Taking Control: Progressing from Full Auto
Author: Chris Bourne
We’ve all been there… a shiny new camera in a class we’ve never experienced before. The manual hasn’t been unwrapped, and probably never will and the mode dial looks pretty daunting. I must admit that when I first ‘unboxed’ my DSLR and went to take the first photo I got a wallop of what I thought was mirror slap. This turned out to be the flash popping up on its own when I didn’t want it to. I then abandoned full auto and have never looked back. The camera design boffins have lost a lot of sleep making automatic modes pretty slick, but to get the most out of your equipment you have to take charge. Today we start to demystify the mode dial and help you take your first steps away from auto-badness.
I’m really not a fan of these, but they may be some use to you if you need to take photos of body-less heads, clouds crashing in to mountains, tulips, dudes with cramps, a star coming out of someone’s heads or ‘no lightning bolt’ signs. These modes give full auto a bit of help, hinting at what your subject may be. Trying these might help you to learn how the camera thinks you should shoot certain scenes, but ultimately you’re cleverer than it is, and you’ll get better results in the more manual modes.
These modes are those between full auto and manual – the ones that let you take charge of your camera, set what you really want and let the camera decide what is left. As well as the direct benefits of control in these modes, there are some other features which are unlocked – for example it allows you to shoot raw (which helps enormously in post-processing) and gives you control over your flash.
P – Program mode
In a nutshell, this is more-or-less full auto, but it allows you to ‘program’ certain aspects if you like. On my Canon SLR for example, once metered, the wheel near the shutter button will give you different aperture/shutter speed combinations. This is the obvious first step to take away from full auto mode, but there are better things to come.
The consensus is that maybe the V is for variance, but regardless of what it stands for – this is my favourite mode to shoot in. It allows you to dial in an aperture for the lens (which in turn determines the depth-of-field, sharpness and amount of light coming in). The camera then meters for you and sets the shutter speed to suit. If you disagree with its analysis of the scene, you can use exposure compensation to pull it forward or back to suit. My default shooting method is to start up in aperture priority, choose a low value f-stop (wide aperture) for low light or shallow depth-of-field, medium aperture for optimal sharpness, or a fairly high aperture if I really want to stretch out shutter speed. Then I’m good to go – it’s only a little more effort than starting the camera in auto but I promise it’ll allow you to take better photos.
TV – Shutter Speed Priority…
This mode is similar to Aperture Priority, but instead of settings the aperture, it allows you to set the shutter speed you desire. The camera then chooses the aperture to suit. This mode can be handy if you are shooting something time critical– perhaps a waterfall that you want to look nice and smooth, or moving object that you would like to freeze in time.
M – Manual
In this mode the user is in charge of setting the aperture and shutter speed. The camera will help by giving its opinion of exposure in the viewfinder/screens. You can then adjust your settings until this exposure is right. Personally, I would rather let the camera do this final fine tuning and just set the critical parameters myself.
ISO – International Organisation for Standardisation
This one often isn’t on the mode dial, but will be nearby and is important. If you remember the 1990’s, you might remember buying 100ASA film (or 200, 400¡ ) back then it was talking about the size of the grain of crystals in the film,but these days it’s talking about the gain on the sensor – ie, how sensitive it is to light stimulus. If I blindfold you and give you only a quick glimpse of a scene and ask you to tell me what you saw, you’ll probably get some details wrong. If I give you a little bit of time you’ll probably get things mostly right, and if I give you an eternity, you’ll start going bonkers – second guess yourself perhaps thinking magenta elephants were in the room. The same sort of thing happens with sensors. If you put your sensitivity up too high, you’ll get noise, and in the same way if your exposure time is too long – think star trails¡ you’ll start to get some noise as well. Choose an appropriate ISO setting for your scene – around 100 if there is stacks of light, maybe 400-800 indoors or if fast shutter speed is needed, and push the limit (1600+) if you are shooting in the da.
Like most aspects of photography, learning how these modes work and the results they can produce is easier to decipher if you play around with them. Experiment, it’ll help you get more from your equipment and get more out of your hobby.
About the Author
CHRIS BOURNE is an Australian based Mechatronic Engineer by day and a passionate photographer by night. While his knowledge of photography lies mainly in the technical side, his passion for photography is boundless and he often explores the artistic side as well. He uses his spare time to write up articles for the visitors at DigitalRev.