Shooting Modes & Exposure Compensation

I learnt something today, and it’s something that will be a bone of contention for many photographers. Particularly professionals!

Manual mode is more of a hindrance than it is ideal.

I discovered this point of view in Henry Carroll’s book ‘Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs’, and the more I read and the more I thought about it, the more I found myself coming around to it and agreeing with it. The main point being made was that when in manual mode, your camera is still advising you of what exposure setting you ought to be using. This happens in every other mode too, the only difference in manual is that (you guessed it) you have to do it yourself. This is great in some ways because it gives you ultimate control. What your camera tells you isn’t necessarily what you should be doing for the result you want. The issue is that it’s a slow and fiddly process.

I like to underexpose images at the moment, particularly at night. Adjusting to every scene by flicking between aperture, shutter speed and ISO is just too much. Listening to my camera all the time has slowed me down because I’ve trusted it and got the wrong results most times. This is a problem, because I’m trying to get more into street photography – a skill that requires you to have everything set up and ready at any given moment. Slowing down means missing shots, which is far from ideal. What I’ve learnt to do instead – and what I’ll be trying out next time – is using modes P (Program Auto), S (Shutter Priority) and A (Aperture Priority) and playing with exposure compensation. I’ve assigned one of my camera buttons to this command to make it quicker.

The issue with most, if not all cameras, is that their meters try to approximate something called ‘middle grey’. Middle grey is what many manufacturers have determined to be the average tone of most photos. Your camera is most likely built to recommend settings based on hitting middle grey and that’s not always ideal. Think of snowy scenes and night scenes and what you want from them. You don’t want a load of mid-tones, do you? You don’t want your night scenes washed out, you want the depth in the blacks so that everything stands out as it would to your naked eye. Equally, snow, frost, whatever it might be, needs to stand out in the landscape instead of being darkened. This is where exposure compensation is helpful. It gives you control of the overall, well, exposure.

I was always afraid to play around with exposure compensation. I thought ‘well, the camera knows better than me’, but quite frankly, it doesn’t. It doesn’t know better than you either, regardless of whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro.

I have a rule for myself now where I underexpose every night photo by -0.3 at the very least. Just because I want the depth of the shadows in my original shot. It saves on post-processing. I had always been under the impression that shadows held more detail, meaning that brightening afterwards was the better idea and would produce less grain. However, I’ve since discovered that ‘exposing to the right’ and overexposing images with the intention of correcting them afterwards is a thing. I’ll experiment with that and post the results at a later date. I suspect it could result in losing highlight detail.

Hopefully this reassures some people to under/overexpose their shots when they see fit. If you’re intimidated by manual mode or scared of missing out on shots using it, the solution is simple. Don’t use it. Use priority modes and P along with exposure compensation.

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