How To Choose Between Exposure Compensation And Manual Mode

How To Choose Between Exposure Compensation And Manual Mode


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Cameras often get exposure wrong (if you’re not sure why you can read Why Cameras Get Exposure Wrong before continuing). The question is, how do you override the camera when you know its suggested exposure settings are incorrect? The answer is that you have to either use Exposure Compensation or put the camera in Manual mode.

What’s the difference between using Exposure Compensation and Manual mode?

First, let’s look at the key differences between these options.

Exposure compensation: The photographer sets the camera to Program Auto, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and lets the camera determine the exposure settings. Some cameras also let you use Exposure Compensation in the fully automatic exposure modes (landscape, portrait etc.) or when using Auto ISO (that’s where you set the shutter speed and aperture yourself and let the camera set ISO).

Manual mode: The photographer (not the camera) sets the aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Photographers use Exposure Compensation in situations where they know that the camera is going to get the exposure wrong (or they can see it in the live histogram if their camera has that feature). For example, you could set Exposure Compensation to +1 or +2 if you’re making photos of a snowy scene. This tells the camera to overexpose by one or two stops, compensating for the way it underexposes snow.

Exposure Compensation tells the camera to use automatic metering, and then to over-expose or under-expose the setting suggested by the light reading. If the ambient light level changes, then the exposure settings change. With Manual mode, the photographer sets ISO, shutter speed and aperture and they stay locked in until the photographer changes them, even if the light levels change.

So, which is the best to use? That depends on the situation and your personal preference. In the above example of a snow scene, some photographers may prefer to use Exposure Compensation, others Manual mode. There’s no right or wrong, just what’s best for you.

The rest of this article is a guide to which method to use in common photographic situations. As all photographers work differently I suggest you test out both Exposure Compensation and Manual mode and see which one works best for you.

When to use Exposure Compensation

These are some of the situations where Exposure Compensation may be better than Manual mode.

1. Use Exposure Compensation for street and travel photography

Imagine that you’re working with your camera in an exotic location. One side of the street is in direct sun, the other in deep shade. We know in this situation that the required exposure settings are going to vary depending on what you’re photographing and where it is.

In this situation you need to concentrate on finding interesting subjects and creating beautiful compositions. You need to react quickly to changing situations and don’t want to think about exposure any more than you have to. It makes sense to use an automatic exposure mode such as Shutter Priority (so you can set a shutter speed fast enough to prevent camera shake) and use Exposure Compensation to adjust exposure when required.

I made the photo below at an open air concert. I set the camera to Aperture Priority to blur the background. The little boy was watching the band and I only had a split second to take a photo before he moved. If I had been using Manual mode I would have needed too much time to adjust the settings and lost the moment.

Exposure compensation for travel photography

2. Use Exposure Compensation when shooting sports, action 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.

Exposure compensation for action photography

3. Use Exposure Compensation when you are using on-camera flash in an automatic mode

If you’re using a camera mounted flash then it’s usually a good idea to use it in automatic mode. That’s because the flash to subject distance changes as you move around the subject. As a result the power required from the flash to give the correct exposure also changes.

You need to set your camera to evaluative or matrix metering (different camera manufacturers have different names for this mode – it’s the most advanced metering mode your camera has, and uses zones to analyze the scene and decide on the best exposure settings).

The details are a little complicated to go into here, but in evaluative/matrix metering your camera and flash work together to calculate the optimum exposure. Check your camera’s manual for full details.

It gets even more complex, because there are two types of Exposure Compensation for flash.

1. Exposure Compensation: This affects the brightness of the entire scene. If the entire scene was too dark, for example, then you would use Exposure Compensation to make it brighter.

2. Flash Exposure Compensation: This affects the brightness of the flash output only, but not the brightness of the rest of the scene. If the background was correctly exposed, but subject too bright, this is the correct adjustment to use.

Again, check your camera and flash manuals for details.

When to use Manual mode

Now let’s look at some common situations where you would use Manual mode rather than Exposure Compensation.

1. Consider shooting in Manual for portraits when the light level is constant

If the ambient light levels aren’t changing, then you don’t need to change the exposure settings once you’ve decided which ones to use. The reason you should consider using Manual mode in this situation is because the Automatic exposure modes are influenced by the reflectivity of the subject.

Imagine that you are photographing a model wearing white. Even if the light levels are steady the camera’s suggested exposure settings are going to change depending on how much white clothing is visible in the frame. Because of this you’re likely to end up with some underexposed frames.

The easiest solution is to use Manual mode. That way you can concentrate on building rapport with your model and capturing interesting expressions without worrying about whether exposure is correct.

Manual mode for portraits

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

Manual mode is ideal for landscape photography because you can set a low ISO (for image quality), a small aperture of f8, f11 or f16 (for depth of field) and change the shutter speed to suit the light levels. It’s also easy to make adjustments to compensate for any polarizing, neutral density or graduated neutral density filters.

Manual mode also works well when you’re shooting landscapes at dusk. All you need to do is remember to check the histogram at regular intervals. You’ll see it move to the left as the light fades. You can compensate for this by dialing in a slower shutter speed (or opening the aperture or raising the ISO).

Manual mode for landscape photography

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

If you have an off-camera flash and the subject to flash distance isn’t going to change then you can set both camera and flash to manual. This works best if the ambient light levels are also constant.

You’ll need to make some test shots to establish the best settings, but once you’ve done so you can make photos without worrying about exposure. As with using Manual mode with natural light this lets you work on directing and building a rapport with your model.

That’s exactly what I did when I created this portrait of a local man in Rajasthan, India.

Manual mode for flash photography

Use your judgement

The more experienced you become as a photographer the better you will get at judging whether you should use Manual mode or Exposure Compensation to take control of your exposure settings.

It may make it easier to think 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 quick reactions to capture the action, then use an automatic exposure mode and Exposure Compensation instead.


Mastering Exposure ebookMastering Exposure

My ebook Mastering Exposure gives you the knowledge you need to get the correct exposure every time you take a photo. Reading this ebook helps you master your camera’s exposure modes and metering tools, including Exposure Compensation. You’ll learn why your camera gets exposure wrong, and how to put it right when it does. Click here for the details.


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Exposure ebooks

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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