The “Manual” Shooter

by William Lulow

When I was learning photography (back when I was a kid), we determined exposures by using a light meter. We took measurements of a scene, sometimes with an incident meter (one which reads the light levels falling on a subject) or a reflective meter (one that measures light levels reflected from a subject. There weren’t even any Polaroid materials back in the early 1950s. So, you would get a pretty good idea of the light levels and you had to wait until you developed the film to see if your exposure was good or not. Finally, when Polaroid film became more or less ubiquitous in the late 1960s or so, you could check your exposure after waiting 30 or 60 seconds for the “instant” film to develop. They finally made Polaroid backs for various different cameras. When I first began my studio business, I used to use the Polaroid backs made for the Hasselblad medium format cameras. They were easy to use and gave you a fairly accurate read on your exposures because they used the same optics that would be used with the actual film.

What this did was to sharpen one’s sense of light and what combinations of aperture and shutter speed would be correct with whatever film speed you were using. With as much practice as I had, I became pretty good at looking at the light produced by a normal, cloudy day and determining that the exposure was f/8 at 1/60th of a second with Kodak Tri-X film rated at an ASA of 400! If you do it enough, you will eventually get good at it!

Today, digital cameras do most of that thinking for you! Or, so they would like you to believe. If you put your camera on PROGRAM (PGM or P), it will try to figure out the exposure using it’s computer chip. It doesn’t think about the scene, it just uses an algorithm to come up with a decent exposure based on the light it measures from the camera position. In the days of analog shooting, the photographer had to figure everything out.

The problem with this for those who are trying to learn techniques of effective picture making, is that the computer often mistakes what you want for just giving you a good exposure. If you want the scene to be a bit darker for instance, it doesn’t know it. If you want to stop action, it can’t figure that out. If you want a lot of depth-of-field, it couldn’t care less!

So, here is my solution to those who want to become “manual” shooters. I like to use the camera’s light meter to give me a sense of the amount of light on my subject. If I want to be more accurate, I will take out my incident light meter and go up to my subject to get an accurate reading of the light level. But even though I carry my light meter with me, I don’t always need to use it. I simply set my camera to MANUAL MODE and look at the scale in my viewfinder. Pretty much all good DSLRs have these. I then can take a picture and immediately see on the LCD screen whether or not the image is properly exposed. If I want to saturate it a bit more, I will underexpose the picture by 1/3 of a stop or so. Then, check the LCD again. You still might have to tweak the image when you download it to the computer, but it should have the necessary detail to yield a decent print.

By taking the camera off the AUTOMATIC setting and use it on MANUAL most of the time, you begin to exercise much more control over the quality of the images you will make. Get used to using the camera’s built in light meter or better yet,  use a hand-held meter. You will be much happier with your results and you will learn much more about making good exposures on your own.


This was one of those images where I made an initial exposure by reading the light reflected from the rocks and then underexposing the shot by about 1/3 of a stop. It made the image a bit richer.