5 Situations To Use Your Camera's Program Modes :: Digital Photo Secrets

5 Situations To Use Your Camera's Program Modes

by David Peterson 3 comments

Any self-professed "real" photographer will tell you to turn off your camera's auto mode and stick with manual. Manual mode gives you more control over your final image. Manual mode is what the pros use. It's true, sort of. Manual mode does give you more control over your final image, and in many situations it's better than using your camera's auto setting. It's certainly preferable to that fully automatic setting, where you don't have any choice over basic things like aperture and shutter speed.

But I'm here to say that manual mode is not always best. And I'll tell you why.

[ Top image Get off the "Green Box" (aka "AUTO"): These are where you should be. by Flickr user MoHotta18]

1: You're New at This

If you haven't used a DSLR and you got a nice shiny new one for your birthday or for Christmas, putting it in auto mode is going to give you a chance to get comfortable using it. You'll be less likely to wind up with a bunch of bad exposures and turn sour on the whole DSLR experience. You'll cut down on frustration and you'll give yourself more time to get up to speed on all the different things your camera can do. In short, you'll learn to enjoy your DSLR first, before you have to start delving in to the technical stuff.

2: your subject is moving fast

If you're shooting children, sporting events, or other activities where the subject(s) are moving quickly and erratically, you're going to miss a lot of shots if you're constantly faffing around with your camera's settings. In these situations you need to at least use one of your camera's semi-automatic settings.

For example, if you're shooting an airplane while it's doing touch and gos on the runway, you'll want to set your camera to shutter priority and choose a fast shutter speed that will keep your subject crisp and sharp. That way your camera selects the aperture, your meter makes sure the exposure is correct and you know that your shutter speed will return clear shots of that plane.

  • Canon EOS 5D
  • 640
  • f/8.0
  • 0.001 sec (1/1600)
  • 420 mm

Royal Tern, Morro Strand State Beach, Morro Bay, CA tern-royal-10-9-06_0295enight by Flickr user mikebaird

Manual mode, on the other hand, is going to limit you. As you move your camera to follow that plane down the runway, the light may change. You're going to have to constantly adjust your aperture manually in order to avoid under exposing or overexposing your subject. Not only will you be unable to shoot as many frames (because you'll be busy with that dial), you're also going to get more unusable shots.

  • Nikon D700
  • 200
  • f/8.0
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 105 mm

Bee! by Flickr user Danny Perez Photography

3: the light is changing and you're running out of time

In some situations, the light is pretty stable. An overcast day, for example, will give you pretty even light regardless of how much you change your camera's angle. On brighter days the light may stay pretty much the same, too, as long as you aren't radically altering your position. But what about days where the clouds are moving fast, and the light is constantly becoming brighter or dimmer?

Or in situations where there is artificial light that is rapidly changing, such as concert performances? How about sunset or sunrise, when the light is fading or growing stronger as the sun approaches the horizon? You may need to shoot these scenes in an automatic or semi-automatic mode, especially if you're trying to capture multiple images in rapidly fading light or if you can't manually keep up with those rising and falling stage lights.

  • Canon EOS 1000D
  • 400
  • f/29.0
  • 0.033 sec (1/30)
  • 131 mm

trash radio by Flickr user followtheseinstructions

4: you're in a potentially dangerous place

You're probably not always going to be photographing puppies and kittens. Sometimes, you might be photographing rabid puppies and kittens. If you think your subject might lunge at you, or if you're in a similarly precarious situation - the pits at an auto race, for example - you can't allow yourself to be distracted by your camera's settings. In this type of situation, a semi-automatic mode is going to be your safest alternative to manual. Decide if you need control over your depth of field or if it's more important for you to control your shutter speed. Get most of your settings (ISO, white balance, etc.) dialed in before you enter the field, that way you can get the shot without exposing yourself to potential distractions that might interfere with your safety.

    Pit Stop, Over The Wall by Flickr user Jack DiMaio

    5: you need to be present

    It's true, photographers are often not present at the events they photograph. What I mean by this is that you can get so wrapped up in photographing an event that you fail to actually experience it. If you're the family chronologist, you may have had family members complain that although you captured many lovely photographs of your niece's graduation, she didn't feel like you were really there.

    If you're at an important event and you haven't been paid to photograph that event, ask yourself whether it's more important to have technically excellent photographs from the day or if it's more important for you to enjoy yourself, and for others to be able to interact with you. If it's the latter, put your camera on auto or semi-auto mode and then let it take the reins. Less distractions for you means that you get to experience those important moments in your life rather than just being the photographer.

    • Sony DSC-RX1
    • 1600
    • f/2.0
    • 0.008 sec (1/125)
    • 35 mm

    Sony RX1, A User Report by Flickr user kern.justin


    "Automatic" is almost a dirty word in photography circles. Though I'll bet most photographers use it, I'll also bet there's a significant number who don't admit to it. But that doesn't mean auto mode is evil. If it was, camera manufacturers wouldn't include it. It's there because there really are some valid reasons to use it. And don't worry, if you dial in that aperture priority or shutter priority mode, you're still going to get some great shots, I promise. DSLRs do surprisingly well in auto and semi-auto modes. You may not have bragging rights to having made all the creative decisions, but I'm pretty sure you're still going to end up with some great photos. Whether you admit to it or not.

    Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


    1. Albert Yeo says:

      Thanks for all your very useful information and awesome tips. I really enjoy it and it constantly reminded me how to be a good photography.
      Keep up the good work.

    2. Ranjan says:

      at the end of the day whats more important?
      getting a good picture that tells a story or
      getting brownie points on being a camera expert.

      Creative composition doesnt require any technical expertise
      yet results in the most interesting pictures

    3. Leo Kirk says:

      Durban, South Africa. 2nd Oct 2014.
      1. Thanks for all your 'news' e-mails. I really do enjoy them.
      2. Being an old- 'Old Age Pensioner' I leave my simple camera on 'auto' most of the time. Forget the fiddling- just get on with it & record what you see. When you examine them later, say on the PC, you can have some wonderful ' mistake' backgrounds that completely change the picture! My shots are FUN for me & for many others but may not always be perfect. However, even so, they so often match the pics produced on the very expensive & time consuming cameras & bazooka lenses.
      Thanks again. Best wishes & Happy Pics Leo.

      7 what others think is not too important

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