I can still hear the words I was told when I bought my first DSLR ringing in my ears just as clearly as if I heard them this morning. “You have to learn to shoot in manual mode.” When I started to get serious about photography I had no idea what aperture, shutter, or ISO meant, and thought P meant Professional. I didn’t know what I was doing at all and because everyone seemed to say so, I dove right into YouTube tutorials and online articles about how to get away from the dreaded Auto Mode setting on my camera. After all, no serious photographer would be caught dead using Automatic…right?
The truth, like most things in life, isn’t so black and white. Auto mode, while often derided by online commenters and popular YouTube photographers, is not the scourge upon modern photography that some people claim. While it might not be the best way to get exactly the picture you want, and learning to shoot in manual is, of course, a rewarding and hugely beneficial way to increase your skills as a photographer, there is nothing inherently wrong with using Auto.
In fact, there are some clear benefits to using Auto. So, I’d like to explore some of its advantages and offer a few reasons why you shouldn’t feel so bad if you set your expensive DSLR camera on that familiar green Auto setting.
It just works – usually
It is certainly true that you have a much better idea of the picture you are trying to take than your camera does. However, it’s also true that you may not know how to (or care) make your camera do what you want it to do, in order to get the picture you want. Photographers sometimes talk about
Photographers sometimes talk about the decisive moment, which was a term used by Henri Cartier-Bresson to describe that instant in which all the elements within the frame come together to form the perfect photographic opportunity. Unfortunately, many amateur photographers will wistfully watch that moment pass by because they are fiddling with aperture controls and thinking about shutter speeds.
I’m all for learning more about how to use your camera (I write for DPS and that’s what we do!) but sometimes it’s nice to just put your camera in Auto mode and let it do all the grunt work for you.
Modern cameras are filled to the brim with all sorts of high-tech enhancements compared to their counterparts from days gone by, and along with this has been a string of steady improvements to their built-in Auto mode. For the most part, shooting in Auto will give you a well-exposed picture that will probably suit your needs. The downside is that your camera might make different choices than you prefer when it comes to selecting an aperture, shutter speed, or ISO value, and if there is not enough light you will likely see the pop-up flash rear its ugly head.
This is when you may start thinking about learning to use some of the other modes on your camera. But, if you don’t mind the creative decisions your camera makes or just don’t feel like learning the complexities of the Exposure Triangle, then, by all means, go ahead and shoot in Auto Mude. After all, it’s about the picture, and if you’re happy with the results then why not keep using it?
Auto lets you focus on other things too
When you take your camera out to record a moment, memory, or special event, there is usually a lot going on around you and that little black box in your hand. There may be people, kids, music, animals, wind, rain, or a combination of all that, plus much more.
An experienced photographer will know exactly how to set her camera to get the kind of pictures she is looking for and will know just what settings to tweak and change in order to get the right images. However, even experienced photographers can get a bit overwhelmed when there is so much going on, and for casual photographers, it is even worse. It’s times like these when Auto mode can be your best friend. You should not only not feel embarrassed about using it, but my advice is to openly embrace that comfortable little green setting.
Missing the shot due to not knowing the settings
One of the worst times for a photographer is that sinking feeling when you realize you just missed the shot. Even photographic veterans have been known to leave the lens cap on from time to time. If you are just getting started with photography or trying to improve your skills, then fiddling with aperture controls or trying to figure out the right metering mode for a particular scene is enough to make you want to toss your camera out the window in frustration. Many a photographer has missed the opportunity to take a picture because they were wrestling with camera settings and trying to get things just right before clicking the shutter.
By contrast, using Auto can free you up to take pictures while also taking in the rest of the experience around you. Instead of worrying about the ISO, trying to figure out what shutter speed to use, or wondering if you need to use the flash, Auto mode will just take care of these for you. The trade-off is that the results might not be exactly what you wanted (maybe you were going for a shallower depth of field, or would have preferred to not use the flash). But at least you’ll walk away with some pictures while also having the freedom to talk to other people, take in the scene, and be present in the moment. That is unless you accidentally leave your lens cap on!
Auto can help you understand your camera
One of the biggest barriers to entry for people who want to learn more about cameras and photography is all the technical details inherent in the art form. Understanding the basic elements of exposure is enough to make your head swim. On top of that, there are all sorts of other considerations like white balance, focal length, megapixels, etc. The list goes on and it often seems like a cruel and unforgiving proposition that is more alienating than inviting.
Fortunately shooting in Auto mode is a great way to dip your toes into the more complex aspects of photography, provided you don’t mind doing a little bit of legwork on your own.
Embedded in the metadata of every single picture, whether taken on an iPhone or a high-end DSLR, is a whole slew of information known as EXIF data. Most image editing programs, even basic ones like Apple Photos or online solutions like Flickr and Google Photos, let you peek inside the EXIF data to find out more about the technical underpinnings of a photo.
What Auto mode can show you
If you take pictures using Auto mode all the details such aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are saved in the EXIF data along with a slew of additional information like your camera model, whether the flash fired, what type of metering mode was used, even the location of the picture if your camera has GPS capability. Looking at the EXIF data of your photos, and other photos you see online is a fantastic way to learn about the technical aspects of photography so you can get a better sense of how the picture was taken. It’s almost like getting a movie on DVD or Blu-Ray and watching the behind-the-scenes bonus features or listening to the director’s commentary, in that you can get a good idea of what creative decisions were made in order to get the final result.
If you have ever wanted to get more serious about shooting in Manual or one of the semi-automatic modes on your camera, try shooting in Auto and then using the EXIF data to replicate that same shot in Manual mode. Then tweak the settings like aperture or shutter speed and you will start to see how changing these values affects the final image. But be careful – doing this can open you up to a much larger world of photography by helping you learn to creatively control your camera in ways you might have never thought possible!
There’s some kind of a stigma attached to Auto mode, where people sometimes think you are less of a photographer if that’s all you use. I liken this to people who get into arguments about Ford versus Chevy, Android versus iPhone, or any of the other sorts of silly things over which people tend to squabble. If you use Auto and you like it,
If you use Auto Mode and you like it, then by all means, keep using it! Certainly, it’s nice to have more control over your camera, but some people find that by giving up control and just using Auto they are free to focus on other things that matter more to them. If that sounds like you, then by golly (as my dad would say) put your camera mode dial to the green square and click away.