This article was updated in February 2024 with contributions from Simon Ringsmuth and Mat Coker.
When I first started to get serious about photography, I had no idea what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO meant. I didn’t know what I was doing at all, but everyone told me that my camera’s Auto mode should be avoided at all costs. As a result, 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?
Years later, I can confidently tell you that the truth 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 the precise picture you want, and while learning to shoot manually is a rewarding and hugely beneficial way to increase your skills as a photographer, there is nothing inherently wrong with using Auto.
In fact, Auto mode comes with some clear benefits. In this article, I explain what Auto mode is and explore its major advantages. I also share a handful of photo ideas that work exceptionally well when your camera is set to Auto.
By the time you’re done reading, you’ll hopefully understand why you shouldn’t feel so bad if you set your expensive camera to that familiar green Auto setting!
What is Auto mode in photography?
Therefore, with your camera set to Auto mode, your camera does all the heavy lifting, while you simply point and shoot.
Many advanced photographers criticize Auto mode, primarily because it prevents you from carefully selecting the settings that you need to achieve specific artistic results. But as I suggest throughout this article, Auto mode does have its place, and it can be very useful – especially for complete beginners.
Why Auto mode can be good
What makes Auto a valuable camera mode? Here are a few of its most important benefits:
1. Auto usually just works
As the photographer, you have a much better idea of the picture you want to take than your camera does.
However, it’s also true that you may not know how to make your camera do what you want it to do. In such cases, Manual mode can be a major distraction, while Auto mode can actually ensure you produce the images you’re trying to create.
Photographers sometimes talk about the decisive moment, a term used by famous street photographer 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 wistfully watch those decisive moments pass by because they’re fiddling with aperture controls and thinking about shutter speeds.
I’m all for learning more about how to use your camera, but sometimes it’s nice to just put your camera in Auto mode and let it do all the grunt work for you.
Plus, modern cameras are filled to the brim with all sorts of high-tech enhancements, and there’s been a string of steady improvements to the built-in Auto mode. For the most part, therefore, shooting in Auto will give you a well-exposed picture that will suit your needs. The downside is that your camera might make frustrating choices when picking the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (and if there’s not enough light, you will likely see the pop-up flash rear its ugly head).
But if you don’t mind the creative decisions your camera makes or you just don’t feel like learning the complexities of the exposure triangle, then, by all means, go ahead and shoot in Auto mode. After all, it’s about the picture – and if you’re happy with the results, then why not go with it?
2. Auto lets you focus on the scene
When you take out your camera to record a moment, memory, or special event, there is usually a lot going on around you. There may be people, kids, music, animals, wind, rain, or a combination of those elements (in addition to a whole lot more).
An experienced photographer will know exactly how to set up their camera to get the kind of pictures they’re looking for and will know just what settings to tweak and change 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’s even worse.
It’s times like these when Auto mode can be your best friend. Don’t feel embarrassed about using it; instead, openly embrace that comfortable setting! Auto will help you get the shots you want without feeling overwhelmed. And if your camera takes care of its settings, it frees you up to focus on what really matters: the moment itself.
3. Auto will stop you from missing critical shots
What is the low point for most photographers? Those moments – and the accompanying sinking feelings – when they realize they just missed the shot. (Even photographic veterans have been known to leave the lens cap on from time to time!)
If you’re just getting started with photography or trying to improve your skills, then fiddling with the aperture controls or trying to determine the right metering mode for a particular scene can be enough to make you want to toss your camera out the window in frustration. It’s easy to miss a great picture because you were wrestling with your camera settings and trying to get things just right before clicking the shutter.
By contrast, Auto can free you up to take pictures while also appreciating the experience around you. Instead of worrying about the ISO, trying to figure out the shutter speed to use, or wondering if you need to use the flash, you don’t have to think deeply when using Auto mode; it’ll take care of all these settings (and more) for you.
The trade-off, as I mentioned above, is that the results might not be exactly what you wanted. But at least you’ll walk away with some nice pictures while also having the freedom to talk to other people, take in the scene, and be present in the moment.
4. 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 of the confusing technical details. Understanding the basic elements of exposure is enough to make most heads swim! On top of that, there are other considerations: white balance, focal length, megapixels, etc. The list goes on, and it makes photography far 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 extra legwork.
You see, embedded in the metadata of every single picture is a whole slew of information known as EXIF data. And most image-editing programs let you peek at this EXIF data to find out more about the technical underpinnings of each image.
If you take pictures using Auto mode, key details – including the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – are saved in the EXIF data, along with a slew of additional information like the camera model, whether the flash fired, and the metering mode that was used. Looking at the EXIF data of your photos is a fantastic way to learn about the technical aspects of photography so you can get a better sense of how a picture was taken. It’s almost like getting a movie and watching the behind-the-scenes bonus features or listening to the director’s commentary because it gives you a sense of the creative decisions that were made to get the final result.
One quick tip: If you want to get more serious about shooting in Manual mode or one of the semi-automatic modes on your camera, try shooting in Auto, then use the EXIF data to manually replicate the shot. Then experiment by tweaking the exposure settings; that way, you can see how adjusting these values affects the final image.
But be careful! The more you play around with your camera’s settings, the more you’ll become interested in the much larger world of photographic settings – and you’ll soon understand how to creatively control your camera in ways you might have never thought possible!
Images you can capture using Auto mode
As I’ve emphasized throughout this article, Auto mode can be a great way to enjoy the art of photography without getting bogged down in the technical details. And in this section, I show you how to create five different beautiful photos using Auto, starting with:
1. A portrait with bokeh
It’s actually pretty easy to take a portrait with a beautiful blurry background (also known as bokeh), even if you’re shooting on Auto.
I’m assuming that you have an 18-55mm kit lens, but if you have a telephoto lens that zooms to 200mm or 300mm, that’s even better!
Simply set your camera to Auto, make sure your subject is standing in front of a relatively uniform area, such as a grove of trees, then ask them to walk forward until they’re a good distance from the background. Zoom your lens in all the way to increase the bokeh effect. Then take your photo!
It’s really that simple. You can create wonderful bokeh portraits in golden-hour light, but the soft, overcast sky produced a beautiful result in the image above!
2. A golden-hour nature photo
Many people like to photograph flowers and nature, and I’m happy to tell you that you absolutely can capture great nature photos using your camera’s Auto mode. However, you have to use the right approach!
First, make sure you shoot when the light is right. You see, the harsh afternoon light is rarely the best time to photograph plants, landscapes, or wildlife. The light is intense, the shadows are harsh, and the resulting images will often look drab and poorly exposed.
Try taking nature photos during golden hour, instead! (Here, I’m talking about the hour or two after sunrise and before sunset.) The warm light will look much more pleasing, and the low sun will produce a much more even effect. Even on Auto Mode, you’ll likely be happy with how your photos turn out!
One more tip is to get in close to fill the frame; many nature subjects feature all sorts of intricate details that even your kit lens is likely capable of capturing! Here are just a few sample nature shots, all of which were taken with my camera set to Auto:
3. An action shot
If you photograph in Auto mode when the light is dim (inside, for instance, or at night), you’ll likely end up with blurry photos, especially when your subject is moving. This is because your camera will try to compensate for the limited light by lowering the shutter speed, and when you’re in Auto, you have no way of telling it otherwise.
Fortunately, you can capture tack-sharp images of moving subjects when using Auto – you just need to use lots of light to freeze the action!
Simply head out when the light is strong, perhaps a couple of hours before sunset, then find some fast-moving subjects. Cars work great for this, though you can also head to sports games, or photograph your kids riding bikes or running around the house.
Practice timing your shots so that you capture the action at its peak, as I did here:
4. A silhouette
Everyone loves to take silhouette shots, but for most beginners, the camera never seems to produce silhouettes when you want it to – and when you don’t want a silhouette, it never seems to stop!
For instance, the birdhouse displayed below looked cool, so I snapped a picture in Auto mode. Unfortunately, it turned out as a silhouette. That’s not what I wanted!
Fortunately, there’s a handy little trick that allows you to produce – and avoid – silhouette photos whenever you like, even on Auto.
Here’s how it works:
Whenever you don’t want a silhouette, make sure that the main light source is coming from behind you and hitting your subject from the front.
And whenever you do want a silhouette, make sure that the main light source is coming from in front of you and hitting your subject from behind. (If you’re not getting a sufficiently strong silhouette, you likely need a brighter light source.)
Therefore, to make the birdhouse look brighter, I should have moved to the other side so the light was hitting it directly from the front.
5. A mouthwatering food photo
Many bloggers purchase an expensive camera and are disappointed with the results. But is it possible to take a decent food photo on Auto? In my experience, yes! You just have to use a thoughtful approach.
You see, the key to a good food photo is light. In general, you want bright but diffused lighting, and you want it to come from beside or behind the food to bring out the texture. (A window is a great light source when photographing food!)
It can be a little tricky to get perfect, but if you adjust your angle and take a handful of shots, you’ll generally get a good result! If the light is relatively weak – as is often the case when photographing in a restaurant or on a kitchen counter – you may want to use a tripod to ensure that your shot turns out sharp.
Reasons to use Auto mode: final words
There’s a stigma attached to photographing in Auto mode, and some folks may think you are less of a photographer if that’s all you use. I encourage you to ignore this completely! If you use Auto and you like it, then by all means, keep using it!
Sure, it’s nice to have more control over your camera, but by giving up control and just using Auto, you’ll be free to focus on other things that matter more to you. If that sounds like you, then put your camera mode dial to that little green square and click away.
Now over to you:
Do you plan to photograph in Auto mode? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below!