Manual Exposure:  Does it provide any value?

The debate over using Manual Exposure often rages.  Some positions are rather extreme. When this topic is raised, I turn the page, navigate elsewhere or I leave my mind wanders.  After all, my manufacturer has invested millions of dollars in a technology that works fine most of the time.  Why should I bother about manual exposure?

Long live aperture priority

So, I’m 90% of the time on aperture priority.  The rest of the time I trust shutter priority. I.e. I chose one of these two parameters (plus the ISO value of course) and I let the camera do the rest of the work. On rare situation I change the metering option (spot, center weighted, etc…) or I would adjust exposure compensation (most often to overexpose slightly). That’s it and that’s all!

Discovering manual exposure

Last year, I started to make two new types of pictures:

  • Studio type of picture with artificial lighting while the subject is at a rather constant distance of the light source;

In studio, we generally prefer manual exposure. We set the flash power taking into account aperture and sensitivity. Once done, this setting will be adequate for the whole photo shoot.

In panorama, it is vital that exposure does not change from one photo to another; otherwise photo merging would be a mess. So I chose the three values: Aperture, Shutter speed and Sensitivity in manual mode so that all my photos are exposed with exactly the same values.

In these two situations I learned to take a test picture, adjust my exposure manually until I get satisfaction and there I go from that moment on.

Expose to the right

In this manual exposure mode, I take the time to expose to the right.  This technique enables me to get the most of the available dynamic range of my camera.  Doing so help preserves the shadows and lead to greater quality images.  To expose to the right, I have to manually set the exposure in such a way that the histogram will gently land on the extreme right without touching the right wall.   Here is a good example.

These pictures need some work in Lightroom afterward.  However, it is well worth it.  The colors are naturally more saturated and they are noise free, even in the shadows.  Doing so I learned the value of “Expose to the right” and I try to do so more often.

Recent experience: manual exposure

A few days ago, a newborn came to our family.  The happy grandfather that I am went to the hospital to greet this little girl with its Canon DSLR.  Again, natural tendency prevailed and I used Aperture priority for the first few pictures.  The results were abysmal.  The window light and the ambient interior light were so different that I was either underexposed or overexposed all the time.

I switched to manual exposure and set the three values, using the histogram to guide me.  This was just like magic!  All pictures from that moment on were correctly exposed.

I realized something important on that day.  In most cases, when I take out my camera, light does not change that much.  Indoors, the brightness will remain constant. Outside, the brightness varies very slowly. Most of the time luminosity remains constant for hours.

Moreover, the challenge to expose to the right in Aperture priority is just too much for me.  The camera metering evaluation tries to get to 18% grey and this rarely leads to correctly exposed shots.  There’s no button marked ‘Expose to the right’ on this Camera either! In manual mode, it is much easier to get a constant and optimal exposure.

Now I understand the proponents of manual exposure. In most situations, manual exposure is more ‘automatic’ than the aperture priority!

So the question remains, do you shoot in manual exposure mode?  When does manual exposure is your preferred choice?