Auto modes versus manual

I wrote this blog on my own blog a while back, but reading Rebecca's post today made me think of this again and thought it would be useful on DT:

My mother is taking a course on photography and she was commenting on how her teacher was touting the advantages of shooting in manual. While I am no stranger to manual I really think this argument is directed to people who set the camera to program and then don't notice what settings the camera picks. This is a crucial point - there is not an iota of difference between the camera picking 1/125s - f/4 and you setting the same in manual. The only difference is that you saved yourself the time and trouble, and maybe got a shot you wouldn't have had time to get.

"Sure," you say, "but what about when the meter is wrong?". Good question! You simply change the exposure compenstation dial to correct a stop or two. With digital you have a histogram on the back plus the image itself so instant feedback helps you quickly get to the right exposure whether in manual or auto exposure. I have the following comments on the several Canon Auto Modes:

1. Program. While I have nothing against program mode, it will pick both shutter and aperture for you. While the shutter speed doesn't really matter as long as it will stop motion (if that is what you want) the aperture does play a big part in the final picture. Since you don't really have control over either I never use program mode (see below). I do realize that you can quickly adjust with the command dials to get the shutter/aperture you are after but I hate having to wheel in a good aperture every time I take a shot.

2. TV. Time value. This is the shutter priority mode. You set the speed, the camera picks the aperture. I always use this mode for long exposures (blurred water, motion blur, etc.) since time is the key variable you want to control. Otherwise I stick to AV.

3. AV. Aperture value. This is my preferred mode. I set an aperture I want for depth of field, or perhaps for optimum sharpness or also just to get the fastest shutter speed (wide open). In all three cases I have lots of options to meter. I can use the spot meter and lock the exposure with the '*' button. I can dial in exposure compensation 'knowing' I will need it, etc. Finally, I am just a click away from the manual mode if I really need to lock down the exposure. What I like about using this mode, is that when light conditions are changing the camera still takes that into account. With manual there is the danger that you don't notice when the light drops half a stop or more.

4. Manual. Unless light on my subject is constant or I need more than 2 stops exposure correction I usually stay out of manual mode outdoors. There are some very handy times to use it though - like when doing a panoramic with multiple shots. In that case you'll want to lock the exposure in so that it is consistent from shot to shot. Another is when using flash. I hate the way Canon locks the shutter to 1/250s for flash shots in AV mode (or lets the ambient dictate both shutter and aperture). I prefer to switch to manual so I have independent control of the ambient (via the manual exposure / shutter speed) and the flash exposure (via the aperture). I can also keep my ambient sharp by keeping the shutter at a speed I can hold. I may not get full exposure on the background, but I hate what program mode lets my shutter drop really low and I pick up blur from parts of the photo when I don't expect it. Oh - and for another case where manual is good: when you have constant light but your subject's brightness changes a lot. Think bride and groom standing in the shade. Black. White. Black. White. Both. No meter can figure that out!

I've tried operating in manual outdoors and here is what I found:

© Linqong ( Help)
1. I lose a shot or two. I almost always forget to set the camera first and miss my first shot. I'm sure I would get over this after a while.

2. Some people seem to think that you aren't really taking pictures until you spend a few minutes working out the 'sunny f/16' rule, etc. on each shoot. I prefer to get an 'auto' exposure shot as my first picture and then work from there. If it turns out well I'm done!

3. Light changes. The camera is a lot more sensitive to light than we are and keeps adjusting to suit. Either you shoot on manual and are constantly checking the display or you run the risk of lighting changing.

4. My kids don't stand still! If you have every tried to follow your kids in and out of the shade and sun on a hot summer day I can't believe you still insist on manual.

5. Why guess? My camera has a meter that works very nicely. Why would I spend a lot of time trying to get myself so in tune with the light that I can manually set what the meter would pick? I doubt I'll ever get to 1/2 stop accuracy...

6. I bored of this a long time ago with my old AE-1 and non-auto lenses. I paid my dues - let me use my digital camera's sophisticated meter!!!

7. Using a grey card is a great way to shoot with manual exposure. But there is no reason to switch to manual to do this - just point at the grey card in aperture priority, meter, hit lock and you are done. Better to me than doing this in manual, and I can easily do it one handed...

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The key point to me is that shooting in 'manual' doesn't mean setting the dial to 'M', it means paying attention to what the camera is doing and taking charge when necessary. Don't feel bad if you have your camera set to something other than manual!

Give me your two cents on why you love manual, or not!

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October 28, 2009


I agree. Apeture certainly is the primary setting, unless movement is your goal.

In the defense of Manual, I found it very useful as a learning tool. The explanation of shutter priority, apeture priority is always useful, but I found the one way to make it all stick was to spin the dials on my own for awhile. In the process, I discovered all of the other features of my camera (exp comp, WB, flash comp, etc.). I'm not in manual too much anymore, but it certainly helps to know how to get it done in difficult situations when needed.

October 23, 2009


NICE!! I'm totally agree with you. I use Manual all the time and is a proper nightmare when you are outdoors!!!

October 05, 2009


Thanks for this info.Very useful

September 29, 2009


Agree Brad. What it comes down to is interest, a willingness to learn and curiosity about things. And of course people are different. My ant is an artist (paint) and she does also photograph, but she is not that interested in photography and can never remember what i tell her. She takes crappy shots of beautiful scenes. But she spot matching colors that i do not even think about and see scenes that i do not. She is much more of an artist than i am. I wish i had her eye combined with my more technical interest.

On my DSLR i usually shot in aperture prio to have DOF control. Sometimes i use time prio. when i know i need a ceartain time to capture motion. A Helicopter 1/60-1/125, an airplane propeller about 1/250, a waterfall 1/8-1/30 and so on. I use manual mode when using flash, i have a 25 year old Sunpak, a tiny Chinese slave flash (that also can be used on camera) and two old studio flashes. No auto in either of them. In snow environment (i live above the arctic circle) manual...

September 29, 2009


Great blog, Brad. For me, I've been shooting manual ever since I got my first DSLR a couple of Decembers ago. I think the reason why I stuck with manual is so I could better grasp what I am doing and how my changes would affect the image. I always look at what I want to do in an image and then set the shutter and the aperture accordingly. And then I'd experiment to see how much I'd be "off" of what I wanted to do by changing up the shutter and the aperture. Your analysis is excellent re automatic. If you know what you're doing, and obviously you do, automatic or manual doesn't make a whole lot of difference. I do know a lot of professional photographers that choose to shoot in aperture priority mode. At the learning stage however, I think it'd be helpful to at least test out the camera manually.

September 28, 2009


Be forced to do it manually is a quicker route to understanding the relations between time and aperture than having the camera doing it automatically, to get a natural feel for it.

My argument would be that it isn't going into manual or choosing a fixed focal length that makes it a quicker route for learning, it is the interest and experience of the student and the skills of the teacher to adapt. I personally find that shooting in manual doesn't really make it obvious that aperture and shutter are dependent on one another - when you change one it doesn't change the other like it does in program shift or when using aperture or shutter priority. In the days of film I did feel that going into manual was the only way to really experiment and learn, because if you left the camera in auto you really had little idea what settings were used after the fact unless you took meticulous notes. With digital you have a record, including whether you overrode the meter by a stop...

September 26, 2009


I shoot these days with manual mode, it is not useful always, but yeah a great learning option to control things. Brad your blogs are always informative.

September 26, 2009


I live to shoot in manual! After all, in this way we can dream in this times...

September 26, 2009


"paying attention to what the camera is doing and taking charge when necessary"

Exactly. But that is also the reason that the teacher is touting your mother to shoot in manual mode. It is much easier to take charge when you know what you are doing.. Be forced to do it manually is a quicker route to understanding the relations between time and aperture than having the camera doing it automaticly, to get a natural feel for it. I guess he is also recommending use of centerweighted and spot metering, not using the evaluative mode. The same reason goes here, it is hard to learn if something is doing the hard part for you.

I recently gave some advice to a newbie here on DT regarding cameras. In that post i wrote: The more knowledge you get, the more you will like cameras that puts you in control and let you use them manually, but that also translates to things harder to use for the newbie.

Ease of use is way different between the expert and the newbie. From a technical...

September 26, 2009


Good blog - useful info. Like you I paid my dues with totally manual SLR cameras, developing my own film & using a dark room to print pictures. Digi is complete bliss by comparison. So much quicker, no fiddling in the dark, instantly knowing whether a shot was successful & working with photoshop is a breeze compared to dodging & burning & wasting expensive paper. Technology develops, we should exploit it so it works for us & with digital we can do that by using AV or TV to suit the situation. The only risk is laziness & a lack of understanding of the manual options on digi cameras. I do use Auto on occasion, but primarily for "grab" shots that I would not have captured using the manual-based modes.

September 25, 2009


Auto vs. Manual! That is interesting! It reminds me of those who has forgot that you can switch off the TV from the button instead of always looking for the remote control!
Cheers ;)

September 25, 2009


I totally agree with you. I mainly use AV for my outdoor shots unless I need more control over my shutter speed and not depth of field. Manual I usually leave for indoor situations where I have more control over the light. If the camera has a great metering system it seems silly to risk missing a great bird in flight image for example, because the light is changing as you track it across the sky. Cheers :0)

September 25, 2009


heya, you explain all the above so clearly! I just finished a year's photography course, i learned to shoot in manual, but like you, i found that i sometimes missed shots, especially shooting important event, like a wedding.. where the moment passes and it is solely my responsibility to capture it.. or a family of 6, where you get a few seconds where everyone is smiling and looking at the camera... i cannot afford to miss that shot while trying to get perfect exposure!!

I definitely think it is important to learn to shoot in manual so you understand the relationship between aperture and shutter, but for a lot of situations, it is realistically impractical to shoot all the time in it.. (that's what i think.. anyways!!)

Cheers - rebecca

September 25, 2009


I like how you explain things. I would love the auto mode to do all the work, and me, just to find the best place for shooting. :)

September 25, 2009


Auto (AV) exposure first, and manual settings after, if I'm not happy with the results. I would hate to have a camera without manual mode. It would be like having the same gray cloudy afternoon all year long, no winter, no summer, no morning or night.

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