TTL Versus Manual – Is One Better Than the Other? Watch the Real-Time Demonstration

TTL versus Manual Show Down - Which One Is The Right Choice?

Whenever I am out shooting in manual mode, I am inevitably asked why I’m not using a TTL solution. Of course, the opposite is sure to occur if I happen to be shooting using my using TTL Canon speedlights. The argument of TTL versus manual has been around since the very first days that TTL was introduced to the market. Canon and Nikon have done a very good job of selling their TTL solutions to photography customers – for good reasons. TTL offers, in a lot of situations, a fast way to get a good exposure in a photograph with very little pre-planning needed with your lighting solution.

However, is one better than the other? Manual is still the default for many products, with Manufacturers like Paul C buff snubbing TTL altogether. Does that mean that TTL itself is a flawed system? Or is it more of a case of a technology whose superiority comes with a cost that many manufacturers are hesitant to pass on to their customers?

I own both TTL and strictly manual systems. And I can tell you with all honesty that I use both regularly. For TTL my use is pretty much restricted to only one speed light at a time hyphen I feel that introducing a lot of speedlights to a TTL system does not always give me the results I am looking for. My use of TTL is also limited 2 photographs where I’m trying to move as fast as possible; trying to get as many setups and styles done in as short of time as possible. In cases like that I find TTL to be amazing. I just hook up a commander to my camera, set my other flash to slave and start taking pictures. Worst case scenario usually means I must dial in minus one or plus one exposure compensation to the flash to get the exposure I am looking for – no big whoop.

But the fact that you often will need to dial in some sort of exposure compensation highlights TTL’s biggest misgiving: TTL is basically just manual flash. Think about it, manual flash means that you must manually set your exposure. With TTL you are often doing the exact same functions: dialing your exposure for the flash either up or down until you get the amount of light you’re looking for. I’m telling you, manual and TTL is really one and the same. The only thing TTL offers is a starting point that it thinks is a correct exposure. You then make your adjustments based on that internal calculation. If the light conditions of your set changes, so does that internal base-line calculation and thus you have may have to change your settings once again. Manual, on the other hand, does not give you calculated starting point. Instead, you take a test shot, and then adjust accordingly.

After having explored flash photography for nearly a decade at this point and working with both systems I have come to this conclusion: Manual gets me to the desired exposure faster than TTL. Heck, sometimes TTL can’t even get me to the desired exposure at all.

It’s hard to explain why TTL can be so hard to work with so I spent an hour and shot some video of myself putting both systems to work under the same conditions. The final verdict is that I was able to get the exposure I was looking for in less clicks with Manual than I could using TTL.

Here are the test conditions we used:

  • Shot inside of my studio so all light was controlled
  • Canon Speelites for TTL
  • Paul C Buff Strobes for Manual
  • 3 Lights for each setup in the exact same position using the exact same modifiers
  • 2 lights with gels. One with a single gel, the second with 2 gels.
  • Static subject (foam head)
  • Counted the number of photos it took to get the desired exposure.

In the end I think it took 11 photos to get the TTL photo where we wanted it and only 4 to get the manual picture to the correct exposure.

Shot in TTL. Struggled to get the center, dark blue gel'd, light to put out as little light as possible. Key light (right) and kicker (left) also struggled to find a good ratio between them.
Manual mode. Here I took a picture and then dialed in the needed changes and viola - photo made to order in as few steps as possible.

Why do I think manual is faster?

Being fast with manual solutions comes down to two things, I believe. First is Familiarity — once you understand how your lights work in manual mode and get a feel for how much a stop of power is on your subject you can start to intuitively control your manual lights to get desired effects.

The second is total control. Manual lights are not affected by small or large changes within your scene. This means you can move background lights around have your subject turn from the left to the right, add or remove colored gels, etc in still have your lights out put the exact amount of power you dialed into them. TTL can and will look at all of these changes and produce a new lighting solution which may affect your exposure, requiring more adjustments.

Bottom Line: TTL is great in certain situations, but Manual works in all.

Watch the TTL versus Manual Video

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer in the Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Northeast Ohio area.