Exposure (3): The art of manual exposure

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The art of manual exposure


If you ask a professional photographer which camera settings they use, the answer is surprisingly often: “I shoot in manual mode.” Pros adjust aperture and shutter speed to the existing light conditions depending on the situation – by hand. They often prefer to trust their own experience rather than the camera’s automatic function.

What can you learn from this?

Pros often work in M mode because of the consistent exposure errors made by cameras. Although their exposure systems are getting smarter with each generation of models, exposure still continues to be calculated using predefined standard values. But a pro needs to provide more than just standard quality. After all, many clients hire them for their unique perspective, “their eye”, or their unusual technique – neither of which can be achieved through standardised automatic mode.

Why you too should shoot in M mode:

There are many reasons why you shouldn’t leave aperture and shutter speed to the camera. By adjusting these settings yourself, not only do you avoid typical exposure errors, but you also make the necessary exposure correction virtually in one go.

Exposure values are the key to manual exposure, and you will gradually get the hang of them. So don’t be discouraged if you’re frequently way off target at the start. Each mistake will teach you something, and you’ll soon be able to assess the light almost perfectly with your naked eye.

Manual exposure: How it works

Setting the exposure manually seems complicated at first – after all, three exposure parameters need to be adjusted to one another: aperture, shutter speed and ISO value. So get used to first setting two parameters, and then adapting the exposure via the third parameter. The process can be explained step by step using two practical examples.

In each case, you should first set the ISO value, with the following values as rough reference points:

  • Sunshine: ISO 100-125
  • Cloudy: ISO 200
  • Shade: ISO 400

Example 1: Landscape shot. To portray the subject in sharp focus from the front to the back, you need a large depth of field, which can be achieved with a small aperture. So select the aperture first, e.g. f/11, then adjust the shutter speed until the marking on the exposure scale in the viewfinder is in the middle. Make sure the exposure value is roughly the inverse of the 35-mm-format focal distance, i.e. 1/60 seconds for 50 mm, 1/250 seconds for 200 mm etc. If the exposure time is longer, either increase the ISO sensitivity or shoot with a tripod.

Example 2: Sports shot. In order to capture athletes’ fast movements in focus, you need the shortest possible shutter speed, e.g. 1/500 sec. This also prevents camera shake, which particularly occurs in shots using telephoto lenses. Secondly, adjust the aperture until the marking on the exposure scale is once again in the centre. If the camera still shows underexposure even though you have fully opened the aperture, increase the ISO value. When taking sports shots, it is not uncommon to find ISO sensitivities of 1250 or 1600.

Extra tip: If the image is too dark or too bright, you can very easily correct the exposure in manual mode by varying the last set value up or down. The exposure scale will then show slight over or underexposure matching the value of the exposure correction.

Everything is good in theory, but practice is what makes the master. So from now on, shoot in manual mood as much as possible. Situations in which you have enough time for a subject (landscape, architecture) or in which the light hardly changes (sports ground, portrait shooting) are ideal for practising.

Have fun experimenting with aperture and shutter speed. With a bit of patience and perseverance, you’ll soon be able to set exposure like a pro.

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