Exposure Compensation: Manual Shooting Without Being In Manual

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Disclaimer: Before I get started, I should preface the article by saying that this is somewhat of an advanced topic. If you aren’t comfortable with terms like aperture, shutter speed, ISO and metering and how they work together to create an image, then this article may confuse you at times. Don’t be afraid, just break out your camera manual and give it a shot!

The Brilliance of Today’s Digital SLR’s

Digital cameras are incredibly intelligent and powerful tools. They can detect and read light, decide exposure values, adjust for white balance, detect contrast to achieve focus, and a whole list of other things that go on behind the scenes that we never even notice. DSLR’s are so smart in fact, that some new photographers make the argument that there is no reason to ever get out of automatic! While I could write an entire article on why that would be a mistake, I will tuck that away for later.

Manual shooting is something that many photogs (even pro’s) are afraid of. When you shoot manual, you are basically turning most of your camera’s systems off. You still have a light meter, but you have to decide if that meter is going to be correct or not. To do this, you have to adjust both aperture and shutter speed to get the correct exposure.

While all photographers are different, I often put aperture before shutter speed. What I mean is that I rarely use shutter speed as a creative function (there are certainly times that I do, but I can easily switch settings if needed). Because of my shooting style, when I shoot in manual I’m usually only adjusting my shutter speed to make the meter show the correct exposure. I’ve already decided my aperture and I want it to stay where I put it.

Exposure compensation essentially lets the photographer shoot in Aperture Value with a manual mindset. Because our cameras are so smart these days my exposures are usually spot on. In Av mode, I simply set my aperture (or depth of field) and my camera decides what my shutter speed will be. When I shoot in Av, I’m constantly looking at my the shutter speed my camera is deciding on and making sure it’s quick enough to get sharp images. If it’s too slow, I first adjust my ISO up to get it quicker. If I have to push the ISO too far I’ll then consider changing my aperture if possible.

Knowing When Your Camera Will Fail

Sometimes the camera screws up. After all, it’s only a computer! Fortunately, with a little experience you can pretty much predict when and how your camera will miss the mark on exposure. You see; while it seems a bit odd a camera is quite freaked out by the colors black and white. If left to it’s own devices a camera will try to take black or white and turn it to gray. In other words, if you’re taking a picture of a person in the middle of snow covered field your camera will try to underexpose the image to get away from having any white in the frame. To a camera, white means one thing: Blown highlights. On the flip side, if you take a picture of that same person against a black background the camera will want to overexpose the image to get away from having clipped shadows. Once you learn how a camera works in this area, it becomes easy to know when you need to override what your camera thinks.

Here’s an example:

I was out doing some yard work one day and found a black widow spider with a nest underneath a brick wall. Being the typical male that I am, my father-in-law and I proceeded to find a stick and play with the spider and eventually got it crawling around on the stick. I ran inside and grabbed the camera while my father-in-law held the stick in the air.

I had just gotten back from a photo shoot and hadn’t changed my camera setting back to normal yet. I had spot metering on, which means instead of using the entire image to decide what the exposure should be, it will only use the single focus point that you have selected in your viewfinder. When I placed that single focus point over the spider, all the camera saw to meter from was black. Since all it saw was black, here’s what my camera produced…

Let’s be honest, that isn’t a very good image. My camera was spot metering on the black widow, so I ended up with a washed out, overexposed image that just looks sloppy. Seeing the mistake on the back of my camera, I quickly dialed in -1 stop of exposure compensation. This means I’m telling my camera to come up with an exposure as it sees fit, but whatever it decides, I’m putting in an override to underexpose it by 1 stop of light. Lucky for me, when I dialed in the correct exposure, everything came together; the position of the spider, the focus, and the beautiful shiny black color of the black widow.

Here’s the next image I took, along with a bit of post processing to add a bit of detail.

Note: One black widow spider was eventually harmed in order to bring you this image.

Great, so how do I compensate exposure!?

It’s really easy! On a Canon xxD DSLR, just use the dial wheel on the back of the camera when you’re in Av or Tv mode. If you’re in Av, spinning the wheel in either direction will adjust the exposure compensation up or down using shutter speed to let in more or less light. If you’re in Tv mode, spinning the wheel will adjust aperture to let in more and less light. If you are at 0 exposure compensation, you will see a mark in the middle of your exposure meter on your cameras LCD or in the viewfinder. If you spin the wheel in either direction, you will see the mark move either up or down.

If you have a Canon Rebel series camera or any Nikon camera, simply refer to your camera’s user manual and refer to the section on Aperture Value (Canon) or Aperture Priority (Nikon).

Putting It All Together

So, why shoot in Aperture Value with a mindset of shooting in Manual, when you could just shoot in Manual? Well, it basically comes down to one thing: Time. Knowing that my camera will get the shutter speed part of the equation right about 9 times out of 10, that means that I can simply set my aperture and take pictures at will. I don’t have to constantly be adjusting shutter speed up or down to get the meter in the middle, I just let me camera decide that part and keep shooting away. If I notice that my camera is starting to get it wrong, I look at my environment and try to figure out why, then adjust my exposure compensation accordingly.

So Does This Mean Manual is Useless?

Absolutely not! There are still plenty of times when manual is the clear winner. I like to use manual any time my lighting conditions are going to be somewhat constant throughout a series of photographs. If I’m in a room with constant lighting and my subject isn’t moving around much, I’ll always shoot manual because I can simply dial in the exposure for the subject and shoot away. If I’m shooting into the sun, I’ll use manual. Any time I need complete control over the camera, I go manual. It just depends on the situation.

Feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments. I always do my best to answer them in the comments below. You can also follow me on twitter (@jamesdbrandon) and shoot me a question there as well. Have fun!

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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

  • Terry Byford.

    Come on, you over sensitive souls. Every time you set off in a park, a wood, a forest, or even your own gardens in the pursuit of grabbing photos of flowers, trees or landscapes, just how many ants, spiders or a myriad of other insects to you kill when you tread all over the place with you size 9 boots? Just how many had to die for YOUR photo?

    Can we agree to cease this silliness in this thread, please, and only comment on the matter in hand? I for one am getting fed up with my email inbox being cluttered with such pettiness.

  • Selena – I’m not willing to leave a black widow spider in the same yard where my two little nephews come over to play in ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for the comments everyone, I truly appreciate them!

  • Nancy

    Well said Terry and James. I have to agree with both of you. As a new member I was surprised at the silly responses.

  • Rick Buch

    Excellent article. I already shoot in aperture priority with my D50 75% of the time. The other 25% is in full manual in a studio setting. I have been shooting in raw so I could correct the mistakes the camera and I make. The first thing I do with each shot is adjust the white and black level sliders. This was my first introduction to how a camera actually interprets blacks and whites and helped give me a better understanding. Maybe now I can master the levels closer in my camera. Thanks.

  • I feel like Aperture mode with exposure compensation works well outside except of shooting into the sun photos etc.

    For indoor photos Manual mode works better because light is not changing that much and in Aperture mode a lot of pictures are ending up too dark when there’s a window or other light source behind the subject (and spot-metering with black suits and white dresses involved doesn’t work out that well either). When shooting in the same room I know after a couple of shots which shutter speed to use for the darker area in the corner and the brighter area closer to the window. Once the appropriate setting is chosen for the room I don’t change the ISO and the aperture normally stays somewhere between f2.8 and f4 (on that note – I’m not a big fan of using prime lenses for fast-paced events anymore so using zoom-lenses f2.8 is as fast as it gets, while if possible shooting with f4 normally supports a better sharpness without losing too much bokeh). So the only thing I have to change in the above situations is the shutter speed.

    One other good thing about Manual mode is that you have more constant exposure in a series of photos being shot at the same place/same subject which makes it more easy in post-processing to adjust one of the photos and synchronize (which is I guess only something relevant for Lightroom/Aperture users though).

    This being said, I think Aperture mode should be the choice for mostly any leisure photography so don’t worry too much about the camera settings and focus more on framing the image and enjoying photography.

  • monty

    Why not use auto & shoot in RAW & play in post

  • Jim

    To Monty..Because the ‘Art’ of making a photograph is first to do all you can with the Camera, Then you can ‘Play’ with it to your hearts content in Photoshop. A good image made in the camera to the best of are ability always exceeds a bad picture trumped up in Photoshop.

  • @monty

    1. full auto leaves you no control of depth-of-field.
    2. repairing pictures instead of getting them right consumes time and results in lower quality pictures
    3. there are limitations: too dark and you’ll end up with noise and off-colors after fixing the exposure – too bright and details in the highlights are lost

  • Jim

    To Paul vS..Agreed, get it right in the camera first..Then’Play with it later.

  • Monty – correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe you have the option to shoot in Auto and RAW? I could be wrong, but when I had my 40D if I went to Auto my images automatically switched from RAW to JPG.

    And I certainly agree with Jim and Pauls answers to your question. Shooting in auto is ‘taking’ pictures, shooting in a creative mode like Av, Tv or M is ‘making’ pictures. HUGE difference!

  • Zero-Equals-Infinity

    I shoot Av a lot, manually occasionally, and Shutter Priority once in a blue moon, and have never shot Programmed mode. (No snobbery there … l promise.) I also shoot to the right in raw. Shooting in raw is a must for me, since there is a good stop of headroom which can be taken advantage of if the camera shows moderate over-exposure. Shooting to the right means that there is more information recorded than if the image was shot normally. The risk is over-exposure, (but then that is what bracketing was invented for, along with HDR possibilities.)

    Dialing in compensation is easy, and fast. Take a test shot, look at the histogram, and provided the lighting has not changed dial in whatever compensation you wish. Please note, that compensation will change your shutter speed if you are in aperture priority and aperture if you are in shutter priority. Use Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilization (IS) if your lens has this feature, (except for tripod shooting with anything other than very long lenses.)

    One more thing, when the shutter speed gets slow relative to the focal length of your lens, you have to find ways to stabilize the gear, be it via tripod, monopod, table-top, tree, or just very good hand-holding technique. You can reduce vibration by using mirror-up, which I do when I take long hand-held shots, and I have gotten tack sharp images at 1/4 of second on my 105 mm lens which has VR, but only by using every trick in the book with my D3X, (which is hellishly unforgiving of vibration induced blur.) Good hand-holding technique involves forming stable geometric forms (i.e. triangles), whether standing sitting or shooting prone. Note: Every trick I learned to be a good marksman applies to camera hand-holding, including breath control and gently pushing the shutter as the lungs reach the valley of exhalation. Use a shutter release cable, even when hand-held on long shots, it reduces the vibration to not have to apply pressure to the shutter on the camera body.

  • Samantha

    Thanks for the info. I’m an entry-level photographer, and I’ve always shot in manual mode because I like the idea of “being in control” of my camera and being able to adjust everything readily, but I think I might switch over and give AV mode a try now. There’ve been several times when I’ve been shooting during a partly cloudy day and suddenly there’s a break in the cloud cover (that I don’t notice immediately and so I’m still happily shooting away), which results in my photos being over-exposed, but I might just go with AV from now on if it’ll automatically set the shutter speed to try to prevent that. Thanks!

  • Harshad Rathod

    Thanks James for giving the link to this article. It looks like a personalized article for me! Needed this one.

    Thanks once again.

  • Nabajit

    Sir I have bought a canon 1100D SLR two days ago. and i have to learn a lot. Your blogs has convinced me to buy this camera. Sir I have a problem that the text of the viewfinder of my camera is not clear. is it normal. or how can i correct it. And I want to know more about av exposure and aperture of a camera. What is the work of aperture. and what what should be the aperture value in low light condition inside a room and a shiny outdoor. thanks in advance.

  • Rafael John

    can I ask, so if your subject is dark ( the metering will make it brighter so it registers as 18% gray) but in return overexposes the white areas(like background for this image)
    and I need to counter that by underexposing right?

    so if my subjects is brgiht I have to up my exposure compensation right? ( since it will make whites darker resulting to be 17% grey.? Cheers
    I think im getting this now…

  • TerryB

    John,

    Re your first paragraph, that’s basically it. Because a handheld meter is calibrated to 18% grayscale, whatever you point it at, it will translate its exposure to render 18% grayscale. However, even knowing this, you still need to interpret the reading because most subject matter is a combination of many luminosities based on the light reflected by individual colours and which a b/w film interprets as contrast. Normally, this isn’t so much of a problem as you know that 18% grayscale is in fact an average.

    However, in my earlier posting, I was referring to how slavishly following a meter reading from a single colour, in this case black or white, would in fact produce a black that was heading towards gray, and a white that was also heading towards gray.

    By transposing my chessboard example to a real life situation, portraiture, I believe you understand what will happen to your subject if you simply rely on the unadjusted meter reading. Another real world example is taking photographs in snow. Doesn’t it look lovely and white in real life, but take a photo based on an unadjusted meter reading and it will come out grayish. So if you want white snow, in b/w photography one needs to give up to 2 stops more exposure than indicated by the meter.

    Re your second paragraph, it is as you say, a question of adjusting the metered exposure to properly expose for that part of the subject that is of the main interest, especially if the subject white or black (bright or dark). Once you grasp the principle, which it appears you have, it is then just a question of experimenting to build up your experience so you get the result you know you are after.

    You can use a digital camera to emulate this. Set it to record in monochrome and manual operation, but do not use its built in meter for this test as modern digital cameras have metering systems that are designed to “guess” your subject and will compensate accordingly. Then, using the readings from a hand-held meter take photos based on the metered exposure and then adjust manually up or down and look at the results, paying particular attention to how you main subject looks.

  • Nicholas

    terrb has given an excellent explanation.

    Something which is worth doing as an exercise is to shoot some images that are dark key (black background and overall bias), white key (white background and overall bias), and normal. In each case, tripod mount your camera and shoot 5 exposures shot at 1 stop apart in Aperture priority with fixed ISO. Let the camera take the initial exposure with no (e.g. “0”) compensation, and use all the exposure points (as opposed to centre biased or spot metering mode.) If your camera supports bracketing the easiest thing to do is to set it up for 5 exposures, 1 stop apart. (see your camera manual for details.) If your camera does not support bracketing, or it is easier, set the compensation to -2, and take a shot, then -1, then 0, then +1, and lastly +2. For each type of the three types of image (dark key, white key and normal), you will have a range of exposures. Looking at the dark key image you will likely find that the least exposed (-2) shot looks properly exposed, whereas for the normal image the uncompensated (0) shot should look most properly exposed, and for the white key image, the most exposed (+2) image should look most properly exposed.

    Did I say, always shoot raw … well do that as it enables recovery from a number of moderate exposure problems.

    Shooting to the right is shooting based on the histogram. The idea is to always expose so as to bias the captured image towards a higher exposure, (without blowing out on the right.) If you are shooting in raw there is a little more latitude for overexposure, but it is best to adopt a mindset that does not count on being able to recover from overexposure. (i.e. Shoot to the right, but not right off the end.) The reason for this doing this is to retain as much detail in the shadows, and to have as noise free an image as possible. It may not look ideal on the screen, but when you come to post-process it later, (with a curve or level adjustment,) you will have the ability to realise the best image quality.

    None of this particularly tricky, if you just follow the basic rules:
    1) Shoot to the right, but not right over the edge (of the histogram).
    2) Always shoot in raw, (because you have more latitude for exposure problems and white balance issues.)

    Level and curve adjustments are very basic post-processing adjustments which are supported by even the most basic post-processing tools. (Keep in mind that Photoshop CS 2 has been released copyright free by Adobe recently to discourage piracy, so you can download it from Adobe.) Everyone is remotely serious about photography should learn the basics of post-processing, (exposure adjustment via curves and levels, and white balance correction.) There are a ton of free tutorials on U-tube and other places. Don’t be intimidated, just follow the lesson, and practice it until comfortable.

    An excellent resource is Cambridge in Colour — see http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/ The site is an excellent resource for beginner to advanced photographers. Check it out, and you will find lessons and articles on just about any photographic issue.

  • rafael john (@FLAMEDidea)

    Thanks a lot! I get the concept now ๐Ÿ™‚
    I’ll keep on experimenting still, and will keep this tips in mind always.
    No problem on the post process, I am very familiar with curves and levels adj. since I am a graphics artist.
    I really love histograms cause it gives me the hint for my exposure ( which I really ignored before in photohshop) but I guess its really just a guide for me,

    Thanks! I’m an aspiring street photographer and the mixed light/shadows are really hard for me, exposure compensation will really help me.

  • Alexandra Chopra

    Just wondering why exactly you put it in manual if shooting into the sun? Also I have been reading article after article trying to understand about exposure in manual mode. Your article helped alot, it is clear! The main thing I am struggling with is silhouettes. And shooting at the beach, shooting into the sun. I can’t get a silhouette to work, not for the life of me. Any advice, or tips? There seems to be something im missing! Example, just messing around trying to get it to work. My image ended up dark and grey….is it because it was not a sunset with nice colours? Just a blue sky? Im so frustrated lol.

  • Naushad

    Good read. “If I notice that my camera is starting to get it wrong, I look at my environment and try to figure out why, then adjust my exposure compensation accordingly.” -> the simpler/faster would be to look at the photo in the camera screen and decide + or -. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Cindy

    just wondered why when I go into any other modes, and set the ISO and aperture..right before I click my picture, my whole picture is faded to almost a white picture….why?

  • Chalice Ebow

    What mode would you suggest shooting a wedding in using a T3i? It’s my first wedding and I don’t want too much time between shots due to processing or due to changing settings.

    Thanks.

  • Leigh Hudson

    looks like you needed to adjust your aperture as your camera is compensating for too much light.you could try using polarising filters too.hope that helps

  • Leigh Hudson

    Depending on what your camera settings are.some cameras have a what your eyes see image on screen but that is not what your image will be like.this is just to help in low key situations where light is minimal.

  • Louise Worthy

    i try and explain the best way I can , Its a bright day umbrella for shade in manual mode took dial in exposure sot the dial meter was in the middle took a pic of my niece and her face was dark , what did i do wrong why didnt her face show ?

  • Wesam

    I share the same style with you 100%. I’m on AV value all the times when my eye on the shutter speed while adjusting the ISO to make sure I get what I want. Exposure compensation is a must use for me

Some Older Comments

  • rafael john (@FLAMEDidea) April 8, 2013 08:35 am

    Thanks a lot! I get the concept now :)
    I'll keep on experimenting still, and will keep this tips in mind always.
    No problem on the post process, I am very familiar with curves and levels adj. since I am a graphics artist.
    I really love histograms cause it gives me the hint for my exposure ( which I really ignored before in photohshop) but I guess its really just a guide for me,

    Thanks! I'm an aspiring street photographer and the mixed light/shadows are really hard for me, exposure compensation will really help me.

  • Nicholas April 8, 2013 07:34 am

    terrb has given an excellent explanation.

    Something which is worth doing as an exercise is to shoot some images that are dark key (black background and overall bias), white key (white background and overall bias), and normal. In each case, tripod mount your camera and shoot 5 exposures shot at 1 stop apart in Aperture priority with fixed ISO. Let the camera take the initial exposure with no (e.g. "0") compensation, and use all the exposure points (as opposed to centre biased or spot metering mode.) If your camera supports bracketing the easiest thing to do is to set it up for 5 exposures, 1 stop apart. (see your camera manual for details.) If your camera does not support bracketing, or it is easier, set the compensation to -2, and take a shot, then -1, then 0, then +1, and lastly +2. For each type of the three types of image (dark key, white key and normal), you will have a range of exposures. Looking at the dark key image you will likely find that the least exposed (-2) shot looks properly exposed, whereas for the normal image the uncompensated (0) shot should look most properly exposed, and for the white key image, the most exposed (+2) image should look most properly exposed.

    Did I say, always shoot raw ... well do that as it enables recovery from a number of moderate exposure problems.

    Shooting to the right is shooting based on the histogram. The idea is to always expose so as to bias the captured image towards a higher exposure, (without blowing out on the right.) If you are shooting in raw there is a little more latitude for overexposure, but it is best to adopt a mindset that does not count on being able to recover from overexposure. (i.e. Shoot to the right, but not right off the end.) The reason for this doing this is to retain as much detail in the shadows, and to have as noise free an image as possible. It may not look ideal on the screen, but when you come to post-process it later, (with a curve or level adjustment,) you will have the ability to realise the best image quality.

    None of this particularly tricky, if you just follow the basic rules:
    1) Shoot to the right, but not right over the edge (of the histogram).
    2) Always shoot in raw, (because you have more latitude for exposure problems and white balance issues.)

    Level and curve adjustments are very basic post-processing adjustments which are supported by even the most basic post-processing tools. (Keep in mind that Photoshop CS 2 has been released copyright free by Adobe recently to discourage piracy, so you can download it from Adobe.) Everyone is remotely serious about photography should learn the basics of post-processing, (exposure adjustment via curves and levels, and white balance correction.) There are a ton of free tutorials on U-tube and other places. Don't be intimidated, just follow the lesson, and practice it until comfortable.

    An excellent resource is Cambridge in Colour -- see http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/ The site is an excellent resource for beginner to advanced photographers. Check it out, and you will find lessons and articles on just about any photographic issue.

  • TerryB April 6, 2013 03:57 am

    John,

    Re your first paragraph, that's basically it. Because a handheld meter is calibrated to 18% grayscale, whatever you point it at, it will translate its exposure to render 18% grayscale. However, even knowing this, you still need to interpret the reading because most subject matter is a combination of many luminosities based on the light reflected by individual colours and which a b/w film interprets as contrast. Normally, this isn't so much of a problem as you know that 18% grayscale is in fact an average.

    However, in my earlier posting, I was referring to how slavishly following a meter reading from a single colour, in this case black or white, would in fact produce a black that was heading towards gray, and a white that was also heading towards gray.

    By transposing my chessboard example to a real life situation, portraiture, I believe you understand what will happen to your subject if you simply rely on the unadjusted meter reading. Another real world example is taking photographs in snow. Doesn't it look lovely and white in real life, but take a photo based on an unadjusted meter reading and it will come out grayish. So if you want white snow, in b/w photography one needs to give up to 2 stops more exposure than indicated by the meter.

    Re your second paragraph, it is as you say, a question of adjusting the metered exposure to properly expose for that part of the subject that is of the main interest, especially if the subject white or black (bright or dark). Once you grasp the principle, which it appears you have, it is then just a question of experimenting to build up your experience so you get the result you know you are after.

    You can use a digital camera to emulate this. Set it to record in monochrome and manual operation, but do not use its built in meter for this test as modern digital cameras have metering systems that are designed to "guess" your subject and will compensate accordingly. Then, using the readings from a hand-held meter take photos based on the metered exposure and then adjust manually up or down and look at the results, paying particular attention to how you main subject looks.

  • Rafael John April 5, 2013 01:38 pm

    can I ask, so if your subject is dark ( the metering will make it brighter so it registers as 18% gray) but in return overexposes the white areas(like background for this image)
    and I need to counter that by underexposing right?

    so if my subjects is brgiht I have to up my exposure compensation right? ( since it will make whites darker resulting to be 17% grey.? Cheers
    I think im getting this now...

  • Nabajit February 16, 2013 01:11 pm

    Sir I have bought a canon 1100D SLR two days ago. and i have to learn a lot. Your blogs has convinced me to buy this camera. Sir I have a problem that the text of the viewfinder of my camera is not clear. is it normal. or how can i correct it. And I want to know more about av exposure and aperture of a camera. What is the work of aperture. and what what should be the aperture value in low light condition inside a room and a shiny outdoor. thanks in advance.

  • Harshad Rathod September 10, 2011 02:59 am

    Thanks James for giving the link to this article. It looks like a personalized article for me! Needed this one.

    Thanks once again.

  • Samantha May 28, 2011 10:50 am

    Thanks for the info. I'm an entry-level photographer, and I've always shot in manual mode because I like the idea of "being in control" of my camera and being able to adjust everything readily, but I think I might switch over and give AV mode a try now. There've been several times when I've been shooting during a partly cloudy day and suddenly there's a break in the cloud cover (that I don't notice immediately and so I'm still happily shooting away), which results in my photos being over-exposed, but I might just go with AV from now on if it'll automatically set the shutter speed to try to prevent that. Thanks!

  • Zero-Equals-Infinity May 20, 2011 12:28 pm

    I shoot Av a lot, manually occasionally, and Shutter Priority once in a blue moon, and have never shot Programmed mode. (No snobbery there ... l promise.) I also shoot to the right in raw. Shooting in raw is a must for me, since there is a good stop of headroom which can be taken advantage of if the camera shows moderate over-exposure. Shooting to the right means that there is more information recorded than if the image was shot normally. The risk is over-exposure, (but then that is what bracketing was invented for, along with HDR possibilities.)

    Dialing in compensation is easy, and fast. Take a test shot, look at the histogram, and provided the lighting has not changed dial in whatever compensation you wish. Please note, that compensation will change your shutter speed if you are in aperture priority and aperture if you are in shutter priority. Use Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilization (IS) if your lens has this feature, (except for tripod shooting with anything other than very long lenses.)

    One more thing, when the shutter speed gets slow relative to the focal length of your lens, you have to find ways to stabilize the gear, be it via tripod, monopod, table-top, tree, or just very good hand-holding technique. You can reduce vibration by using mirror-up, which I do when I take long hand-held shots, and I have gotten tack sharp images at 1/4 of second on my 105 mm lens which has VR, but only by using every trick in the book with my D3X, (which is hellishly unforgiving of vibration induced blur.) Good hand-holding technique involves forming stable geometric forms (i.e. triangles), whether standing sitting or shooting prone. Note: Every trick I learned to be a good marksman applies to camera hand-holding, including breath control and gently pushing the shutter as the lungs reach the valley of exhalation. Use a shutter release cable, even when hand-held on long shots, it reduces the vibration to not have to apply pressure to the shutter on the camera body.

  • James Brandon May 18, 2011 03:01 pm

    Monty - correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe you have the option to shoot in Auto and RAW? I could be wrong, but when I had my 40D if I went to Auto my images automatically switched from RAW to JPG.

    And I certainly agree with Jim and Pauls answers to your question. Shooting in auto is 'taking' pictures, shooting in a creative mode like Av, Tv or M is 'making' pictures. HUGE difference!

  • Jim May 17, 2011 06:18 am

    To Paul vS..Agreed, get it right in the camera first..Then'Play with it later.

  • Paul vS May 17, 2011 05:43 am

    @monty

    1. full auto leaves you no control of depth-of-field.
    2. repairing pictures instead of getting them right consumes time and results in lower quality pictures
    3. there are limitations: too dark and you'll end up with noise and off-colors after fixing the exposure - too bright and details in the highlights are lost

  • Jim May 17, 2011 05:37 am

    To Monty..Because the 'Art' of making a photograph is first to do all you can with the Camera, Then you can 'Play' with it to your hearts content in Photoshop. A good image made in the camera to the best of are ability always exceeds a bad picture trumped up in Photoshop.

  • monty May 17, 2011 05:30 am

    Why not use auto & shoot in RAW & play in post

  • Paul vS May 17, 2011 03:30 am

    I feel like Aperture mode with exposure compensation works well outside except of shooting into the sun photos etc.

    For indoor photos Manual mode works better because light is not changing that much and in Aperture mode a lot of pictures are ending up too dark when there's a window or other light source behind the subject (and spot-metering with black suits and white dresses involved doesn't work out that well either). When shooting in the same room I know after a couple of shots which shutter speed to use for the darker area in the corner and the brighter area closer to the window. Once the appropriate setting is chosen for the room I don't change the ISO and the aperture normally stays somewhere between f2.8 and f4 (on that note - I'm not a big fan of using prime lenses for fast-paced events anymore so using zoom-lenses f2.8 is as fast as it gets, while if possible shooting with f4 normally supports a better sharpness without losing too much bokeh). So the only thing I have to change in the above situations is the shutter speed.

    One other good thing about Manual mode is that you have more constant exposure in a series of photos being shot at the same place/same subject which makes it more easy in post-processing to adjust one of the photos and synchronize (which is I guess only something relevant for Lightroom/Aperture users though).

    This being said, I think Aperture mode should be the choice for mostly any leisure photography so don't worry too much about the camera settings and focus more on framing the image and enjoying photography.

  • Rick Buch May 17, 2011 02:25 am

    Excellent article. I already shoot in aperture priority with my D50 75% of the time. The other 25% is in full manual in a studio setting. I have been shooting in raw so I could correct the mistakes the camera and I make. The first thing I do with each shot is adjust the white and black level sliders. This was my first introduction to how a camera actually interprets blacks and whites and helped give me a better understanding. Maybe now I can master the levels closer in my camera. Thanks.

  • Nancy May 16, 2011 09:36 am

    Well said Terry and James. I have to agree with both of you. As a new member I was surprised at the silly responses.

  • James Brandon May 16, 2011 08:10 am

    Selena - I'm not willing to leave a black widow spider in the same yard where my two little nephews come over to play in :-)

    Thanks for the comments everyone, I truly appreciate them!

  • Terry Byford. May 16, 2011 04:43 am

    Come on, you over sensitive souls. Every time you set off in a park, a wood, a forest, or even your own gardens in the pursuit of grabbing photos of flowers, trees or landscapes, just how many ants, spiders or a myriad of other insects to you kill when you tread all over the place with you size 9 boots? Just how many had to die for YOUR photo?

    Can we agree to cease this silliness in this thread, please, and only comment on the matter in hand? I for one am getting fed up with my email inbox being cluttered with such pettiness.

  • Selena May 16, 2011 03:30 am

    With the risk of sounding like a "tree hugger", I just want to agree with Poncho. SHAME ON YOU for calling yourself a photographer. A real, professional photographer would not harm anything to get the shot. It's really disappointing that you felt the need to destroy a part of nature in order to make your point, or to make money, or to give yourself credit.
    Personally, one of the first rules of photography is to leave things as they are and shoot with the camera. NOT destroy it!
    I do not consider yourself a photographer. And shame on all the rest of the readers who support his act. This is a very poor lesson to pass on to inspiring photographers. You should know better as a photographer that nature is to be captured by our camera equipment and our imagination. Not stomped on.

  • Poncho Alarcon May 15, 2011 06:20 am

    Hi! Saludos desde (Greetings from) Monterrey Mx... See, I wonder, why "One black widow spider was eventually harmed in order to bring you this image."?

    Spiders are cool =)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/profeponcho/4312541713/

  • Nancy May 14, 2011 09:51 pm

    This has been very helpful. I am a beginner and struggle with getting the settings right. Did a bridal shoot for a friend (she knew I was an amateur and not to depend solely on me for bridal pics) and ended up in Auto for the indoor photos 75 % of the time due to bad/mixed lighting. The outdoor shots I was able to get it right. Still working on learning the different settings.

  • John May 14, 2011 02:36 am

    good article, but we can add that if you are shotting in RAW format, you can have a noiseless photos, you only have to develop it correcting this over exposition. On that way Jose Maria Mellado wrote a very interesting book "hight quality photography".

  • Roberto May 13, 2011 08:30 pm

    I donโ€™t have to constantly be adjusting shutter speed up or down to get the meter in the middle, I just let me camera decide that part and keep shooting away.

    Exactly. I had this argument with a friend who is a bit of a manual snob. If you're relying on your camera's TTL meter to get the first exposure approximation, there is essentially no difference between shooting in Av or Tv and using exposure compensation to tweak, or going full manual - except the first options are much faster and give you a better chance of getting the shot you want the first time, assuming your camera metered the scene correctly.

  • Inge May 13, 2011 07:08 pm

    Thank you for this article! It is really useful.

    I am a beginner in photography and I try to shoot in manual most of the time, to learn how different settings produce different photos. I too have noticed that I always set my aperture first. And indeed, it often takes too much time to come up with the right shutter speed.

    I hadn't really tried Aperture mode until now. But it really is lots faster in changing situations. I didn't use Aperture mode often, because I sometimes got blurry pictures because of too long shutter speeds. Your tip of adjusting the ISO to get adequate shutter speeds for sharp pictures is great :)

  • Allan May 13, 2011 02:36 pm

    wow thanks so much! this article helped out a lot!

  • Esteban Lopez May 13, 2011 08:03 am

    Great article. I learned initially on manual and know little about the auto modes. This will be helpful next time I am shooting for fun!!!

  • Ben May 13, 2011 06:02 am

    Interesting article, and I agree. With a digital camera, I leave my camera on Aperture mode almost all of the time and use the exposure compensation after I've checked the LCD preview to make sure the highlights are just on the edge of being clipped.

    Manual mode is only really useful in contrasty situations where you want to expose for the highlights/ shadows and you don't want the camera to mess about, or where the dynamic range in a scene is small and constant enough to just set it and forget. But in the latter situation, Aperture works just as well.

    There's a tendency for photographers to think manual mode is somehow more professional; the pinnacle of photography and photographic excellence. It's really not.

  • trailsnet May 13, 2011 05:33 am

    I thought your first spider picture was great including the blurred background. Then I was floored by the clarity and detail in the second one. Cool shot!!

  • Angie J May 13, 2011 04:51 am

    Thank you very much for this article!!! Like Tonia J, I'm a "newby" and articles like this that basically use layman's terms help a lot!! And I TOTALLY got it when i saw the before and after pics of the spider.

  • Tammy May 13, 2011 04:30 am

    Great article. I'm heading home, printing this article and playing with the camera. I always shoot in manual but I usually have to play til I get the settings just right. I'm going to try this to see if it's a little faster for me.

    Thanks again.

    Sorry about the spider. bummer. LOL.

  • Rabi May 13, 2011 04:22 am

    Personally, I used exposure comp as a stepping stone into manual. It got to a point where I just decided shooting manual makes more sense than aperture priority with exposure comp.

  • Bonnie Rannald May 13, 2011 04:20 am

    Thanks explaining a complex subject in an easy to understand method. So many new photographers shy away from getting their camera off auto and this is very helpful information.

  • Paul May 13, 2011 04:10 am

    good article thanks, I switch to Manual mode when using off camera fill flash.

  • Nick May 13, 2011 03:50 am

    Great post James. A real easy to understand article. Thanks for sharing :-)

  • Rob May 13, 2011 03:28 am

    This is exactly the way i shoot with my D60. I always wondered whether i was doing it something wrong but you have totally validated my photographic process. Great article

  • jeff May 13, 2011 02:44 am

    If you have kids, aperture priority won't help you when your kids fidget. Shutter priority is a wonder for dads.

    I read Peterson's books as well, but reality for me is that unless I shoot at 1/125, the shots have a good chance of blur.

  • Terry Byford May 13, 2011 02:41 am

    Many, many years ago when it was mainly a black and white world, I often had to fend questions from holiday snappers as to why their photos were often incorrectly exposed, and this was often met with the riposte that they had a decent camera and the meter settings were correct.

    It was often difficult for non-photographers to understand an explanation of 18% greyscale, which effectively is what exposure meters are calibrated to. So, to try and explain, I would show them five prints I made of a chess board with each square as close to white and black as I could get. I explained that for the first photo the meter reading was taken from a white square, for the second from a black square, for the third the meter took in the whole of the chess board, and for prints 4 and 5 I explained that each was taken with a reading from a white and black square but in each case I had over-ridden the meter reading as appropriate.

    I would first ask them to consider the exposure meter reading the camera took on the white square. I would ask: is this correct? Invariably the answer was "yes" because that is what the camera indicated. Then I would pose the same question with a meter reading from the black square. Then it began to dawn on them, how could two different readings be correct? Should not the answer then be, somewhere between the two? At this point, having got their attention matters got interesting.

    I then showed them just the print made from the shot metered purely from a white square, and when giving it some thought, or prompted, it was agreed it was not white. I did the same with the print metered from a black square. By now they were on a roll, and knew the answer. Then I produced the "average" metered print and all were quite surprised when viewing all three side by side, just how similar they all looked. All greyish.

    Then when I produced the final two prints, they could see that by over-riding the meter reading, in each case the result was closer to a proper black and white rendition of the chess board.

    The best application of this in B/W photography was in portraiture. Keeping your development standard, over-expose by at least a stop for people with white skin, and under-expose if your sitter was black.

    Colour adds another element to the equation, and in some cases, tends to hide exposure errors better.

  • Nicole May 13, 2011 01:48 am

    Just gotta say... thank you!!! for eventually harming the spider. ;)

    Great article, as I newer photographer I found this helpful.

  • AR Cherian May 12, 2011 03:34 pm

    Well written article! It communicated a often-misunderstood and hard-to-grasp concept for novices in a clear manner. It connected the dots in my head a couple of times. I love articles that show "before and after" shots. It helps me understand better, although it may be more work for the blogger!

  • AR Cherian May 12, 2011 03:34 pm

    Well written article! It communicated a often-misunderstood and hard-to-grasp concept for novices in a clear manner. It connected the dots in my head a couple of times. I love articles that show "before and after" shots. It helps me understand better, although it may be more work for the blogger!

  • Matt May 12, 2011 10:55 am

    Great article!

    I also use AV the vast majority of the time, but for different reasons. Mainly: There's a few specs of dust on my sensor( and I don't have the time/ spare money to clean it), but they only show up around f/8 or bigger, so I always keep it open!

  • R@chel May 12, 2011 04:19 am

    The ONLY self pic I have taken of myself I thought to be pretty creative I was proud of myself

  • Niki Jones May 12, 2011 01:11 am

    If this article has taught me anything it's that I'm clearly not a typical male! Eeep!

  • Joel May 12, 2011 12:03 am

    I use AV on my Canon 90% of the time. I agree using AV saves time because most of the time the shutter speed is fine.

  • Shnon May 11, 2011 10:44 pm

    Thanks for a great article. I use AV mode quite a lot, and have really felt guilty about it. It's been drilled into my head by a photography instructor at my college that if you're not shooting in manual mode you're not doing it right. If I'm shoot a still subject with light that I'm in control of I prefer manual, but when I'm shooting a wedding I'd prefer to set AV mode and keep an eye on my shutter speed. If I notice my histogram looking a little wacky I'll evaluate what I've got going on and make adjustments.

    Thanks for making me not feel guilty for using AV mode.

  • Mauro I. May 11, 2011 09:40 pm

    WOW! So I am not alone. I thought I was too lazy to go to the exposure compensation over the manual settings.Since my main focus is to register our twins on their daily tricks, there is no room for too many settings before the pictures be taken.
    If it takes too long, the spyder gets away!

    Great topic!

  • Leszek May 11, 2011 08:11 pm

    Hello,

    that is a good piece of advice... as long as you are shooting JPG, not RAW. When shooting RAW, it's almost always better to overexpose the image (without blowing the highlights) and then correct it in post. This is caused by the way the camera records the data - most information sits in the "right" side of the histogram. When you have more information, you have more options in the "darkroom" :) A good explanation can be found here: http://www.pixelatedimage.com/blog/2009/08/exposure-and-metering/ and here: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/expose-right.shtml.

    I always set the preview on my camera to show the histogram of the image - this really helps evaluating the exposure.

  • Jake Townsen May 11, 2011 06:09 pm

    The only part about AV mode that I have problems with, is some camera bodies only have a +/- 2 stop compensation (like the 5d mkii). In many creative situations that is not enough compensation to get the desired exposure. Example would be silhouettes, high-key, or extreme back lighting.

    Though I have to admit using AV mode provides a great safety stop if you are shooting live events and find yourself hustling to get the right angle, expressions, backgrounds, etc...and don't want to blow the shot because you forgot to adjust the shutter. And if you shoot raw, you have about 2 stop headroom in post to bring back highlights and shadows, etc. So if AV is off by a bit - it's still ok.

  • Cheezman May 11, 2011 05:21 pm

    This is a very important and great article for people learning how the settings on you DSLR work together. Like John Ruggerio above, I initially really struggled with getting a consistent good exposure. My first revelatory moment was reading David Peterson's "Understanding Exposure" and had immediate success with his "Brother Blue Sky" and "Mr Green Jeans" approach. Pointing the lens at the sky for metering before every shot though was tedious.

    My next revelatory moment was via Joe McNally, who is so brilliant at making these things seem easy. He argues persuasively that over-riding the camera's excellent computer with by going full-manual is generally (not always, of course) a macho-photog sucker's gambit. So, like him and like the autho herer, I shoot 90% of the time on Aperture Priority (Nikon). I combine with Dave Peterson's method by, particularly on sunny days, shooting 90% with a -0.7 exposure bias. This almost always captures the scene with an excellent exposure that needs little to know post processing (though, b/c LR makes it so easy, I generally can't resist moving the tonal ranges around just a bit.)

    Here's some of my stuff: www.flickr.com/photos/zilavy

  • Noel May 11, 2011 05:05 pm

    yes this article is totally true and helpful, i'm a newbie hobbyist and I started to shoot and practice in manual to know every aspect of my camera and how it works, and now i'm starting to shoot in priority mode with manual mindset.

  • James Brandon May 11, 2011 02:48 pm

    Thanks everyone, glad you are all enjoying the article :-)

    scottc - glad to connect the dots for you. the camera tried to turn the spider grey because all it saw was black due to it being on spot metering. the same thing would happen if I was photographing lets say a baby against a black backdrop with evaluative metering. if the camera sees mostly black, no matter what metering mode, it will try to overexpose it. the same is true in reverse with white.

    Darlene - awesome, have fun :-)

    Austen - interesting point. to be honest it never crossed my mind to show the original image. in this case however, the only 'post' I did was add detail/sharpness to the spider and the stick, so exposure wasn't enhanced in any way to get the final image.

    ranbir - yes, if I had been on evaluative metering, the camera would have been looking at the entire scene (not just the spiders body) and most likely would have given the correct exposure. As I said in response to scott's question, it all just depends on what the camera see's.

    jerry - good tip, exposure lock is great.

    keepaustinweird - actually, that isn't true. this is one of the most common misconceptions with HDR that you must shoot in Av mode. My good buddy Brian Matiash pointed out to me that he always shoots HDR in manual mode. He does so because he can get the correct middle exposure dialed in more precisely, then turn on auto bracketing from there. When bracketing in manual, you'll notice that the aperture never changes through the series of shots, which means it's the same as shooting in Av. Pretty interesting, huh!?

  • ScottC May 11, 2011 02:22 pm

    I found the part about spot-metering on black or white very interesting, never considered how the camera would try to interpret the results.

    I've been looking at a series I shot last weekend and trying to figure how to improve them on a second attempt. This article gives me one more piece of the puzzle.

    I had the metering set to center-weighted, and now realize I would've been better off with multi-segment metering in this scenario.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157626566747019/

  • Darlene May 11, 2011 01:28 pm

    I have owned my Nikon D50 for 5 years now. I went from all-auto and straight into full-manual only a year ago. Thanks for this article, I have finally understood "exposure compensation." I see me exploring my camera in AP mode in the near future.

  • Jim May 11, 2011 12:12 pm

    Every Time I shoot in Manual Mode, I am amazed as to how much better my images are..so long as they are static.

  • Dona May 11, 2011 12:12 pm

    Great article. A professional photographer friend of mine had just told me that he shot mainly in aperture priority. Your article made it clearer to me about how to use the Av mode. Thanks.

  • Austen May 11, 2011 10:52 am

    Thanks for the tips, but I do have one issue, and that is you showed us the "Before" Av photograph which as you said was "washed out, overexposed", but then for the "After" photograph you showed us one "along with a bit of post processing to add a bit of detail".

    Would it not be better to show us the "After" image without the benefit of Photoshop work ?

    Thanks again,
    Austen.

  • Ranbir Singh May 11, 2011 10:09 am

    Nice article.
    One question though regarding the first picture of the spider - supposing you had just changed the metering to full frame - would that have corrected the overexposed picture.

  • Drew May 11, 2011 08:13 am

    C2H5OH, you will want to use whatever Sony's equivalent of "shutter speed priority" is ("S" maybe?)

  • C2H5OH May 11, 2011 08:10 am

    Sorry,I'm a Sony user.What is Tv mode?

  • John Ruggiero May 11, 2011 07:54 am

    I am new to photography and I struggle with getting the right exposure. I have been bracketing with -1/2 and + 1/2 exposure because I am white washing a lot of my photos. Now on my Nikon D90, I look at the histogram for help on exposure. You are article open some void in my photo mind. Thanks for help us newbies.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 11, 2011 07:45 am

    Hi

    Really good article about Manual vs other shooting modes. Sometimes it really doesnt matter that much when the available light is not there, no possibility for flash and often no tripod allowed to stabilize. I found myself in this situation when shooting Butterflies in San Diego. The light was low, no flash and only monopod allowed in the exhibit. I pushed the ISO to 800, opened up the 100mm Nikkor Macro Prime and even still have barely usable shutter speeds. Deep breaths and practice from sharp shooting helped.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/blue-morpho/

    It all depends on the situation, but like you said, knowing what your equipment will or will not allow makes all the difference between some great shots and going home busted.

  • Scott C May 11, 2011 07:24 am

    Thanks for this, I always use AV on my 10D, thats because 3/4 of my lenses are manual focus. I'm thinking about switching to M for a couple of weeks to learn even more about photography ...

  • Jerry May 11, 2011 07:09 am

    A very useful post.
    I also mostly use Av and evaluative metering, though I also use the exposure lock and spot metering quite a bit. To do this on the EOS 450d, set the exposure using spot metering and half pushing and releasing the shutter button, then hold the * button with your thumb, recompose and take the shot, and the camera will autofocus correctly but hold the exposure setting.

    And, of course, shoot RAW + JPEG, so you have a chance of fixing it in RAW if you blow it!

  • Eric May 11, 2011 06:44 am

    Great article James. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience with us all.

  • Drew May 11, 2011 06:12 am

    Great post James! I've found that I shoot in much the same way, but haven't found a clean enough term for it until you mentioned "Manual Shooting Without Being in Manual".

    I find that in maybe 75% of cases, shooting in Av mode and evaluative metering works well enough for me. For the other 25% (shooting at night, wanting a backlit or creatively lit subject, etc.), either shooting in full-manual, using spot metering, or utilizing exposure compensation works best for me.

  • Mihai May 11, 2011 06:11 am

    Great article!

  • KeepAustinWeird May 11, 2011 06:10 am

    I'm more of a manual photographer but there are situations where AV is a must, such as HDR photography. Great write up about what AV provides.

  • Tonia Johnston photography May 11, 2011 05:54 am

    Thanks for the article. I am an amateur so the preface almost scared me but because exposure was my last "self lesson", I totally got it!
    Thanks for putting it in plain english!

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