Monday, September 1, 2008

Photographic Myths: Don't Shoot in Auto

For some five years I have been following photographic critique sites, photographic forums and now photographic blogs. I constantly read the same advice given over and over again. Some of this advice is totally unfounded, some of it is egregiously silly. Yet it is ushered forth as though edicts from the divine one. One such piece of really, really silly advice is, "Do not use Auto."

I have been active in photography for over a half century. What follows is my very considered opinion on using Auto.

The general consensus comes across as; at best, anyone who uses Auto or Program priority must be a really ill informed newbie, or at worst, must be really, really dumb. . Pure unadulterated malarkey. If a person is not able to take a properly exposed photograph using Auto or Program, they sure as heck are not going to take a better exposed photograph using any other exposure priority.

This useless piece of advice comes simply from one primary source, the source of most photographic myths, the inability to think through what they are advising and an elitist attitude. It is human nature to want to distinguish oneself as intelligent and knowledgeable as a photographer. Everyone wants to think of themselves as above the average, especially above the average newbie. Unfortunately, many seem to do this by unthinkingly subscribing to silly platitudes. Even more unfortunately, they pass on such silly advice believing that it gives them some air of authority or possibly superiority. They want it known that they are smarter than a camera. If they took time to analyze their own advice they would see that what they achieve is quite the opposite.

Somehow they get this notion that if you do not use Auto then you are in charge of the camera. Not necessarily true. As long as they go by the meter reading the camera is still in charge regardless of which exposure mode you are using. Sure you have selected one factor but answer this. At 100 ISO, shooting the same subject in the same light, does it matter whether your set the camera to 1/250th of a second and let the camera chose the aperture of f/8 or does it matter if you set the aperture at f/8 and let the camera select the shutter speed of 1/250th of a second? Surprise.

If you are shooting in Auto mode the camera would have selected 1/250th second at f/8, or more accurately the camera would select an EV (exposure value) of 14. Although the aperture may not be f/8 and the shutter speed 1/250, the exposure value is still going to be 14 and thus will give an identical exposure.

Just how are those four images going to differ from the standpoint of exposure? They won’t.

Thus, the conclusion, you are not smarter than the camera just because you do not use Auto mode. Actually the dumb newbie set on Auto has probably already taken the photograph and is merrily on his way to take another one.

So that must leave us with Manual mode as being something special. Question, in Manual, how are you determining your exposure? What do you do? Do your do a by guess and by gosh, set the aperture and shutter speed, take a shot and then check the histogram? How many shots does that take to get the exposure correct? Do you use a hand held meter that is going to give you a setting of 1/250 at f//8? Or do you select one or the other, shutter speed or aperture, and then adjust the other until a guide lines up in the viewfinder? Regardless of how you do it, you might be surprised in the lighting set up that we mentioned above and you set either 1/250th of a second or f/8 that the other is coming up f/8 and 1/250th of a second.

Under a particular lighting condition three things are going to work together to produce the correct exposure; ISO setting, shutter speed and aperture. Those three things are not going to change one iota as you change exposure mode.

So I am back to my premise that it really does not make any difference in the quality of the photograph that can be produced by simply changing the method of exposure. Those that think that it does are simply under a delusion.

While you are hashing that one out another photographer with an actual grain of intelligence is going to figure out what actually does make a difference in the quality of photographs. With his camera set to Auto will be out making great photographs while you are still trying to convince yourself that you are smarter than a camera.

What exposure mode do I use. I use all four. There are logical reasons for using Aperture, Shutter or Manual exposure modes. However, that does require that you exercise your intelligence to know when they will make a difference. But to simply tell a newbie that in order to take good photographs you must take the camera off of Auto is ludicrous. Okay, I will say it, it is stupid.


  1. You're right, even in Program, Shutter or Aperture priority you have to know well how you want to take the picture, as it's needed to think fast about where are you metering light on scene, blocking that medition or not, or compensate the exposition.

    Doing this in Manual mode could be also an intuitive way of doing a more paused, meditated, photography and makes you think more what are you doing.

    But in many situations as some street photography, news, weddings, concerts, etc, specially if light conditions are fast changing, is really needed to forget about Manual and use one of the automatisms.

    Doing that does not make anyone a worse photographer, loosing good shoots because you were busy changing exposure makes no sense.

    So I usually still prefer Manual if shooting conditions are right for it, but in many cases I use automatic modes and anyway it doesn't make pictures "easier" to take, just faster. We still have to think the picture before pressing shutter.


  2. Kali, thank you for your thoughtful comments. All four of the Exposure Modes have their beneficial function.

    My complaint is the frequency that a newbie will ask for help and someone arrogantly comments that you have to take the camera off AUTO. That is unhelpful and elitist, which, frankly, gets my goat to use a southern phrase.

    I use all four and am as likely to use Auto as Manual but the newbie does not yet have the skills to determine when or more specifically how to use Manual.

    A photographer that limits themselves to only one of the Exposure Modes or even that refuses to use AUTO is missing a great deal from the technology that they have been given simply for ego gratification. Pretty silly, no? Instead, it simply proclaims just the opposite, their true ignorance of photographic technology.