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Going Beyond Auto

Written by Daven Mathies

This article pertains mainly to entry-level DSLRs, but the information is broad enough to apply to advanced point-and-shoot and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, as well.

Photography is not about the gear so much as it is about your eye, your vision. I’ve never heard a successful photographer say, “I owe it all to my camera.” Nor have I heard any critic of said photographer say, “Dang, if only you had a few more megapixels.” That said, photography wouldn’t exist without the camera, and if you’re hoping to stumble your way to good photos without trying to get the most from your gear, well, good luck. So while it’s true that photography isn’t about what gear you use, knowing how to use the gear you have is of utmost importance.

That means turning the mode dial beyond auto. If this is obvious to you, then you probably don’t need this article, but thanks for stopping by. If, however, you are one of the many people who always leave their camera in Auto mode, allow me to try to convince you to stop doing that. I know, I know: you’ve bought into the marketing hype that your camera takes great pictures of its own accord, making photography so simple that your toddler or your dog could do it. Truth be told, your camera can take some pretty solid photos without much input from you. But achieving consistently good photos, or even great photos, requires a little more. Here’s a little info on why Auto is bad, and how you can get more out of your camera without having to become an expert. Hopefully, this shows you how to get the shot you want and save you some bang-head-on-wall frustration common to shooting in Auto. 

Auto mode is decent at best; you won’t get terrible exposures but you won’t get great ones, either. At least not most of the time. The main problem is that your camera just has trouble knowing what you want. It might guess correctly, but more than likely, it’s going to get it wrong. Auto mode is going to try to interpret what you’re photographing, make an assumption about how you want the photo to look, and go with it. It’s kind of like taking a taxi out to dinner, only you can’t tell the driver which restaurant you want to go to, just that you’re hungry. Maybe you end up with something that’s not half bad, maybe you even get a pleasant surprise, but maybe what you wanted was vegan tapas and now you find yourself at Five Guys. And I know: now you’re saying, “Wait a second, I know how to get around this: scene modes!” Well, unfortunately, scene modes are really just modified Auto modes—and they’re not always clear about what they are actually doing. While the Action/Sports scene mode, for example, will be better at shooting fast moving subjects than Auto mode, it still leaves a fairly large margin for error. So, moving beyond Auto also means moving beyond scene modes.

Program - No, that “P” on your mode dial doesn’t stand for Professional; it’s Program. Program is a fancy of way of saying automatic exposure, but it gives you much more control than Auto mode. In Program, you don’t have to worry about shutter speed or aperture, but it will open up many more options to you that would otherwise be unavailable in Auto. For example, if your camera has RAW capability, Program will let you use it—Auto generally forces you into JPEG only. Secondly, you will be able to adjust exposure compensation — if your photos are too dark, turn it up. If they are too bright, turn it down. No advanced degree required here, but you’re still in control of how your images look. My personal favorite feature of Program is that the camera’s built-in flash flash won’t automatically pop up every time you press the shutter button when the camera thinks you need it. (I know everyone has been annoyed by that one at some time.) Program also lets you set your ISO (which you can set to “automatic” if you’d rather not mess with it). Auto mode generally limits the maximum allowable ISO, but in Program you can push your ISO to your camera’s limits, if need be. So while this may introduce noise in your images depending on how high you need to go, it can also mean the difference between a properly exposed image and one that is significantly under exposed when working in low light situations.

Shutter Priority (Time Value) - Generally denoted by an “S” on your mode dial (Canon cameras use “Tv” for Time Value), Shutter Priority allows you to choose a shutter speed, and leaves the aperture up to the camera. Like Program, you can still control your ISO and exposure compensation. Shutter Priority is a better alternative to the Action/Sports scene mode, and here’s why: Action mode will always preference a fast shutter speed in order to “freeze” subject motion. However, it may not be fast enough. It doesn’t know if you’re shooting Formula 1 or bumper cars. It also doesn’t know the focal length of your lens, or how far you are from your subject. All of these factors affect motion blur and determine what shutter speed is required to freeze the subject. And this is all assuming that freezing the action is indeed what you want to do. Perhaps, instead, you want blurred motion to illustrate the concept of speed? Or perhaps you want to create a panning shot, keeping your subject crisp but the background blurry? Shutter Priority will get you there. You want to freeze everything in the frame no matter what? Choose a fast shutter speed, like 1/2000th of a second. You want to blur everything no matter what? Choose something slow, like 1/30th of a second. For a panning shot, try something in between, like 1/125th of a second. (These numbers are relative; there are no absolutes here as everything depends on what, specifically, you are shooting.) Now, given the variables of your scene, Shutter Priority cannot always guarantee a correct exposure. If there is just too much light for the aperture to compensate for a slow shutter, you’re image will be over exposed. The reverse is also true. This is why Shutter Priority is not a great “everyday” mode, but for outdoor action or sports, it is far more flexible than Action/Sports mode.

Aperture Priority (Aperture Value) - The opposite of Shutter Priority. The “A” position on your camera’s mode dial (Av on Canon) does not stand for Auto. It stands for Awesome. Because Aperture Priority is probably the most awesome semi-automatic mode on your camera. Whereas Shutter Priority was a good alternative to Action/Sports mode, Aperture Priority is a good alternative to just about anything. Since there are fewer aperture values than shutter speeds, you will almost never encounter a situation in which the shutter will be physically incapable of compensating for a given aperture (not like Shutter Priority, where the reverse problem is relatively common). You may end up with a blurry image if you select a small aperture and the shutter has to drop below, say, 1/60th of a second to compensate, but this is fixable. In plentiful light situations, such as shooting outdoors in daytime, it’s really difficult to mess up your exposure using Aperture Priority. By taking control of your aperture, you now control your depth of field. This makes Aperture Priority a perfect alternative to Portrait and Landscape scene modes, which generally preference a shallow and deep depth of field, respectively. Want to blur the background as much as possible while keeping your subject in focus? Choose the fastest (largest) aperture value, which is denoted by the smallest number. On a kit lens, this is probably something in the f/3.5 to f/5.6 range. On higher-end lenses it may be f/2.8, f/1.8, or even faster. For deep depth of field, choose the opposite: something in the f/11 to f/16 range. Depth of field, like motion blur, is dependent on many factors: distance from subject, distance of subject to background, and focal length of your lens. Aperture Priority, somewhat ironically, is also a good way to control shutter speed. Want a fast shutter? Choose a fast (large) aperture. Slow shutter? Slow (small) aperture. Easy as that. The benefit of using Aperture Priority to control shutter instead of Shutter Priority is that you won’t risk going beyond the physical range of available exposures. Aperture Priority is a workhorse mode, suitable for a wide variety of situations, and will help you get the most out of your camera without any advanced knowledge.

Manual - Just like the name implies, Manual mode leaves everything up to you. This gives you ultimate control over your exposures. While using Shutter or Aperture modes plus exposure compensation can get you close to what Manual does, there are a couple of reasons why Manual remains superior. Firstly, exposure compensation still relies on the camera’s (imperfect) metering system, and can yield inconsistent results from shot to shot, even if the scene doesn’t change. Also, it is easy to forget that exposure compensation is turned on, leading you to accidentally over or underexpose future photos after changing locations. Manual gives you control and consistency. It also forces you to think more about your photography, which is never a bad thing. In fact, it is probably the most important thing for anyone who truly wants to take their skills to the next level. If that’s you, shoot in Manual.

While camera manufacturers continue to attempt to make cameras easier to operate, promising great photos with the touch of a button, the truth is that cameras have grown more complex. We didn’t have to deal with scene modes in the film days. My recommendation is to stick to the above PSAM exposure modes. You will improve your photography and simplify your life. It’s a win-win.

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