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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.