Manual Exposure For Consistent Results In The Field - Not On The Computer

July 11, 2016

With editorial and celebrity-entertainment photographer Kristian Dowling visiting us this month to present a FREE Lunchtime Seminar in the michaels Media School, we were not going to pass up the opportunity to get some photography tips from Dowling.

He has delivered, with useful tips on using manual exposure for a smoother workflow and consistent results right out of the camera, helping you take control of your photography!

Kristian Dowling Celebrity Photographer & Editorial Photographer



With powerful digital equipment comes much responsibility. As new-age digital photographers, it can sometimes feel like we are at the mercy of our camera’s technology. As photographers’ it is our responsibility to realise that this does not have to be the case. But, before we improve our skills, we need to simplify our equipment.


Simplified, a camera is a light box that required two data inputs:

1. Aperture, controlling the ‘amount of light’ that enters the camera and passed onto the digital sensor (film).

2. Shutter speed, controlling how ‘long’ that amount of light is allowed onto the sensor.


Now all that’s left is finding the best combination of aperture and shutter to balance these values out so that the exposure represents the picture as closely as the photographer desires.


With film this process was much more complicated, requiring a hand-held meter to read the ‘ambient’ light falling on the subject/scene. This was the most accurate way of measuring light, compared to the in-camera meters that measure ‘reflected’ light bouncing back into the camera, which is still used in modern digital cameras today. This is more commonly known as TTL (through the lens) metering. The problem with TTL Metering is that it doesn’t record the ‘actual’ light falling on the subject/scene, so it is often fooled by colours such as blacks and whites, resulting in very uneven exposures, where exposure compensation needs to be dialled in to correct these inaccuracies.


This kind of metering can be counter-productive because you’re always guessing where the camera will slip up, and often the results can be inconsistent. Combined with auto modes like aperture/shutter priority, consistency is much more difficult to achieve because the camera is recalculating the exposure on each frame, even when lighting isn’t changing, and the camera’s TTL meter can be easily fooled by what’s being reflected through the lens. I often hear photographers’ blaming their camera for inconsistent results. Inconsistent results in the field = more processing time on the computer to correct your errors in the field. So what’s the solution then? Forgetting about all the auto modes, and going into manual exposure mode!


Manual exposure allows the photographer ‘total’ control over every frame, and especially in scenes with even lighting or studios that use controlled lighting, manual is the ONLY way to achieve 100% consistent results. You may be asking “what’s the catch?” Well the catch is that when lighting changes, so does your exposure and you’ll need to adjust as you see the light change. This is what I call ‘light reading’. Light reading requires the photographer to understand the differences of light strengths and exposure values. For example, if you’re shooting in the shade and then need to move to the sun, it helps to be able to know the ‘stop’ (light value) difference and adjust manually.


This does take time to learn and the best way to learn is by trying it… like they did in the old days (grin). With digital you have the luxury in the field to see your pictures instantly, so take advantage of this and analyse the results as you’re taking them. Also, in post production, when viewing your pictures, look at the aperture and shutter values for each frame. In time these values will remain in your memory and enable you to better read light.


Nothing comes easy in life and even new-age digital cameras, as great as they are, still won’t take better pictures. Remember, better cameras may have more features and capture better ‘files’, but it will always be the better photographers that take better ‘pictures’ – and learning manual is still the best way to improving your photography and achieving consistency.

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