Manual Mode or Exposure Compensation – Which is Best?

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As you may know, cameras often get exposure wrong. The question is, what do you do when you realize that the exposure settings suggested by your camera are not right?

You have two options. One is to switch to Manual mode and set the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed yourself. The other is to use exposure compensation (and Aperture or Shutter Priority mode).

The best solution depends on the situation in which you find yourself, plus the configuration of your camera’s dials. For example, with a Canon EOS digital SLR it’s easy to apply exposure compensation by moving the Quick control dial on the back of the camera. It’s so simple you don’t need to take your eye away from the viewfinder.

Exposure compensation versus manual mode

The Quick control dial on the EOS 77D.

On my Fujifilm X-T1, the exposure compensation dial is on top of the camera. It’s harder to get at and nearly impossible to adjust without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. But the aperture ring on the lens makes it easy to go to Manual mode and adjust exposure by changing the aperture. An optional live histogram in the viewfinder helps you see if exposure is accurate before pressing the shutter (an advantage of some mirrorless cameras).

Exposure compensation versus manual mode

The exposure compensation dial on the Fujifilm X-T1 is much harder to reach.

These are good examples of how hardware can push you in one direction or another. My Canon SLRs pushed me towards exposure compensation, and my Fujifilm X-T1 pushes me towards using Manual mode.

Using Manual mode

Let’s look at Manual mode first. In Manual, you set the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed yourself. There are certain situations when using Manual mode (as opposed to Programmed Auto, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority with exposure compensation) is beneficial. Let’s look at a few.

1. Shoot in Manual when the light level is constant

If the ambient light level is steady, you don’t need to change the exposure settings once you have decided which ones to use. Automatic exposure modes are influenced by the reflectivity of the subject and the exposure reading can change even if the light levels don’t.

That makes Manual mode ideal for this kind of situation. Once you’ve set the exposure you don’t need to change it. I like to use Manual mode when making portraits in natural light. Once I’ve set the exposure I’m free to concentrate on directing the model.

Exposure compensation versus manual mode

2. Shoot in Manual when you’re photographing landscapes and using a tripod

In this situation, you have plenty of time to assess exposure. Manual mode is ideal because you can set a low ISO (for image quality), a small aperture (for depth of field) and change the shutter speed to suit the light levels. It’s also easy to make adjustments to allow for any polarizing, neutral density or graduated neutral density filters you may be using.

If you’re shooting landscapes at dusk, while the light is fading, Manual mode also works well. After you take a photo, just check the histogram. As it moves to the left, which it will as the light fades, dial in a slower shutter speed to compensate.

Exposure compensation vs. manual mode

3. Use Manual Mode when you’re using manual flash

If you’re using a flash set to manual the output from the flash is the same every time. In that situation, it’s best to adjust the camera settings manually so the exposure is consistent from frame to frame.

To create the portrait below, I worked with both the camera and flash set to manual. Setting your flash to manual only works when the flash to subject distance doesn’t change.

Exposure compensation vs. manual mode

4. Use Manual mode for long exposure photography

If you’re doing long exposure landscape photography and your shutter speed (exposure time) is longer than 30 seconds then you need to use Bulb mode. This is another form of Manual mode. Except that rather than telling the camera what shutter speed you want it to use, you do so by using the camera’s bulb setting and a remote release.

I used Bulb mode to make this landscape photo with a shutter speed (exposure time) of 82 seconds.

Exposure compensation vs. manual mode

Using Exposure Compensation

The alternative to Manual mode is to set your camera to an automatic exposure mode and use exposure compensation to override the camera’s settings.

The three best automatic exposure modes to use are Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Programmed auto. Other exposure modes, such as Landscape and Portrait, don’t give you enough control. On some cameras (such as Canon EOS) you can’t adjust exposure compensation when using one of these modes.

These are some of the situations where exposure compensation may be better than Manual mode.

1. Use Exposure Compensation for street and travel photography

If you are taking photos of people in the street the required exposures can vary wildly. One moment you may take a photo of something in the sun, the next you may photograph something in the shade. The sun may also be going in and out between the clouds.

In this situation, you want to concentrate on finding interesting things to photograph and creating a good composition. If you have to stop and think about exposure, then you may miss the shot. Automatic exposure modes help greatly.

Exposure compensation vs. manual mode

2. Use Exposure Compensation when you are using on-camera flash in an automatic mode (TTL)

If you have the on-camera flash set to an automatic mode, then the camera needs to be set to evaluative or matrix metering, the camera’s most advanced metering mode, to take full advantage of that. The camera and flash work together to calculate the correct exposure.

Setting your flash to automatic (TTL or E-TTL) works best when the subject to flash distance is constantly changing. Using automatic means your camera can adjust the output of the flash as it needs to.

3. Use Exposure Compensation when shooting sports or wildlife

This is another situation where the light level is likely to change frequently and you need to concentrate on tracking the action and capturing important moments. You don’t want to be thinking about exposure when trying to capture the peak of the action in sports or photographing fast-moving wildlife. Let your camera do the work, and use exposure compensation if you have to.

Conclusion

Everybody works differently, so the points in this article should be taken as suggestions only. The more experienced you become as a photographer the more you will learn to judge whether you should use Manual mode or Exposure Compensation to take control of your exposure.

It may make it easier to think of it in terms of time. If you have more time to think about your camera settings, then use Manual mode. If you have less thinking time and need to be ready to react quickly to capture the action, then use an automatic exposure mode and Exposure Compensation.

Do you prefer to use Manual mode or an automatic exposure mode with exposure compensation? Please let me know in the comments below,


Want to learn how to get perfect exposure on your digital camera? Then check out my new ebook Mastering Exposure and say goodbye to all your exposure problems!

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer and traveler. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks and runs The Creative Photographer photography blog. Join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image, What's New in Lightroom CC? and Use Lightroom Better!

  • David Harpe

    Another option is manual mode with auto iso configured with the limits you’re happy with. The way cameras do high ISO these days it’s no sin to go to 3200 or better depending on what you’re doing. I find this configuration really nice when doing street photography. I can ride aperture/iso to taste and let the ISO float, with EV comp if needed.

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  • Capixaba

    Canon has the best:
    manual Mode and ISO auto setting..

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  • HerpingtonVanDerpstra

    Absolutely agree with you on this David. Excellent alternative for many situations!

  • HerpingtonVanDerpstra

    Whether a manual mode is good or not depends entirely on the photographer, which is the whole purpose of manual mode. I know people who use cellphones to take better photos than some people who use (poorly) manual mode on Canon, Nikon, Lumix, etc.
    I am glad you are happy with your Canon, but the fact is that while it may have mattered back in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, brand means very little where the camera function is concerned anymore.

  • Capixaba

    What I meant is that I use Manual Mode as Av or Tv on Canon, cause ISO auto does the worse job…
    If I set Auto ISO 1/125 f: 2.8 (or any other combination)
    I will ever have a correct exposure

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