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:

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...

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!

Photo credits: Brad Calkins, Linqong, Melissa Dockstader.

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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 can also be practical since snowy scenes really can fool the meter way off, rather unpredictable too in evaluative mode.

And for most family shots i still use my 30 year old Chinon CM-4 that is fully mechanical, even works fine without batteries. That oldie is so much easier to carry around, fits in a large pocket, and on vacations i even dare to leave it unattended on the beach. Even my 135mm/2.8 fits in a jeans jacket pocket. For family shots it also feels nice not having a lifetime of backup. Well, a couple of my shots here on DT is actually taken with this onld camera, though it is hard work to get decent files from the scans with the standards of today.

(testing to post image in here in the forum for the first time.. My old camera)

 Camera and film 

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 or not. If you shoot in manual you just know what you chose, not what the meter was reading. In any of the auto modes you'll know if you chose to over or under expose compared to the meter, plus the settings. To me I learn faster from that type of method. Further, if you start with the meter reading to set your manual settings, you are essentially just shooting your first shot on Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and then departing into manual exposure.

In the zoom versus prime case I think it is a very good exercise to force yourself to shoot and frame with a prime, but it is a 'luxury' many students with a kit lens no longer have (at least not without buying another lens). In most cases adding the nifty-fifty type of lens to your kit is fairly inexpensive, but adding a 2nd prime starts to add up. I think you can very clearly see the difference between identical subject framing whether using a zoom or two primes. The key is actually doing to the experiment, not whether you use a zoom or a prime. With the zoom you don't even need to switch lenses.

I don't disagree with the methods you suggest, just the idea that there is only one way to really learn photography - I think a lot of newcomers are put off by the feeling that they aren't being creative or knowledgeable unless they set the camera to 'M'. There are a lot of aspects of photography to learn, and exposure is just one of them - and with today's cameras need not be on the top of the list... Shooting with primes to get a feel for different focal lengths as you suggest would be on my list ahead of manual exposure (especially if based on meter readings).

I also need to keep in mind that I am someone who is very good with numbers, and understands why going from f/2.8 to f/4 cuts the light by half, while you have to halve the shutter speed to make the same change - or how the program curve differs between different...

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 standpoint the most advanced camera is the green-rectangle point and shoot, and the most simple is a 70 year old large format camera. But for the expert the p&s is harder to use since it do not give the expert even the possibility to use his full knowledge, the p&s will just restrict him.

The same thing can be observed in other fields. You will never be a really good car driver if all you ever drove was automatic cars on good roads. A driver like that would quickly get into deep trouble with a manual gearbox, no ABS and such systems, on a small icy winter road.

The same goes in software. Paintbrush is easy for the newbie, but in the same time impossible hard for someone used to Photoshop. Windows is made to be able to be used by people with no computer knowledge, but quickly restricts for example a Linux-nerd used to all the possibilities with all the tools usually present in those completely open systems.

The problem lies in personal development, we are all lazy and want to get job done quick and easy. Why do something standing if we can do it sitting and so on. The backside is: Design for idiots and idiot users is what you get. If people do not have to learn, they wont. It is quite sad but we can all see it around us in way different areas, especially in areas where people is not really interested, just want to get the job done.

If i was a photography teacher, i would also try to get my students to use fix-focals, no zooms. With zoom-lenses people tend to forget to think about the perspective, they just zoom to fill the frame. But there is a big difference between a close distance wide-angle shot and a long distance tele-shot where the subject fills the frame equally. We get much more of the background with the wide angle. With only two different fix-focals, the photog. have to think and make a decision. Yes, it is harder, but from a learning-standpoint that is better since it forces you to think and from that you gain...

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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