“Oh, I never take my camera off AUTO”. A very frequent comment when I talk to people about their photography. Usually said with an air of slight embarrassment as if it’s something to be ashamed about. They would be pleasantly surprised and reassured to hear that I often have my camera on an AUTO mode (although I use the P automatic mode – more on that later). I have lots of gadgets and machines in my home that offer a variety of settings and I only use one all the time – the dishwasher springs to mind. If I choose the ECO setting it does what I want it to and I feel good that I’ve done something slightly environmentally friendly. I know there are faster and hotter settings, salt rinses etc but I’ve never bothered to work out how to use them and I don’t really care as long as my dishes are sparkling. It’s like that with a camera – as long as AUTO allows you to take a good photo and get the result you want, you don’t need to go off piste and try the other settings. So it’s fine to set your camera to AUTO, but it's better that it’s a conscious decision rather than the only option.
Regular readers of my blogs (I fool myself into thinking there are a few!) will be familiar with my views on technological knowhow versus the role of opportunity and having a natural eye. You could know how to use every setting on your camera but still be unable to spot a good shot or perhaps not even have the camera with you when a great shot presents itself. Taking a good picture relies primarily on being in the right place at the right time, an ability to see that something before you has the making of a good image and having your camera at the ready. In many instances these elements will be sufficient and so will having the camera set to AUTO. However, there are situations where the automatic setting cannot get the best results and if you haven’t got other options then you won’t get the optimum shot. You may have already experienced the frustration of spotting a great photo opportunity, only to find that the shot is blurred or wrongly exposed, despite the fact that your camera has previously delivered great results for you.
LIGHT – or not enough of it may be the cause of the majority of your problems when using the camera on AUTO. The camera automatically sets the shutter speed to suit the available light. On a dull day or in deep shade it will use a slower shutter speed to let more light in. This can mean that although the resulting photograph will be correctly exposed any movement may be blurred or the whole picture may suffer from camera shake. Your camera is quite clever and knows this and will decide to fire the flash to provide some extra light. This might not give you the effect you were looking for as flash can be quite harsh or unflattering. If you take the camera off the AUTO setting you would have a number of options available to you, to stop the flash firing and increase the amount of light coming into the camera without slowing down the shutter speed too much. Setting a larger aperture (lower F number) with the AV (aperture value) setting or increasing the ISO would probably work.
You might be thinking that this is not particularly relevant for you but there are lots of circumstances where you could come across dull light conditions during the day. I have done several shoots in woodland areas and have found that the canopy of leaves reduces the light to such an extent that my subjects are blurred if they are moving e.g. running, waving, even just walking. Flash can just kill the atmosphere and make the background appear unnaturally dark. Using other camera settings has enabled me to still get the shot I was looking for.
Another common instance when you might benefit from moving off AUTO is when you are photographing something or someone against a cluttered background. If you are zooming in on the subject then the background will start to blur but you can control how much it blurs and how much your subject stands out by using the AV setting and using a larger aperture (lower F number).
Taking the camera off AUTO and knowing what setting to use instead puts you in control rather than the camera. When I use an automatic setting I make a conscious choice rather than using it because I don’t know what else to try.
Note that I said “an automatic setting” not the AUTO setting. You may not be aware of it but your camera is likely to offer a semi-automatic mode called P or “Program Mode”. In this mode you can make some of the decisions for yourself and make some corrections. For example you decide when to use the flash – it doesn’t fire automatically. You also have the option to make the picture lighter or darker using something called Exposure Compensation. And you would also be able to change a number of other settings whilst still letting the camera automatically set the shutter speed and aperture size.
It can be quite scary when you go off piste (off AUTO) for the first time, but what have you got to lose? If you make a mistake you can delete it and try again. I experimented with the AV setting by propping my foot up on a stool one day and taking pictures of my big toe with different apertures! Needless to say you won’t find those shots on my web site! And try the TV (time value) setting to increase and decrease the shutter speed with a moving subject – I have lots of photos of blurred running dog progressively becoming in focus running dog!
Not sure about apertures and shutter speeds? Forget your manual, it’s unlikely to help you and sadly neither will many of the magazines and books which claim to be guides to digital photography. In my experience they all assume a certain level of knowledge and tend to jump in at quite a technical level. The best quick introduction I’ve found is in Annabel William’s book “99 portrait Photo Ideas” where she tells you just enough to go out and have a go. Then once you’ve had a play around and grasped the basics that’s the time to start looking at the books and delving in a little deeper.
It’s easier to practise these settings outside in daylight, so do a bit of reading in the evening, use the Quick Set Up Guide, which hopefully came with your camera, to learn how to change the AV and TV settings and then get out with your camera during the day. And don’t forget that AUTO is there for a reason – it will give you a good shot in many circumstances – but go on, be a devil, try the P setting sometimes too! You’ll soon find that you’ll be using that in preference to AUTO and before you know it you’ll be flicking onto AV and TV too.By Jane Burkinshaw. Share this post by clicking on one of the Share buttons on the right hand side. I'd love to hear your comments too!