Using Auto Modes is OK
Aside from the fully automatic modes, DSLR and many point-and-shoot cameras feature Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual shooting modes. I've met more than a few rookie DSLR users at photography workshops over the past several years who, while struggling with the complexities of their new cameras, claimed that "professional photographers" told them that they needed to start shooting in Manual mode—choosing shutter speed and aperture for each shot—and that they should never use the automatic modes. They were advised that they were "giving up all creative control" of their photography by not shooting in Manual mode.
The new photographers suddenly became more intimidated by their DSLRs as they thought, in order to be like the "pros," they needed to forgo the camera's Automatic modes and shoot in manual mode only.
I disagree with this logic. Yes, you might be giving the camera control of shutter speed and aperture, but does this mean that you will not get a good photograph? Certainly not. How do I know? Well, first of all, there are many cameras in the world that do not allow the photographer to control shutter speed and/or aperture, and wonderful photographs have been taken with these tools.
"...when working with students who have been using point-and-shoot cameras and smartphone cameras for years, adding manual control is often confusing and intimidating."
Are today's Formula 1 race-car drivers crippled by the fact that they no longer have manual transmissions with which to select gears? Should we forgo autofocus as well?
Adding to the fervor are the multitude of photo workshops that encourage and teach Manual-Mode photography with slogans like, "Reaching your full potential as a photographer," "Truly have control over the outcome of your photographs," "Taking your photography to the next level," "Go manual or go home," or "Capture more creative images." These courses in manual photography, some of which are targeted at beginners, range from one-day outings to eight-week workshops.
When teaching the basics of DSLR photography to students, I've found that the most difficult thing for many students to grasp is manipulating the camera's controls to take command of shutter speed or aperture. Shooting a DSLR is not extraordinarily complex, but when working with students who have been using point-and-shoot cameras and smartphone cameras for years, adding manual control is often confusing and intimidating. Add this to the fact that numbers and mathematics (f-stops, shutter speeds, and exposure values) are now involved in the process, and you have a recipe for confusion.
And now, the evangelists of "manual" photography are telling these rookies that they need to figure out their desired shutter speed and aperture each and every time they depress the shutter release, or they will not get good photographs. Oh, by the way, don't forget to check your autofocus modes, exposure metering areas, ISO, and other variable settings on the camera before your child runs out of the frame, or the sun hides behind that next cloud.
I teach students how to use the semi-manual modes (Aperture and Shutter Priority) as well as the Manual mode, but I always emphasize that there is no harm in reverting to an automatic mode when shooting, especially if, in the naval aviation parlance, the new photographer's "hair is on fire." Even the "picture modes" (Portrait, Landscape, Sports, etc.) can be valuable tools to any photographer wishing to concentrate more on composition and the moment, instead of wrestling with the camera's controls.
In the early days of photography, lenses and cameras came with fixed apertures, and photographers could only adjust the time of their exposures. Camera technology advanced, and soon photographers could control lens aperture and shutter speed easily. But, even then, the very best photographers came up with catch phrases and techniques that helped them focus on the composition and the moment, by allowing them to mentally separate themselves from the burden of setting shutter speed and aperture. "f/8 and be there" was the slogan of documentary photographers. The "Sunny f/16 rule" described a trick to help photographers get the shot, without having to turn aperture rings or shutter speed dials for every image.
"...the cameras are more capable than ever of delivering a wonderfully exposed image in the Automatic mode."
Cameras continued to evolve, and then the digital revolution took over—not in the sense of digital sensors, but in the sense of computers that were now embedded in the camera bodies to electronically determine the brightness of a scene and the distance of a subject from the camera. Shutter speed dials and aperture rings were being replaced with multi-function command dials and buttons—in fact, to use automatic aperture control, photographers had to twist their lens's aperture rings (on lenses that still had them) to a designated position and lock them in that spot. Light meter needles were being replaced with informative LCD readouts inside the viewfinders.
No longer were photographers required to manually dial-in shutter speed and aperture based on out-of-camera light-meter readings (or Mark I Eyeball guesses); a compact computer, living inside the camera, was doing all of the work for us. Nowadays, those computers are infinitely more sophisticated and evaluate more than just brightness—they evaluate a three-dimensional color model of the image in the viewfinder to determine the optimal exposure.
In short, the cameras are more capable than ever of delivering a wonderfully exposed image in the Automatic mode. If you want to allow motion blur or freeze action, it is, of course, advantageous to use Shutter Priority. If you want to control depth of field to blur or sharpen a background, Aperture Priority is your best bet.
Aperture priority: background is in soft focus
Many professional photographers work with their cameras in the semi-automatic modes of Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority—modes that share some of the responsibility for exposure with the camera's computer. They do this because they want the freedom to focus on their subjects and compositions and not spend time spinning command dials or aperture rings while capturing images.
Shutter priority: blur motion
Encouraging new photographers to control aperture and shutter speed to help achieve the desired result is by no means a bad thing, but scaring photographers into using Manual mode by telling them that their photos will be subpar is not a beneficial teaching technique. In some cases, it does much more harm than good, as manual adjustments greatly steepen the learning curve. It's important for new photographers to know that there are many top-flight professional photographers in the world who shoot photographs using the camera's computer to help them.
"...there are many top-flight professional photographers in the world who shoot photographs using the camera's computer to help them."
One benefit of manual adjustments is they may cause a new photographer to slow down and evaluate a photograph more, but when just learning your new camera and feeling your way through the complexity of DSLR photography, sometimes it's better to just go with the flow and get a boost from the very smart brain inside the camera.
I personally shot my SLR and DSLR for years in Automatic Mode, and now use Aperture Priority almost exclusively—using Manual mode for night photography. I have years of images filling my portfolio from my days living in Automatic Mode.
If you are new to the world of photography and reading this, remember that there is no one proper way of getting to the photographic result that you want. If the automatic or semi-automatic modes of your camera are helping you achieve your desired results, then keep smiling, keep making photographs, and continue to enjoy photography.