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Camera FAQ #1: What Kind of Scenes are Manual Exposure Most Effective For?

This series is all about answering questions regarding cameras you thought you knew (but didn’t). In this article, I will explain more about the < M > mode marked on the Mode Dial. (Report by: Koji Ueda)


Essentials of Portrait Photography

Manual Exposure

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.4 USM /FL: 50mm /Manual Exposure (f/1.4, 1/250 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Cloudy
Using manual exposure, you can adjust the lighting on the model’s face as deemed appropriate. By doing so, you will be able to capture the image with the level of brightness that you desire, regardless of the level of brightness in the background.

Program AE

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.4 USM /FL: 50mm /Program AE (f/1.4, 1/500 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Cloudy
When shooting in the Program AE mode, the exposure meter of the camera determines that the background is bright. As a result, the model’s face (which is the most crucial part of the photo) becomes underexposed.


Have you ever experienced taking shots of the same scene that end up with varying brightness? One of the reasons for that is the AE mode.
Basically, a camera determines the level of exposure by measuring the brightness of the overall picture. It is alright to use AE mode when shooting in direct light such as during landscape photography. This is because the brightness in the composition is stable when you are shooting in direct light. In contrast, portrait photography seldom takes place in direct light, as direct light casts a harsh light against the model, resulting in shadows appearing on the face and facial expressions turn out less than ideal.
This backlight condition tends to make the subject appear darker due to the contrast between the subject and background. Normally, we would use exposure compensation to make the subject brighter. However, each time you change the composition, it also changes the proportion of the contrast in the image. Therefore, in AE mode, the level of exposure is not stable, resulting in shots that vary in brightness. In this case, use manual exposure and set the camera so that the level of exposure does not change even if the composition does.

Advantages of Manual Exposure

Advantage 1: Able to maintain the brightness of the main subject without being affected by the brightness in the background.

Advantage 2: Able to adjust the brightness so that the brightness of the main subject appears as desired.

How to Set the Manual Exposure

Set the Mode Dial to < M >. Set the ISO speed to your preferred value in advance.


Adjust the Main Dial to set the shutter speed. Adjust the Quick Control Dial to set the f-number. For camera models with no Quick Control Dial, press and hold the Exposure Compensation button while turning the Main Dial to set the aperture.


Check the exposure level indicator displayed in the rear LCD screen. Based on the position of the exposure level mark, you can check the difference in the level of overexposure or underexposure as compared to the standard exposure level.

Koji Ueda


Born in Hiroshima in 1982, Ueda started his career as an assistant for photographer Shinichi Hanawa. He later became a freelance photographer, and is now engaged in a wide range of work from magazines to commercials while shooting different cities and landscapes all around the world. He is also a writer and a lecturer at photography lectures and workshops.

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