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Browsing "Camera Settings"

Kick “Auto” to the Curb

Oct 2, 2012   //   by Kris B   //   Camera Settings  //  No Comments



Crashed Out

f 5.6, 300mm, ISO 800, 1/1600 sec

ith most of the modern cameras available today, the automatic mode does a good job of taking good exposures. In fact, a lot of people who use point and shoot cameras rely upon the automatic mode quite extensively. Many hobbyists who have made the jump to DSLRs have also relied upon the automatic mode to take good pictures. Our goal, however, is to learn the art of photography, which means getting rid of the crutch of automatic mode!  This has been, and will continue to be, a challenge, especially for the children who are more focused on getting a good picture than understanding HOW to get get a good picture. I am in the process of weaning my 9 year old off of automatic mode, and onto the manual side of the settings dial.

If Auto Mode does a good job, then why change?  Some people have the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Since they have always gotten acceptable photos with the Auto Mode, they see no reason to change. But, there are some serious defects in the Auto Mode that will limit your ability to get the outcomes you may desire in your photographs. Auto does a good job with landscape photos, but not nearly as good of a job with portraits. There is simply no “one size fits all” setting. So, if you can learn to adjust your settings for the picture that you want to record, you will end up being much happier with the results.

What are some limitations of Auto Mode?  There are several settings that are a part of the Automatic Mode that will affect the outcome of your exposure, none of which can be changed. Some cameras may have a bit more flexibility than others, but for the most part, when set to Auto Mode, the camera makes every decision. It is truly “point and shoot” as the photographer makes no decision concerning the outcome of the picture.  Here are just a few of the things that will be chosen for you if you shoot in Auto Mode:

  • Focus Point:  The camera will choose the closest subject to the lens and make that point be in focus. This is great, if the closest subject to the lens is what you are wanting to take a picture of!  However, if you want to focus on something else in the frame, it is very difficult to force the camera to “see” what you are wanting to photograph.
  • Flash: While some cameras will allow you to make some changes to the flash mode in Auto Mode, many will not. The camera decides whether you need a flash, and there is no adjustment as to the intensity of that flash. This too may be fine in some circumstances, but if you want to add a fill flash to a portrait, you could be out of luck.
  • Depth of Field, or Depth of Focus:  When set to Auto Mode, most cameras will make an attempt to get everything in the frame in focus. If you are shooting landscapes, that is great!  But, if you are shooting portraits, you can end up with very distracting backgrounds.
  • Shutter Speed:  Because the Auto Mode makes every attempt to put everything in focus, it will set a fairly high aperture value, which will slow down the shutter speed drastically, especially in low light conditions. This will make it difficult to either stop action, if that is your desire, or to capture motion (because of the automatic flash). The point is, you lose all control over these decisions!
  • ISO:  Most cameras, when set in Auto Mode will not allow you to adjust your ISO. While the camera will probably do a pretty good job with ISO, it is the principle of having that control taken out of your hands that is problematic.

There are certainly many other problems that can arise when you have the control taken out of your hands, but these give you at least some indication of the issues. Some people will jump from full Auto Mode to one of the Semi-Auto Modes so that they can gain some of the control back. This gives you some control over the finished product, but once again, the camera is really making all of the decisions for you. There are several Semi-Auto modes, even on some of the popular DSLRs:

  • Sports Mode:  For shooting sporting events and/or moving action shots.
  • Landscape Mode:  Will attempt bring everything in the frame into focus.
  • Portrait Mode:  For taking pictures of people, usually uses a larger aperture.
  • Macro Mode:  For taking detailed, close up pictures, usually of very small objects.
  • Night Portrait Mode:  For taking pictures of people at sunset.  The flash will capture the model, while a longer exposure captures the background.


If you are ready to get rid of full Auto Mode, I recommend Tony Northrup’s Book:

These Semi-Auto Modes give you as the photographer much more control over how your photographs turn out, and can be very instrumental in helping you to learn what the different settings on you camera do. By setting your camera to one of these modes, and noting what settings the camera chooses for you, you can learn how to choose those settings manually to get a similar picture. Eventually, you will learn how to choose the correct settings for getting the results that you have in your mind. Only by taking control of the camera settings can the photographer really express his own creativity. Today’s cameras can certainly take great pictures, but it is the creative eye of the photographer that will make true art!

With this post, we have really only looked at the various Auto Modes available to photographers. When using these modes the camera makes all of the exposure decisions. That means the photographer only has to compose the shot!  Our goal is to learn all about the various settings on the camera, and figure out what each one does.

In coming posts, we will look at the various program modes available on DSLRs and how to use them effectively. Every mode on the manual side of the dial affords the photographer more control over the outcome of his exposures. Once you learn to use the manual modes, you will not find any reason to set your camera to an Auto Mode ever again!