Why You Should Stop Using Auto Exposure

When it comes to shooting concerts, I'm a big advocate of shooting in manual mode. Even though it might seem daunting, shooting in manual mode actually simplifies your photography and arguably eliminates more headaches than it can possibly create.

Consider this a case against auto mode.

Exhibit A

As one often does, I was recently checking out uploads to the Flickr Concert Photography Group, when I came across one particular image. The shot was well enough exposed, but seemed particularly brightly lit for a concert shot, so I was curious about the camera settings.

Clicking over to the EXIF data, here's what I saw.

As a professional music photographer, the above EXIF data is a little horrifying. For so many reasons, but mainly three main points.

Shutter Speed: With the shutter speed at 1/50 and above the reciprocal rule for handheld shooting, this is probably the least objectionable part of the exposure overall. But all things considered in a crowded photo pit, 1/50 is pretty borderline. 1/100 (or greater) would have been more suitable and easily achievable with a little human intervention (or yes, shutter priority, another auto mode).

Aperture: First off, I have to say that the image in question had no requirement for immense depth of field. Also, this image was shot with an f/2.8 lens. So, f/11? Does not compute. Four whole stops down from wide open in a concert setting is probably the greatest sin of this auto exposure.

ISO Speed: If this were a Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X, or even a Nikon D3s, I wouldn't really blink at ISO 6400 being used. And with a Canon 5D Mark II? It's a little questionable. But given the amount of light present in this exposure (f/11!), it's downright irresponsible.


What these settings add up to is exactly why shooting in any program exposure mode is often a poor choice when it comes to live music photography. Technically, the image was “properly exposed,” but at the expense of all intelligence.

While program modes have their place in photography and do a stellar job at most conventional scenes, concert photography is anything but conventional. Between extremely strong backlights, large areas of deep black or color washes that don't occur in most “standard” shooting scenes, stage productions will wreak havoc on your camera's meter.

In this respect, shooting in manual mode for live music photography is like taking a loaded shotgun away from toddler.


This has been a public service announcement to just say no to the auto modes. While they certainly have their place in photography, it's probably not with live music photography 95% of the time.

Here's how I shoot in manual exposure for 100% of my photography:

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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There are 11 comments

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  1. Brian Quintos

    To the guys that call themselves pros and shoot automatic with a D3s. Go die in a metaphorical hole.

    If you’re a real photographer, you can judge light in a scene better than any processor. Aperture Priority is a bit of a different story….

  2. Mark

    Thanks for the tips. I’m finding when shooting bands in the club, going manual is no problem. Set it initially at the beginning of the evening and pretty much forget about it. But I did a music festival a few weeks back and trying to go manual was challenging. Particularly with the night sets, I found myself continually fluctuating the ISO and aperature based on the varied lighting (i.e. shooting the artist more straight on with the backing stage lights or shooting the artist to the side with little light). I found myself toggling from manual to auto all night. The final results found 60-70% of the best shots were done in manual while the remaining came out really well in auto. Obviously, I’d like to go all manual all the time. Any thoughts on how to approach this in the festival atmosphere?


  3. Clair Myrick

    I don’t think I could ever go to a show alone. I am way too neurotic and self-conscious, unfortunately. There have been times when I wanted to go to a show, my boyfriend had to work, and I just decided not to go. It’s not the traveling alone, it’s the actual standing-there-all-alone-at-the-show part that scares me. I give you MAD PROPZ.

  4. Arnaud


    I can’t really agree with you Todd.

    I used to shoot shows (this is my passion in fact) and I use D3s and a bunch of 2.8 lens.

    I prefer the ISO Auto mode adding to the A mode and matrix exposure mode ! Less than 5% of picture are really badly exposed this way for 10 to 20% in manual mode depending of the show.

    I choose the aperture I want.
    I have 4 shutters speed pre defined (A,B,C, D mode) and I choose the best speed according to the lens and the light.

    I have learned to play with the global exposure and remove about 1 Ev if background is black and add a little Exposure if I have lot of lights behind the artists. I try a spot metering but I had more bad exposure than in matrix mode.

    I only use manual mode when the D3s is really lost which is less than 2% of the time.

    This way, i have time to think about pictures and I mainly forget the rest.

  5. Kal

    ISO 6400 and f/11?! Why bother with fast glass if you’re going to shoot a gig with auto.

    I shoot one-handed from the crowd and so am a little restricted with playing around with settings during the show. So I shoot in aperture priority, generally at f/2.8 with an ISO between 400-800 and comp the exposure up or down (a one-handed motion on my camera) as they change the light colour – comping down for red light, back up for white etc. Spot metering also lets me ensure what I’m trying to focus on is correctly exposed given the constantly changing light at a gig.

    I do think there is a place for not shooting in a fully manual mode but programmed or fully auto modes are a waste of space in my opinion.

    A total aside here, but I’ve also seen people with photo passes shooting with iPads. WTF??!

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