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The Inadequacy of Auto Mode

Updated: May 4, 2018

If you own a camera that has manual options, this article is for you.

It can be tempting to leave your Digital SLR camera in Auto mode. It’s really easy, and you don’t have to think much. All you have to do is frame the shot, click the button, and you’re done.

There are some pretty clear limitations to this type of use, though. For one, you will become very irritated with the results in low light situations (almost all the time, unless you have a really expensive camera).

The shots you take will be hit and miss. Sometimes the pictures you take will look amazing, and sometimes they will not look right at all. Let’s explore why.

When your camera is in Auto mode, it is essentially guessing at the settings. It has been programmed to read the camera’s light meter, analyze the histogram, and then set the camera’s ISO, shutter speed, and aperture based on pre-programmed instructions.

Sometimes, your camera will guess right. Other times, not so much.

Most SLR cameras will have a bridge between full auto mode and full manual mode. These can be seen on your dial:

You’re probably either thinking this is really rudimentary stuff (if you’re an experienced photographer) or I sort of know what those modes do. If you’re not 100% sure what these modes are, you should take a moment and memorize all the settings EXCEPT P,Tv, Av, and M.

The reason I suggest this is because if you’re bringing the camera to take pictures of your kids playing a sport, having your camera on “A” (full auto) will not be as effective as sports mode will be. The reason? You are expressly telling your camera that you will be shooting fast moving objects, and it will automatically prioritize the shutter speed to be faster than it otherwise would be in auto mode.

Similarly, if you are taking someone’s picture up close, you should be in Portrait mode. Your camera will make the aperture larger, blurring the background more than it otherwise would.

These modes are still essentially auto mode, but you’re helping your camera get the shots right without having to know what’s going on in the camera’s computer.

Here are two shots that I took on the same day. The first shot is in Auto mode, and it looks alright. Not particularly great, but you can see what is in the shot.

Country Lane by Rick Sturch on Auto Mode

The second shot, on full manual mode, captures a different atmosphere. The colours are richer, the sky is bluer. I exposed the camera’s sensors to less light and it’s darker as a result.

Country Lane on Manual mode by Rick Sturch

Now, it’s true that I can put the auto one into Photoshop and colour correct, but that requires an additional step (as well as another software program that is not cheap). It’s easier to get it right the first time.

If you’re interested in getting to know your camera better, and using it more effectively as a result, start with the Auto Exposure modes I highlighted above. Once you get good with those, it may be time to learn how to fully control all the aspects of the exposure triangle.

By Rick Sturch


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