One thing I’ve noticed about many new photographers is the enthusiasm they have for really learning how to use their camera as well as possible. In some cases, this requires the use of understanding how to shoot in Manual mode. Learning how to choose your setting so it appropriately fits the scene and style of the photograph you are trying to achieve is a great skill to have. But then I see them take it up one more step, and get the idea that to be some sort of real photographer they have to always shoot in manual.

In an online photography forum, I recently chimed in on a discussion about exposure compensation and mentioned that I primarily photograph in Aperture Priority (Av) mode. Then, someone replied to me and asked me if I ever meter my camera. It kind of took me off guard, of course I meter! But I realized that her question was purely innocent, and there was probably little understanding behind what the camera is doing in this modes. But it got me thinking about the differences between shooting in Aperture Priority versus Manual. Assuming someone is shooting in existing light and having to alter their exposure on the fly, was there really much of a difference of how the camera works? I determined that no, there really was no difference, other than the fact that you are just working twice as hard to get the same results when shooing in Manual mode.

Here’s how I came to this conclusion. Let’s say you are photographing a little girl outside. You decide to photograph in Manual mode so you can control the exposure. The girl is moving around, and the light is changing in the different parts of the location you’re at, so you have to follow her around and change your settings, making sure that each time you reset your exposure that they balance properly with the middle of the meter. When you see that something is overexposed or underexposed, you adjust your shutter speed accordingly, but you leave the aperture unchanged (you want to keep it at a nice low setting so that you can blur the background as much as possible). Each time you change your setting, you have to check the meter to make sure your exposure is lined up. And, of course, you forget to change it a few times and completely overexpose or underexpose your scene and ruin a few of your shots. Hey, it happens, right?

This in-camera view shows the meter balanced at zero.When photographing in Aperture priority, the camera will always try to bring the meter dead-center, just like in this photograph.
This in-camera view shows the meter balanced at zero.
When photographing in Aperture priority, the camera will always try to bring the meter dead-center, just like in this photograph.

Now, let’s say that you decide to switch into Aperture Priority for the same setup. This is a great setting for this scene because you know you want to keep the aperture at a consistent setting to blur the background. Now, all you have to do is focus on composition, focus point, etc., and let the camera make all of the shutter-speed decisions for you. Really, it’s no different than Manual Mode, since the camera is doing exactly the same thing that you were doing by-hand: it’s balancing the exposure with the middle of the meter. Then, when you take a quick peek at one of your shots, you realize that the image is a little underexposed. Because you are in Aperture Priority you can’t set the shutter speed on your own, so instead you set the Exposure Compensation to +1, which will then tell the camera to overexpose each shot by one stop. You also don’t completely ruin any of your images from having the settings way under- or over-exposed, since the camera will always balance the exposure for you inside of Aperture Priority.

Which of these makes more sense to you? I personally find that, for this situation, Manual Mode is just a burden. Yes, you are in complete control, but all you are doing is moving buttons and knobs so that the meter is sitting right in the middle, something the camera can do for you. But when you do it by hand it takes brain-power and attention away from the most important part of the photograph: your subject. So, instead, try to delegate over some of the grunt work to the camera using Aperture Priority and keep your mind and eyes active to find new compositions, catch the right moments and never miss a beat. And then, if you need to correct the exposure (the meter doesn’t always know best) then you can do this with Exposure Compensation.

So why not give Aperture Priority a chance? I still think that it is critical to use Manual Mode in many situations, especially when trying to control the exposure in a set lighting condition (one good example is when using off-camera lights). But for many available light situations I would think that it’s better to work smarter, not harder.

Note: This is just one way to work with your shooting modes. Combine with your skills for best results.