Weaning Off Of Automatic Mode

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 18th, 2007 in Technique.

They say that buses come in threes, and this month I’ve had three friends asking me how to take the first steps away from their cameras’ automatic mode (commonly called Program Mode on Nikon cameras) and start taking photos like “real” photographers. It seems like the perfect topic to start a new series of posts about photographic technique, so here goes 🙂

First off, just a disclaimer before I go any further. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m something that I’m not 🙂 I’m very definitely an amateur photographer. I’ve had no formal training, and I’m certainly not qualified to teach photography. If you want to know how things “should be done”, so to speak, then enroll on a course. I’m sure that there’ll be plenty of suitable night courses in your area, and, of course, there is always Amateur Photographer’s home study course. Or, you could pick up a good book by a real expert. I always recommend Michael Langford’s Basic Photography. What I’m talking about here in these Technique posts are how I work with the camera, and what works for me.

If you’re okay with that, then read on!

What Is Automatic Mode?

A camera’s automatic mode is exactly what it sounds like: you point the camera at what you want to photograph, and the camera makes all the other decisions for you. Most compact digital cameras only have an automatic mode. Larger digital SLRs all come with automatic modes, as well as the ability for you to take more control should you wish. SLRs have built in databases of many thousands of photographic scenes, and it’s often said that SLRs can make better decisions than many photographers.

Using automatic mode is point-and-shoot photography. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t think for a minute that you’re not a “real photographer” just because you currently use automatic mode. I don’t even know what a “real photographer” is, or why anyone would want to be one. If you’re taking photos on automatic mode, and you’re happy with the results, then be happy.

What Does Automatic Mode Do?

There are two key decisions that automatic mode makes for you:

  • It controls the size of the iris (photographers call this the aperture) in the camera lens. The iris controls the amount of light that the camera sees, and has the side effect of controlling the angle that the light hits your camera’s sensor.
  • It also controls how long (in time) that the camera sees the light from the lens. There is a blackout screen inside the camera called the shutter. When the shutter is open, your camera sees light. The longer the shutter is open, the longer your camera sees the light.

A well-exposed shot is a combination of balancing the aperture size against the shutter speed. As the aperture size gets smaller, the camera needs to see more light (the shutter needs to be open longer) in order to get enough light to create a photograph. Equally, the longer the shutter is open, the smaller the aperture needs to be to prevent too much light ruining the photograph. It’s a balancing act between the two.

A lot of the art in photography comes from taking control of one (or both) of these key decisions from the camera, and putting that control into your own hands.

Other Modes On Your Camera

Traditionally, SLR cameras have come with a total of four different camera modes:

  • Automatic mode – where the camera controls both shutter speed and aperture size.
  • Aperture priority mode – where you control the aperture size, and the camera controls the shutter speed.
  • Shutter priority mode – where you control the shutter speed, and the camera controls the aperture size.
  • Manual mode – where you make all the decisions, and all the mistakes 🙂

So-called “consumer” level SLRs also often come with additional automatic modes for landscape, portraits, sports, night photography, and so on. My camera of choice – the Nikon D200 – does not include these modes, and I won’t mention them any further here.

Why You Might Want To Move Away From Automatic Mode

Most of the people I know want to move away from automatic mode because they somehow feel that they are “cheating” by letting the camera make the decisions. Well, I’ve never yet met a camera that decided what it should shoot and when. A camera is a tool in the hands of a human photographer, simple as that. You’re already making many important decisions, even if you don’t realise it. If you’re getting photos that you like, then don’t worry about it. You’re not cheating.

The right reason to move away from automatic mode is to take more creative control over your photography.

Taking The First Step – Switching To Aperture-Priority Mode

When I first began taking photos, my friend Hugh had me start with aperture-priority mode. Although I personally shoot mostly in shutter-priority mode today, the majority of fellow amateur photographers that I’ve spoken to prefer aperture-priority mode.

By controlling the aperture size, you take control over the depth of field that can be seen in the final photograph. The depth of field is the term that photographers use to describe the area of your picture that is in focus. If you imagine that the item you’re focusing on is slap bang in the middle of the depth of field, then the depth of field extends in a straight line from there towards your camera, and also from there away from your camera. Items outside the depth of field appear blurred in the final photograph.

A larger aperture (such as F/2.8 – F/6.3) creates a smaller depth of field (photographers call this a shallow depth of field). The depth of field only extends a short distance either side of the area of your picture that is in focus (photographers call this area the focal point). This allows you to deliberately blur things like the background of a photograph, allowing the main subject to stand out a lot more than it would otherwise.

A smaller aperture (such as F/11 – F/22) creates a larger depth of field. The depth of field extends a longer distance in front of (and behind) the focal point of your picture. This allows your picture to include detail not just from the main subject, but also from whatever is around it too. Larger depths of field are particularly useful for landscape photographers looking to capture as much of the landscape as they can see.

As a rule of thumb, I find that an aperture size of F/5.6 creates a depth of field (very) roughly like what the human eye sees when looking at something up to 10 metres or so away, and F/11 creates a depth of field (very) roughly like what the human eye sees when looking at distance objects such as a wonderful landscape view.

Don’t Forget The Balancing Act!

In aperture-priority mode, the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed for you, using information from the built-in light meter to ensure that your photograph is correctly exposed. As you change the aperture, the camera changes the shutter speed.

If the shutter speed gets too low, then the photograph you take will be blurred. The blurring happens because we are holding the camera, and we can’t hold the camera absolutely still. One way to solve this problem is to always use a tripod. Even the best tripods are cumbersome, have to be carried about, and the whole rigmarole of setting up the tripod just to take one photo can kill the fun of amateur photography. Another option is to make sure that the shutter speed is always high enough for shooting hand-held.

As a rule of thumb, I never shoot hand-held at a speed of less than 1/80 – that’s one eightieth of a second. With lenses zoomed in more than 80mm, the minimum speed goes up accordingly – so, at 400mm zoom, I’m looking for a speed of 1/400. It’s not always sunny enough to get that sort of speed, which is where lenses with built-in image stabilisation start to become very useful!

At first, you’ll probably forget to check your shutter speed, and end up with quite a few blurred photos. Don’t worry about it! Keep practising, and it will stick in the end. Until it does, you have the advantage that you’re shooting digitally. Just imagine what it was like when I started photography shooting on chemical film. Digital makes it much easier to practice new techniques over and over until you’re comfortable with them.

Making The Move To Other Modes

As mentioned above, I shoot mostly in shutter-priority mode these days. I combine that with the Nikon D200’s extremely handy auto-ISO mode to get as many sharp images as I’m able to. In my next technique article, I’ll talk about my one and only wedding shoot that I did back in 2003, and why the next feature you need to master on your digital SLR is digital’s unique ability to change the ISO setting between each shot.

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