any change in light at once. It’s one of the benefits of the automatic settings. But if you don’t want the exposure to be influenced by an abrupt change in light, you need to switch to manual mode.

If light is changing a lot, like in this example, the automatic exposure will get confused. Use manual for the best results.

One example of this situation is light painting. Fireworks are another great example of these situations. By switching over to manual, you are able to set the best possible exposure, and it won’t change if light is added to the scenery.

7, Long Exposure Photography

Most camera still have a 30-second limit, although nowadays, some offer 60 seconds or even more. If you need an exposure that exceeds that limit, you need a special manual setting. This is the bulb setting.

For a long exposure, bulb can be necessary. It's also a manual setting. This image was exposed for two minutes.

The bulb setting allows you to take the extremely long exposures that are needed with a neutral density filter. When the exposure time doesn’t exceed the limit, an automatic exposure setting may be possible. Still, it might be wise to switch over to manual. It gives you more flexibility and control, just like the situation when the light is changing during exposure.

8. Just Because You Like Using Manual Mode

I saved this one for last. You don’t need any reason for shooting in manual mode. If you like this way of operating the camera, you should do so. There is no need to justify your choice, and you don’t need an empty excuse like having full control over your camera.

On most occasions, it doesn't matter if you use manual exposure or one of the automatic ones. Just use the way you like the most.

Just set your camera the way you prefer. The only thing that’s important is the result, no matter how you achieved it.

How do you prefer to set the exposure? Are you using the possibilities your camera is offering you, or are you still using the camera in the old-fashioned way? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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I can't imagine taking pictures in anything other than manual mode. If I were taking pics of birds in flight with changing light conditions, perhaps shutter or aperture priority would make more sense, but for just about everything else, set the camera to M and RAW and shoot away.

I’m sure that someone will argue but the back display and histogram are great reasons to use manual mode. It doesn’t take long to understand the exposure triangle and evaluate the scene, in order to capture the images you visualize. I say, chimp to your hearts content.

I use manual when using flash indoors AND outdoors. Other than that, Aperture Priority 99% of the time. With that said, I've been using flash more lately which equates to me shooting manual about 80% of the time. Yes, my math rocks. :D

This is interesting, I saw the word easier and quicker. If this is in your vocabulary when shooting then your a tourist. Use your phone then. Letting tech completely take the composition, maybe I want boka. I take my time when I shoot, I plan my shoots. Enjoy the moment, show the world what you see. Not what ever the programing decides what the standard is. I love the tech, manual dial it in. Learn your gear don't be lazy. I enjoy shooting, I enjoy life now. Plus it isn't that hard

So if someone isn't working manually, it's not a photographer? I believe you're a good photographer if you can use the benefit of the system you have.
In your case, I would say if you're not using manual focus, you are using the easier and quicker way. That makes you a tourist also.
It's not about lazy, it's about knowing your gear and making benefit of it.

1. Camera automatic settings don't do compositions.

2. You do realize about half of your photos are out of focus?

3. Correct me if I'm wrong, but, why do a lot of your photos look like they were snapped with a phone? Were they?

4. Why do the captions in literally all your Instagram posts have "GoodVibes!!NoBadDays!!", yet, you come here angry and condescending (lol).

I wouldn't recommend keeping the third on automatic. In that case it is always a variable which makes it more difficult to learn the relation between shutterspeed and aperture.
Keep it fixed, just like back in the old days with film.