Old School Exposure by Bruce L. Snell

I think we are all guilty of it and probably do it more often than we should. No, it won’t make you go blind (at least I think it won’t). No, there’s really nothing wrong with it but wouldn’t you really rather do it the way nature intended? Of course you would, so turn off those darn automatic settings on your camera and take charge of your exposures!
Way back when I began my professional career as a photographer I used pretty much the same gear as all the other wedding and portrait shooters. These cameras generally didn’t have any automatic settings and very few had internal light meters. Solid exposure was determined by using a handheld incident light meter or sometimes a handheld spot meter. Once the exposure was determined the settings were transferred to the camera by turning one dial for the shutter speed and another for the aperture. It didn’t take long before you could easily predict the exposure without even getting the light meter out and taking a reading. I’m sure this sounds like a royal pain and that it must slow you way down during a fast paced event like a wedding, but the reality was it didn’t and in someways was faster than how most photographers work today. How can that be? Read on.


Generally the light in a scene isn’t constantly changing. The only time I can think of is outside under fast moving clouds with the sun ducking in and out. The point I’m driving toward is that if you measure the light in any given scene it’s fairly constant. If you are indoors it may be that the light is brighter over by the window than it is near the back of the room you are in, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Consistency. The light levels, while different throughout the room, will generally be consistent. If you know the exposure over by the window and in the back of the room, then you can easily shoot without a meter as long as it’s consistent light. Over by the window it’s giving you 1/500 at f2.8 and near the back it’s at 1/125 at f2.8. Cool, then set your camera to either setting depending on where you are shooting. Why is this good? Read on.


When you shoot in manual mode, you are in the driver’s seat and the camera will behave as you have directed. If you were shooting in an automatic mode, then the camera is constantly looking for the best exposure and changing your shutter speeds and apertures. This lacks consistency and can often lead to more work in post production. Let’s say for the sake of the article that you are shooting on automatic and your exposure is staying around 1/60 at f2.8 in the bride’s dressing room. She throws on that big beautiful white gown and your camera sees all that white and freaks out. Why does it freak out? Because camera meters want everything to be medium gray. Most scenes average out to medium gray and in those cases it works just fine, but when they don’t it’s not good. So back to the dress. She throws that dress on and the camera says, “Wow, that’s a lot of light reflecting back at me. It’s really bright so I better lower the exposure.” Is that what we wanted? No! The white dress IS bright and we want to keep it that way. If you were shooting in manual mode, the camera wouldn’t react to the dress. It would deliver the exposure you requested. Need more examples? Read on.

OK, we know that camera meters want everything to read as medium gray. Keeping that in mind, you are shooting a few group shots outside the church after the wedding. Your camera is on auto and you are a happy camper clicking away. Then you group all the groomsmen in their black tuxes together for a quick shot. You take the pick and find out it’s overexposed? Huh? You are in automatic and the camera meter saw all that black and said, “huh, who turned out the lights? I better brighten this up” and bingo, you’ve got a beautiful, washed out frame. If you had shot in manual based on a reading of the scene (using a handheld meter or histogram or whatever) then you exposure for the groomsmen would have the same as it was for all the other groups. Easier? You bet. Faster? Definitely. Less post processing? For sure


Automatic cameras, zoom lenses, TTL flash all lead to laziness during shooting and much more post processing in the end. Shooting in manual mode is not difficult at all and makes the whole take so much more consistent. If you have consistency, then you can easily batch and adjustments in Photoshop, which will save you tons of time no mater whether you shoot RAW or JPEG. So go old school. Turn off all the automation and use your brain. It’s good for you AND your exposures.

-Bruce L. Snell

Bio: Bruce L. Snell (www.blsphoto.com) has been professional wedding photographer for over 20 years and lives in Topeka, Kansas with his wife Karen. Bruce is also co-owner of That’s My Monkey which is a website offering tips and techniques to digital photographers in a unique and humorous format. www.thatsmymonkey.com


I love photography, my family, and owning my own business. I am going to mix them up and see what I get!

Posted in photo techniques, photography, photography - exposure, wedding photography
7 comments on “Old School Exposure by Bruce L. Snell
  1. Great photos! As a fellow photogrpaher hats off to you for your wonderful skill! I would love to see more photos from you.

  2. candy says:

    Yeah Baby!!! Old School!!! 🙂

  3. […] Wow what I blog, The Wedding Photography Project. He is the real deal and knows what he is talking about. I particularly enjoyed his post on getting that camera out of all the auto modes and shooting in manual mode. And you know what he is right, the lighting doesn’t change that often during the course of a wedding day. […]

  4. Bakari says:

    Thanks for this. Darn quality photos and really good writing. Sad to say, I took a class in basic film photography over a year ago, and I’ve just learned more in reading your one blog post than I learned in the twelve lousy weeks of that class.

    You’re so write about manual mode. Far too often I get into shooting and rarely check my histogram because I either fall back on Program and just work out of Av if I’m outdooors and Tv if I’m indoors. I partly took the class in order to learn more about taking more control of manual, but I spent of time just doing busy assignments.

    A good compliment to your article is booked titled Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson. I’m sure you know of it.

    Again, thanks.

  5. I need some help in reference to shooting in manual mode. I am fairly new at digital and I am doing a wedding in a month and a half. Anyway I have a hard time setting Manual settings. I believe I understand how to read my histogram, It should be the highest in the center for correct exposure. Is this correct. But when I shoot in manaul I seem to get long exposures leading to motion. I know I want a fast shutter but I feel dumb in saying I can’t figure this out. Is there any quidelines to go from when setting a manual setting such as f5.6 1/125. Are you able to help me with this? Any help appreciated.

  6. shoottDex says:

    Follow these guidelines and you will build that new home with little, or no, problems. copper roofing can help…

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The Wedding Photography Project is a website dedicated to helping wedding photographers improve, find ways to improve, and share the amazing work that they do. WPP is the brainchild of Cory Parris, a Seattle wedding photographer.
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