Using Auto Modes is OK

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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 modechoosing shutter speed and aperture for each shotand 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 sharp focus


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: freeze motion


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.

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Few months ago I purchase D7100 from B&H.  I am aboslutely novice in photography but would love to learn but can do it online because of schedule and kids responsibilites. 

I would appreciate if you could lead me to some good online photography courses.

Thanks.

Hi Rommel -

Check out the courses offered by the International Center of Photography (ICP)

http://www.icp.org/school/online-education

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  AskBH@BandH.com

Excellent article! Thanks for helping to dispell a well-propagated myth in the photography world. I have been shooting professionally for more years than I care to acknowledge and I completely agree with the position that using auto modes is perfectly acceptable, especially in moments that require immediate decision making. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have missed a substantial number of critical photos if I had to rely on my creeky old brain to completely analyze a scene prior to depressing the shutter button. For budding photographers, I would consider it a terrible disservice for anyone to suggest that they should avoid utilizing EVERY tool that today's technology offers. The creative process does not need to be a painful one.

Craig Rose - http://emergencyphoto.zenfolio.com

Hi Craig!  Thank you for your comments!  

Technology definitely has its pluses and minuses, but forgoing the pluses is often a mistake!

Happy shooting!

As a bit of a beginning photographer, I genuinely prefer the full manual.  With that said, I'll take my little Samsung point-and-shoot camera that I've had since 2011 and shoot with it on full auto while other times I'll have my DMC-FZ200 on mostly manual.  I learned from Chris Orwig from lynda.com that it's not the camera that takes great photos, it's the person behind the camera that does it.  The camera is just a tool to capture your vision.

In short, I prefer the extra control with manual but I don't mind giving auto a go.

Hi Brent!

Thanks for your comments! When I was purchasing my first SLR, one of the things I looked specifically for was a way to easily navigate the manual and semi-manual modes because I knew that I would be using a combination of them all.

Everyone has their own technique, and if it works for you, and you enjoy the images you make, then keep with it!

Cheers!

"...there are many top-flight professional; photographers in the world who shoot photographs using the camera's computer to help them."

Fine, but I'll bet those same photographers  know the BASICS: aperture selection, shutter speed selection and exposure values. Save lighting and composition for later.  Technology is no substitute for a sound knowledge of the basics.  I would advise any beginner who aspires to becoming more than just a snapshooter to learn the basics, then move on to the bells and whistles.

Hi Dale,

Thanks for your comments! I totally agree with your email. The basics are critical to understanding photography and helping to make great photographs. Knowledge of the basics will also help you navigate the camera's modes and use the effectively.

My goal in writing the article was not to shun the basics, but to let new photographers know that it is OK to use the automatic and semi-automatic modes of their cameras even if some other teachers are telling them that manual mode is the other option.

Thanks for writing!

Nice article. There's definitely nothing wrong with "full on automatic" mode, but for those wishing to be involved in photography professionally it's also important to know something about how your camera works, including how apertures and shutters work together to create an image and what they do individually for creative purposes.

I can't tell you the number of new professional photographers who have asked me a "technical question" about what went wrong (or ideally, what's currently going wrong, so there's time to fix it) when shooting an event or when they're shooting along side me for another client on the same project. Having the basic information like what a sync speed is and how it works can be a life saver if you're shooting a wedding (yes, this actually happened to the photographer shooting my daughter's wedding) on automatic and half the frame is black. The bottom line is that auto modes are amazing until you find yourself in a "tricky" lighting situation. Then, it's critical to know how to think for the camera and get the shot you want.

One minor correction on your article too. The "sunny 16 rule" has nothing to do with getting a shot without having to turn dials and *****. It is a rule to explain the correct exposure on a sunny day if you don't happen to have a meter. The rule states that on a sunny day, shooting with the sun at your back, the correct exposure will be 1/ISO @ f/16. So as long as you know your "film speed" or ISO, you can calculate the correct exposure. If you have your ISO at 400, your correct exposure on a sunny day is 1/400 @ f/16. You an then adjust for creative ***** afterward by either speeding up or slowing your shutter speed and adjusting the aperture more open or closed to compensate to achieve your desired creative effect.

Hi Larry,

Thanks for your comments!

You are correct. A lot of photographers are sometimes stumped by technical issues while on the go and automatic modes are never going to be the panacea for every shooting situation.

You are correct about the "Sunny f/16 Rule" as well. I did not want to delve too deeply into it, but the rule can definitely serve as an exposure "starting point" that allows a photographer to make the initial aperture/shutter speed adjustments and then be able to concentrate on composition and framing.

Maybe an upcoming article can be about that and similar "rules" of photography!

Thanks again!

A Nice summary.

I am big fan of shooting manual when the situation permits. It is important (really, really, really important) to know the proper functions and limitations of your tools. That being said it is a great help to be able to take advatage of the abilities of your tools (namely AP and SP). 

I use Apeture priority a great deal in travel and street photography. It is an invaluable time saver yet still allows me to capture what I want in the manner I choose. MANY hard line photographers will bash you for using "auto modes" but some of the most amazing images I have ever seen could have only been captured in those same "Auto Modes"...

Thanks again for the article and the wisdom. Cheers.

Hi Eugene,

Thank you!

Knowing the basics and knowing your gear is crucial to maximizing your ability to get the photograph that you wish to capture when you depress the shutter release. Lots of very smart people have developed the tools inside the camera to help us all explore our creative vision and it would be a shame to not use them to our advantage.

You are welcome. Thank you for the comments!

PS. I feel too young to impart wisdom on anyone, but thank you for that as well! :)

I started learning photography with a 1940's, totally manual, no light meter, rangefinder camera back in the late 70's.  Moved on to an SLR but when kids came, a good point and shoot was my friend.  About two years ago I purchased a D7000 to shoot a high school marching band's activities.  Automatic has been my friend and other parents have been wowed by my photos.  I purchased the camera for the technology and programming that would make a great photo.  When I'm not under stress of chasing a band and have time to not shoot on the run, I do move over to the A, P and M settings to have some fun.  Recently, I purchased a Lensbaby lens and that has been a kick to go back to totally manual shooting.

A good camera with the technology to support automatic shooting is a photographer's friend and should not be thought of as second class photography.

Hello Angela,

Thank you for commenting! Obviously I totally agree!

Cameras today are highly capable and can help a photographer produce amazing photos in all shooting modes. I would be tempted to say that a good composition and subject goes a long way into making a photograph successful even if is not combined with creative depth of field or effects from slow or fast shutter speeds.

Thanks!

Automatic transmissions are illegal in F1 racing.

Hi Dave!

You are 100% correct about the automatic transmissions in Formula 1. I was careful to state that drivers are no longer operating manual gearboxes as those have been replaced by the paddle-shifting sequential gearboxes attached to today's "power units."

Thanks for commenting!

Thank you

Ashraf,

You are welcome! Thank you for the thank you!

Ap or S are great tools for when your subjects are moving around so rapidly you don't have the luxury of taking your concentratio off what your doing to fiddle around with camera settings in the the middle of snapping pics. I used it while skating around on roller skates at a birthday party while snapping pictures of the participants in the rink while trying to dodge people who really don't care if they ***** into a guy with a very expensive camera on the rink. In various scenarios i'm finding the vertical diopter to be much more advantageous than the standard horizontal as well. If you ever transition from snapping hasty pics to studio environment, learning the ins and outs of manual mode(s) is much more useful.

Auto & Program modes from my own experience often had unpredictable results, often causing under exposed images. Images that are too underexposed or overexposed even in raw file mode means your chances of recovering lost details are greatly reduced. One other thing worth mentioning, if you don't shoot in auto modes your batteries can last through several days of shooting.

Battery saving tips: Shoot in manual mode, keep your screen off, turn off auto preview, avoid using AF constantly (assigning AF to AF on button or other button). Using tips like these i've had the same battery last for up to 3.5 days of shooting long exposures at night, landscapes etc..

Certain auto modes don't function well at all, like having ALL your AF focus points active (in auto) can result slow focus or constant focus seeking or worse yet, the camera decides for you that the portraiture subject you are aiming at is not really what you wanted in focus. For landscapes or architecture I prefer manual focus for finer control, my eyes aren't that great and it's sometimes hard to tell how much of the scene is in perfect focus with some lenses in those instances AF can still be helpful.

Hope this helps other readers and feel free to pass it on if you think it's useful, I write a small blog of my thoughts and misadventures in cameras.

Hi James,

Thanks for your comments! You make some good points.

In auto mode, the camera is going to try to evaluate exposure and deliver the best balance of dark and highlighted areas. This is not always exactly what you want, but the camera is working hard to make compromises and therefore, this can cause unpredictable results. The light meters in today's cameras are remarkably accurate and, in general, the cameras do a pretty good job with exposure.

I, for one, have messed up more shots by tinkering with the settings than auto mode ever did!

How many of us have spent a sunny morning shooting at 800 or 1600 ISO following a night photography outing the day before?

I have not experienced or evaluated the difference in battery life on the different modes. I shoot mostly at night and 16-minute exposures are very tough on battery life - regardless of the mode you use.

As far as unpredictable results with autofocus, I would say one key to success is intimate knowledge of how each different autofocus mode is working so that you can chose the best mode for the scene you are photographing. You are correct, there are definitely times when the camera is slow to focus or chooses a region on which to focus that is not what you intended.

Thanks for your comments and for adding to the discussion!

Todd,

You comments on "Manual" vs. "Auto" modes are excellent. In most situations (90+%), the Auto mode will result in first-rate technical photos, and the photographer can concentrate on timing and framing the shot. In fact, the Auto mode allows the photographer to focus (pun intended) more on the art rather than on the technology of photography. Thanks.

Frank Peterson

Mr. Peterson,

Thank you for your comments! I agree! There are times when a photographer must take control of some of the functions of the camera in order to achieve the desired results, but there should be no shame in using technology!

Thanks for writing!

     ****** agradezco y voloro este articulo de gran utilidad la verdad es que yo sentia que los maestros en fotografia satanisaban mucho los modos automaticos de las camaras, a mi juicio descubri que al principio no hay mucha habilidad para dominar la camara y se me iba la esena  despues decidi utilizar los diferentes programas de la camara que para mi fue como un camino para llegar al modo manual.   

   Por tal motivo este articulo me confirma mi inquietud al sentir como escalones de inicio los diferentes modos automaticos para llegar al dominio de MANUAL. gracias

Hola Juan, 

Gracias por sus comentarios!