Manual Versus Automated Camera Methods for HDR

Chuang Yen Monastery

Reading around the web, I came upon a series of sites that talk about HDR Photography technique and how the use of the Manual mode of the camera will yield the best results.  Now, while this could yield great results for some people, and I think its a great way to have control over ALL of the elements of a picture, I think that the idea can cause a bit of confusion.  I figure it’s probably best to do this with an example.

Take it To the Bridge
Let’s say you’re just getting into your camera for HDR work.  You get the entire Shutter/Aperture combination for your work but now you’re in the exploration phase of HDR.

You walk up to a scene of a bridge at night with lights and you want to setup a 5 shot bracket.  How do you know what the correct exposure is?  Someone told you about Sunny F16 as a rule, but this is a scene at night, and you have no idea as to where to start.  What do you do?

Scenario 1: Aperture Priority Mode + Spot Metering
You switch to Aperture Priority mode and the camera reads the scene, giving you a base exposure.  Our modern cameras have got great meters inside of them.  If you meter the scene and fire a shot, there’s a very good probability that the scene is going to be rendered well.  If it isn’t, you use your EV to slide up and down the exposure to artistically compensate.  If you need more of a dead on area, you can probably switch from matrix to spot metering – but i’ve rarely had to do this.

From here, just set the bracket that you need (However many exposures, and however many steps apart – dependent on what your camera lets you do) and fire the frame.  Now, you’re off to Post Processing Land.

Scenario 2: Manual Metering

  1. You don’t know what your starting exposure is going to be, but you have a general idea that you want to shoot at F11. So, F11 goes into the camera, and you dial in a shutter.
  2. Click. Look back at the scene and wonder about the exposure.  Too Dark? Too Light?
  3. Pull up the histograms on the image to check, or highlights to check for blinkies.  Ah, a little too dark.
  4. Change Shutter value to another amount.  What amount?  I don’t know.. maybe a smidge less(or more) than what the last one did.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 ad nausea.

My Beef with M Here

Manual mode in this scenario presumes you will have a ballpark idea of what your exposure of a given area is.  It presumes you can walk into a room with a “This is a 120 5.6 scene” mentality.  That’s totally fine if you have that and much respected.  However, many users will not.  And when they don’t – the Manual mode just confuses something that need not be confusing.

Now, if you are staring into the viewfinder,  and looking at the lines to the right that show that you are ‘under’ on a scene, and adjusting according to that – congratulations.  You are using the camera’s built in meter anyway, and there is no difference between what you’re doing there and just switching it over to Aperture Priority.

Shooting More Frames with EV

In the process of writing this out, I came across the “Canons only shoot 3 frames, whereas Nikons shoot more” situation.  Figured i’d throw in a little bit of a tip while I was at it.

Remember that these cameras are shooting over and underexposed automatically when you’re doing a bracket.  Switch yourself to Aperture mode, but DO NOT bracket.  From there, click and make 1 shot.  Go into your EV setting and minus however much you want for the next frame.  Once that’s done, click again.  Continute to adjust your EV for the rest of the frames, and in no time, you’re done.  If you’re shooting a landscape scene this shouldnt affect your exposures too much, and any movement will easily be removed using deghosting technologies in HDR tools.  Now, for high speed needs or for extended time HDR techniques, we can use the cameras built in Intervalometers or external devices.   But that’s a conversation for another time.

The Takeaway

If I can leave you with one thing, it’s this.  A long time ago, people used manual mode because there was nothing else to use – not because it was a better way of doing things.  While I firmly believe going manual is one of the best ways to control an image in specific scenarios – HDR photography just doesn’t seem like its one of them.  For people just getting into the space, it can confuse unnecessarily.  HDR photography is actually very easy to do, and doesn’t require a super secret mode of developing it to make it awesome.  It just requires your time and your passion..


  1. I certainly appreciate this line of debate, RC. If there is one undeniable common denominator about HDR, it is that you have to get the right brackets for optimal results. There isn’t much argument here.

    Now, how you decide to go about getting these brackets is totally subjective. During the recent APC HDR Walkshop that I led at PSW in Vegas, many people asked how I go about this process of obtaining my brackets. I explained that I always shoot in Manual because I rely on my Promote Control to overcome the 3 AEB Exposure limit imposed by Canon on my 5D Mark II (and as you wrote, that gear topic is a whole other conversation). There were people there who did not have a Promote Control and I explained that shooting your brackets in Aperture Priority is a perfectly valid way to get the images. I did add that it is imperative to review your brackets before moving the camera to ensure you get exposure detail in all areas from highlights through shadows.

    I also showed the attendees how I go about obtaining my mid-range exposure by using my Live View display and hovering my preview box (a white rectangle on the Canon) over the desired area. I then adjust my shutter speed until my meter reads ‘0’. Not very complicated at all and several people even expressed interest in pursuing this mode of bracketing. Others were more comfortable with continuing to use Aperture Priority. It was a happy melting pot.

    Where I start to disagree here is with your sentiment that beginners should just should Aperture Priority because “it [Manual] can confuse unnecessarily.” I don’t necessarily equate shooting HDR in Manual as requiring “a super secret mode of developing it to make it awesome”, either. The simple difference between the two modes is that in Aperture Priority, you are allowing your camera to calculate the correlating shutter speed to achieve a mid-range exposure and in Manual, you specify both values (in addition to ISO).

    Neither is wrong or right, neither will provide you with better or worse results. I am a huge advocate for people to begin shooting HDR. But, I am also a proponent of letting people know that there is certainly more than one way to skin a cat here.

    Kudos to you, RC, for this article. It is a healthy debate and you presented your side fairly and with really good examples.



  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and tips on this subject. Good advice as always. I’d like to add, however, that while I can definitely see your point on how using automated versus manual settings could be easier for most people shooting HDR images there are times when you just shouldn’t leave the thinking up to the camera. In my case this is nearly all the time because the majority of HDR images I shoot are 360° panoramic images created from combining multiple perspectives. In shooting 360° images (or any panoramas that require as series of images that are stitched together) if the automated settings are used it is likely you’ll have different exposure values produced by the camera for each portion of the panorama you shoot. These differences in exposure values could cause the final stitched panoramic image to have unnatural seems and uneven exposure levels.
    Although though manual may seem a little confusing for some photographers at first, the control that it affords is well worth learning about and using in HDR photography.

  3. Hey Brian!

    Glad for the back and forth here.. I think its a great exchange! Didn’t get a chance to get back to the comments till now, so I figured I would..

    OK -The Live View Part – I think it’s totally a great way for you to be able to see what you want to expose before you hit the shutter. I found two problems with it:

    1. Some people don’t have live view.. so that knocks out a percentage of folks.

    2. If you are using Live View’s bar to the right to tell you if you’re ‘off of 0’, and then using the knob ” …then adjust my shutter speed until my meter reads ’0′. ” – You are -in- Manual mode, but you are not -shooting- manually.

    I argue that you are in Manual Mode, using a cameras built in Meter to show you how far you are from 0 – and adjust it accordingly. You’re in essence, using the shutter dial to do what Aperture Priority would do in software. Aperture Priority with Spot Metering, and Spot Meter locking would yield the same result.

    I know it sounds like semantics – but I think that a lot of people coming into digital photography would see the “Need to do it manual” and believe that there is a bunch of X that needs to be understood in order to undertake the shot. Being able to tell someone “The Camera has a meter, and it will tell you what the exposure is for that area if you point it at something” is another (and I argue, better) way to get someone into the game.

    Anthony – you are spot on about Manual settings for panos or 360’s. Normally, I meter a scene, then dial that into the camera in Manual mode because I don’t want the camera to ‘see’ a different part of the scene when i tilt the head, and give me a different exposure. In this case, yes.. I agree 100 percent. However – that isn’t manual either. That’s Exposure Locking – you are still using meters to get the exposure – but you’re locking it into place. It also represents a smaller subset of HDR Photography as a whole (But a bad A&#*& side of it.. you HAVE to share some shots!!)

    Loving the debate – just have a bit of an issue with positing that Manual is a way to go. When a consumer hears “Manual” there is a feeling of a photographer needing to see a scene and make a determination as to what shutter and aperture to click to make it work – absent of any technology to do so. People hear that, and they freak out because they believe that they need to learn so much to do it – turning them off. I’m just advocating that we teach technique as well as efficiency.


  4. Well said. As someone who is just now getting into HDR and has recently purchased my first DSLR, I would only use the automatic methods. Reading other articles about the need to produce HDR using manual methods has scared me away from trying HDR. So, thank you for letting us newbies not feel inferior for using automatic settings!

  5. I feel like a kid who just discovered a secret club, because I didn’t even know this debate existed. In fact, I never knew that I could shoot my brackets in Manual on my D700 and it would only affect the shutter speed. I’d always been taught to use Aperture Priority mode to ensure my DOF remained constant.

    When Brian discussed it on the APC HDR WalkShop, it was actually pretty cool to discover that I had another choice to make sure I got the results I desired.

    When I started with DSLRs, EV compensation seemed like a magic button, until I actually gave it some thought. Once I realized that it was simply changing the shutter speed (a true Doh! moment for me), it was no longer mysterious and I started relying more upon manual mode. Certainly not always, but I found that setting those numbers worked better for my mind than going +/- EV for compensation.

    I’ll probably shoot HDR in both Aperture and Manual modes, as my mood or the situation dictates to me. It’s just nice to know I have more opportunities to decide.

  6. RC,
    Personally I use aperture priority. Since I have bought the Promote I have been on manual but only because that’s how it works. I compare it to flash, manual or t/l, can be the same if done right. The whole thing is get the range of exposure by changing shutterspeed only. I have been to workshops where the instructor never addresses the issue of WB! If the WB is on auto and the sun moves behind clouds then….well…
    When we went on the HDR workshop I was using the Promote for first time and my brackets were great, just as usual BUT it was easier moving around with tripod and shooting multiple HDR’s with it. Either way it’s just getting to the same place a different way.
    Great to finally meet you guys, see you next year for sure!

  7. Thanks for the reply, RC. I think I am starting to see the miscommunication that is apparently happening. I’ve certainly never claimed to shoot ‘manually’ nor have I ever advocated that anyone shoot HDR in that way, where they walk into a scene and decide on an aperture and shutter speed based on something they read in a book a la your “This is a 120 5.6 scene” quote. There are a lot of variables that go into finding your mid-range exposure when shooting brackets and it changes with each scene and as the time of day passes.

    Rather, I try to teach people to learn how to work their camera’s meter. It’s an amazing piece of technology (I love not having to always carry my Sekonic spot meter anymore) and it has provided consistent results. Now, I still shoot in Manual mode, partly as stated, because my Promote Control requires it and also because I just prefer it.

    There is no arguing there are huge similarities between Aperture Priority and Manual Mode. The only real difference is that in Manual, the photographer adjusts a dial to get the appropriate shutter speed to get the meter to ‘0’. In Aperture Priority, the camera adjusts it for you. In theory, both modes should give you the same shutter speed for same aperture, ISO and metering point. So, it really comes down to a matter of preference in how you get to that point.

    I’ve been shooting HDR for long enough where I know that there are so many ways to get the brackets that you need and I would never tell anyone that there is only one ‘best’ way to go about it. But, I do feel that it is worth providing people with all of the options so that they can make the most educated decision about what works for them and so that they can be as versatile as possible in any scene to get their brackets.

    @Melanie – I really hope that you were not made to feel inferior for using any automatic settings. I’m hoping that this reply helps clarify what this debate is actually about. The goal is, and always will be, to get the best possible brackets in the field so that you can get the most optimal results during tone-mapping.


  8. This is a great discussion. In my opinion the only “right” way to shoot for HDR is the one that you are most comfortable with and the one that works best with the equipment you have.

    I’ve been shooting bracketed images for about 9 months on my Canon Rebel XTi. Up until Brian’s APC HDR workshop at PSW I had always used the aperture priority mode with the auto bracket setting turned on. I have had moderate success with this technique.

    In the workshop I learned to use my camera for an evaluative meter of the scene first. Then I dialed in the settings in manual mode. Finally, I would frame the shot to the composition I liked. Manual mode guaranteed that my exposure would stay fixed on the medium light that I had metered to.

    After reviewing my first three frames I adjusted my shutter speed by three stops up or down and took three more brackets. In some scenes I took as many as 12 frames.

    I have to say the shots I took in Vegas are some of the best bracketed HDR images I have taken to date. My advice to beginners is, don’t be intimidated by the technology. Have fun with it. Use whatever method is most comfortable and that works best with the equipment you own. Someday soon you’ll be like me and wishing you owned a 5D with a promote control.

  9. @brianmatiash & @RC – I’d like to share my methods for getting a good set of brackets. I’ve been meaning to write it up for a while and just haven’t gotten around to it.

    I’ve been shooting HDR for a while now and started with the 5D Mark II. I disliked the fact that the AEB was limited to 3 shots and so I came up with a number of work arounds. I think the Promote Control is a great way to go and I almost did… (instead I ended up upgrading to a Mark V for a variety of reasons one of which is it allows 7 shot brackets).

    Initially, I did not use live view but later started always using live view for metering and composition following the method below.

    My first method was to shoot in aperture mode and turn on the AEB and shoot something like (-3, -1, +1) at 2 EV steps and then spin the exposure compensation and shoot (-2, 0, 2). It would yield exposures (-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2). Or if I wanted to compensate for a dark scene I would shoot (-2, 0, +2) and (-1, +1, +3) to yield (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3). This worked for a while but I found that in extreme dynamic range settings that this spread was not enough.

    A slight variation on this was that I used live view to meter on the darkest part of the scene – used the method above, then metered on the brightest part of the scene and used the method above. Often times I’d get many overlapping frames but this would ensure that in post I’d have plenty of detail in the darks AND the lights. Overkill, for most but it’s how I made sure to get a nice set of brackets.

    Then I discovered I could use manual mode to get brackets. I basically used Brian’s technique to get an idea of the mid-point of the exposure for the scene and then adjusted the shutter speed accordingly. This allowed me to get as many even bracketed shots as I wanted. Shooting into the sun I would take -7 EV to +7 EV (when shooting into the sun so that I could do some cool stuff with the size and shape of the sun in post). This was a little tedious because you had to manually click the shutter a bunch of times. I used the timer and was careful and didn’t really have to much of an issue with moving the tripod between exposures, although I admit it was less than ideal.

    Eventually, I realized that I could combine AEB and manual mode. This greatly reduced the number of times I had to touch the camera between shots. In your camera setup if you have it set to 1/2 stop increments (canon offers 1/3 or 1/2) then by clicking the wheel 6 times it will adjust the shutter speed to the next series of 3 brackets. So the initial bracket might be (-5, -4, -3) but after spinning the wheel 6 clicks you’d be set to fire off the next series at (-2, -1, 0) and so forth. (when I mention -5, -4, -3, -2, -1, 0, etc – I’m talking about the shutter speed that corresponds to each because this is in manual mode – ie. 1/1000s, 1/500s, 1/250s, 1/125, 1/60s, 1/30s, 1/15s, etc..).

    I know this is a bit confusing but it really helped reduce the number of times I had to touch the camera and it still allowed a relatively easy way to get a nice set of brackets.

    You’d be surprised at how fast this will become after just a little practice.

    If this doesn’t make sense I could film a little video and put it up on YouTube. I think with a little experimentation it will make sense although it might be very intimidating for first time users reading this… but if they saw it in action I think it would really click.

    @Theresa – If you turn on AEB you’ll have to click the shutter 4 times instead of 12 to get your 12 exposures, although from the sounds of it you may have been doing just that.

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