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Deciding Between E-TTL and Manual – Part 1: Manual Flash | PixSylated

When Speedliting, it always gets down to flash power – how much power and how it is set. You can dial the power level in manually. Or you can have your camera and Speedlite work together to calculate the power level automatically via E-TTL. Both modes have their strengths. Both modes have their shortcomings. One is not always better than the other. I routinely switch between E-TTL and Manual — depending upon the situation of the shoot.

A lot of photographers don’t understand the difference between E-TTL and Manual mode. Further, a lot of photographers always use one mode and never explore the other — often because someone else told them to do it that way. A photographer who always uses one mode and never the other is like the carpenter who says, “I don’t need a hammer, I have a big wrench.”

[P.S. If you shoot Nikon rather than Canon, all of the following applies to you as well. Just think “i-TTL” every time you read “E-TTL.”]

My Basic Guideline For Deciding Between Manual and E-TTL

When deciding between Manual and E-TTL, I think about the situation in which I’m shooting. In broad strokes, if the distance between the subject and the Speedlite(s) is fixed, then I will work in Manual. If the distance to or position of the subject is dynamic, then I will work in E-TTL.

Why does the distance between the subject and the Speedlites matter? It matters because the Inverse Square Law is always lurking out there somewhere. You already know this simple truth — the closer your light is to the subject, the brighter it appears. If your flash is 3′ from the subject, it appears brighter than if it is 12′ from your subject. Put another way, a Speedlite that is 12′ from the subject needs to fire at a higher power level than one that is 3′ away.

So, if you are shooting in a controlled situation, where the distance between the subject and the flash is fixed, then Manual mode is great. I use Manual for tabletop work (food, still-life, and product). This type of work requires precision and repeatability. Manual gives me the ability to fix the power level so that it does not vary from shot to shot. This is very helpful when you are doing repetitious product photography.

Use Manual: When Learning The Basics Of Flash Photography

I think Manual mode is the best way to learn the basics of flash photography. You make a decision, you take the shot, you see the results. When it does not work the way you expected, you repeat the process and learn a bit more.

When you are starting out with flash photography, the problem with E-TTL is that you have no idea what power level was used for a shot. You can’t read it on the Speedlite’s LCD. You can’t find it later in the shot’s metadata. E-TTL is an automatic flash mode (which I’ll describe in detail in Part 2). If there is too much or too little light, you won’t necessarily know why.

Use Manual: When The Subject Will Pass Through A Preset Zone

Manual is perfect for situations when a moving subject will pass through a preset zone. For instance, at a wedding, you know that the bride and groom will come down the aisle after the ceremony, so you can preset your lights in Manual mode before the ceremony starts. The dramatic contrast of the bride’s white gown and the groom’s dark suit is better handled in Manual than E-TTL.

Any sport with a net can be another situation where you will know that the subject is going to pass through a preset zone. The net in a basketball game provides the opportunity to preset your flash and adjust the power before the game starts. For instance, climb a ladder at home or climb on the roof and shoot junior practicing his slam dunks. (Just be careful when you do…it’s not the fall that breaks gear; it’s the sudden stop at the end.)

Sports that involve jumping are also good situations for Manual flash. Motocross and BMX racing always have track obstacles that will send the rider into the air. Hurdlers at a track meet provide the opportunity to know where a fast-moving subject is likely to pass. Of course, for safety reasons, it is essential that the event organizer and participants have preapproved your flash work.

Use Manual: To Maximize Your Speedlite’s Power

This is an esoteric point — another consideration in deciding between Manual and E-TTL comes up when you need to get either the absolute maximum or minimum power from your Speedlite.

When you need to squeeze every very bit of power from your Speedlite, switch it to Manual mode and set it to 1/1. In E-TTL, the Speedlite uses a bit of its power for the pre-flash. By switching to Manual, you eliminate the pre-flash and send all the juice straight out in one big burst.

Conversely, if you are shooting in Manual at the lowest power setting and still have too much light, switch over to E-TTL. The pre-flash will suck up a bit of power and thereby reduce the intensity of the flash. The change will be small, but it might be just enough.

Use Manual: To Trigger Off-Camera Flash With Optical Slaves

For all the details on how to use optical slaves with Canon Speedlites, click here. The short version is that the E-TTL pre-flash tricks optical slaves into firing pre-maturely. Manual does not have a pre-flash. So it is the way to go with optical slaves.

Coming soon: Deciding Between E-TTL and Manual – Part 2: E-TTL Flash.

Portions of this article excerpted from my to-be-published ‘Speedliter’s Handbook‘, coming December, 2010.

For a calendar of my seminars and workshops on Speedliting, click here.


13 Responses to Deciding Between E-TTL and Manual – Part 1: Manual Flash

  1. Matt says:

    I did one portrait session with ETTL. Ran through batteries extremely fast, and the images were generally overexposed or underexposed, depending on the outfit (light vs. dark costumes). Even using Flash Exposure Compensation proved less than satisfactory–I could never seem to get it dialed in right via the camera through the PocketWizards, and tried changing the FEC at the flash. I very possibly could have be changing the setting incorrectly, though–I'll have to retry that scenario sometime. The flash was the primary light source, which may have made ETTL not the best choice?

    The next session I did involving multiple outfits, I used manual settings, along with my L-358. I was very pleased with the results, as I was able to dial in the exact right amount of flash, and keep it from overpowering my fill/hair lights (which are CFLs, until I can afford more strobes).

    ETTL is, of course, very handy for corded or on-camera flash, I've found, during candid and/or event situations. One of the problems I have with it, though, is when using TTL, you typically can't ask the subject to go back and recreate the expression/move/whatever (not necessarily because it's rude–just because logistics of the situation don't permit restaging the scene), so that you can adjust the FEC. Although, same problem applies to manual.

    What I've learned is similar to what you mentioned about planning for the preset zones–preparation and knowing exactly what to do in a given situation. E.g., for a milky white person wearing the black velvet outfit, immediately I'd turn FEC (or just EC, when not strobing) down a few notches, to ensure the face and skin isn't blown out. All that comes with experience, I guess, and reading your blogs

  2. Joe says:

    Is there a way on the 7D to control off-camera flash power using Pocket-Wizards Plus IIs? I tried using a 580exII in the hotshoe with PW attached. It seems that the PW radio trigger is just that. Is there any way to accomplish this using my PW plus IIs? I don't want to rely on optical slavery.

  3. Mike Criss says:

    I agree, we should all shoot in manual prior to using ETTL. I had 2 Vivitar 285HV's with Cactus wireless triggers for about a year. This got me used to shooting in manual mode. When I switched to a STE-2 and 580EX and 430EXs I found myself falling back to manual in my studio. I could not get consistent output in ETTL.
    Just shot a football game with a flash tied to my monopod through a sync cord on ETTL and was quite pleased with the outcome.

    I think what you said makes perfect sense.

  4. Olly says:

    I'm relatively new to flash photography having just gotten over years of flash fear and telling myself that I'm a natural light photographer. The web is surprisingly light (pardon the pun) on decent info about speedlights. Strobist is a great place but lacks a certain specific details about speedlights that I needed to get over my initial hump.

    Long story short, within minutes of discovering your site you've just answered several big questions (this post is a great example) and has provided me with inspiration to soldier on..

    So thanks Syl, I'll be sticking around.

  5. Great article as usual. Very helpful tips. I am just getting into speedlites myself and I am enjoying the versatility and portability.

    Thanks Syl!


  6. Steve Kalman says:

    I read your articles several times and come back later to read them again. Here's why. There are often little tidbits thrown in that everyone "should" know but aren't all that common (It might just be me, but I doubt it.)

    For example, I just bought a 60D and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't talk to the 580 except to trigger the flash off camera. One short sentence from you solved a problem I couldn't find on Google or the Cannon sites. "ETTL only works if the flash is not tilted or bounced" (that's not word for word, but the essence is there).

    BAM!. I moved the head from the first notch above 90deg (didn't even notice that it wasn't straight on) and now it works like magic.

    This is just the latest of those head-thumpers. One from a while ago told me tha tif the diffusers in the head aren't fully retracted, I'd have the same problem. (You'd think I'd learn, but then you don't know me.)

    Keep writing. You might just make me into someone who is comfortable with artificial light. As I write this NONE of my top-10 have anything other than natural light. While I'm happy to have them, there's a lot of almost-great-but-for-the-lighting shots in my almost-had-'em file.

    Keep writing. Book is already ordered.

  7. Warren says:

    Wow, this is an eye opener. thank you dude. this helped me decide on what to buy. Im just a beginner in photography and i really want to be good in this field. i have a 7d, with a basic lens kits and Im planning to buy a Yongnuo 560 which is a manual flash together with an Rf-trigger.

    I really learned a lot. This information must be shared.. thumbs up dude!

  8. Noah says:

    Good tips here. I’ve been shooting in Manual for a while, and I just bought my first TTL flash for event use. Did you ever get around to writing Part 2? I can’t seem to find it. Given that I’m just making the transition over to TTL, that was the part I was more interested in. I’m going to start following your posts and keep an eye out for Part 2. Thanks.

  9. Mac says:

    Hi, I’m kinda new in flash photography, but I wonder if it is ok to go for event photography with a manual flash (note: I want it on camera). Is it that hard to get through settings while posing dynamic?

    • Syl Arena says:

      The challenge with shooting event photography in Manual mode is that you will need to keep a consistent distance from your subjects or you will spend sorting out how to adjust flash power from shot to shot.

  10. Greggrey Cudworth says:

    Good article thank you. Most manuals explain each function but not what the functions are for your article fills in the gap. Looking forward to part two.

  11. […] the sun, and balance the subject’s exposure with the background. If you’re using some type of ETTL flash, then it will automatically calculate the required amount for you. Otherwise, either use a light […]

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