Friday, February 26, 2010

Auto-mode: Yes or No?

The other day, my friend Nicole Young (aka Nicolesy) published a thought provoking article entitled Just Say No to A-U-T-O. In this article, she discusses the results of an informal twitter survey where she asked:
When would a photographer want to use the "Full Auto" mode? (Original here)
(In addition to her article, there are some good comments in response; you might want to check it out.) Her conclusion was:
If you ultimately want to have more creative control of your images then it’s my recommendation to say “no” to the green square.
A mutual friend, Bryan Jones, mentioned in his response that he shoots in Program mode 30% of the time. Now Bryan is a brilliant guy and an expert on things optical. As a post-doc vision researcher and a freelance photojournalist, if anyone is capable of shooting without auto mode, it's him. The amount he used it surprised me enough that I thought a bit about the advantages for an advanced photographer to use auto mode. As I pondered, one reason for a knowledgeable user to use an automatic mode occurred to me.[1] (And there are probably other reasons that haven't occurred to me.)

Those who know me know that in addition to programming and photography, one of the things I enjoy is going fast. Since I also don't like to spend lots of money, the best way to go fast cheaply is on a motorcycle. So, I ride. In my education on the topic, I've read Keith Code's books A Twist of the Wrist and A Twist of the Wrist 2.

As part of Keith's instruction, he introduces the concept of attention cost. The theory is we have a fixed amount of attention. Minor distractions reduce the amount we have to devote to important tasks. For example, as it relates to motorcycle riding, an air leak in your helmet will cause a tickle on your cheek, diverting attention away from the more critical shifting, braking, cornering and accelerating tasks. Fix the air leak and you will go faster around the track because you can pay more attention to the tasks that are important for speed.

I think this is directly applicable to photography and the question of whether to use auto mode or not. What is important to your shot? Where should you spend your limited attention?

© Nicole S. Young - All Rights Reserved
Used with permission
For the stock and creative shooting Nicole does, things controlled by the various manual modes are critical. They are vital components of making the shot. If something unrelated to these things, such as composition or lighting, is not exactly right, she can adjust and retake the shot. Auto mode simply does not give her the technical control she needs.

© Bryan W. Jones
Creative Commons License
For the photojournalism shooting Bryan does, I doubt things like ISO, f/stop and shutter speed are as important as they are to Nicole. On the other hand, the situational awareness to anticipate shots, move into position, frame and snap the shutter to get the once in a lifetime event are critical. For his style of shooting, auto mode eliminates distractions and allows him to focus on capturing the moment.

My conclusion: automatic mode has its place. The key is to know how to use all modes of your camera, evaluate each situation you're shooting in to determine what's most important, and then choose the mode that's applicable.

1. To be clear, I have not talked with Bryan about this. I don't know his reasons. It's just his doing it that caused me to think about why one might do it in general.


BWJones said...

I should note that even though I do shoot in Program mode often, it is a little different than full auto mode. You can select the ISO for instance completely independently and still have full control over the shutter speed and aperture using the selection dials. In rapidly changing situations where lighting or action may change how one might want to capture an image, "P" mode gives you a robust starting point where you can then alter the settings quickly to get the desired effect and capture the scene that may never repeat itself. In situations where you have more control, it is easier to slow down just a bit and manipulate the camera to capture what it is you want.

Harley Pebley said...

Bryan, thanks for chiming in.

Yes, there are a few subtle differences between auto mode and program mode that vary model to model. For example, on my XTi, 1) program mode will allow you to pop-up the flash and it will always fire whereas in auto mode it will only fire if the camera determines a need; and 2) program mode will save in whatever file format the camera is setup for whereas auto mode always saves in one of the jpg formats.

BWJones said...


Indeed. In Program mode on the 1D, you can independently set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed quickly and easily using the back dial and the finger dial on the top of the camera to very quickly change depth of field, and respond to action. I don't know if this is the case on other Canon cameras or not... I am pretty sure that the 5D works this way, and I had something similar on the 20d I used to roll with, but it was nowhere near as flexible.

Mikie said...

Great distinctions here. For me, a relatively novice photographer, one o the primary reasons I shoot manual is simply to increase my understanding of exposure. Before I ever used an SLR, aperture, ISO and shutter speed didn't really mean much to me, I didn't grasp how each affected the image.

So great point... Automode (or program, perhaps) isn't terrible in and of itself-- but shooting in auto mode out of ignorance (or perhaps laziness in learning) can really limit your potential.

Great post!

Jeff said...

For what it's worth.


I shoot Aperture priority about 85% of the time.

1% shutter priority (special occasions) and the rest manual mode when I am in intense situations and NEED complete control.

I prefer manual mode when using off camera flash, and I don't use TTL with my off camera flashes. I use Commander Mode and set the power of the flash manually as well.

While I would never recommend anyone to shoot Complete Auto mode, I would argue that the software controlling AP, SP or PP in today's top of the line cameras, do such a great job that any minor errors it may have made can easily be corrected in Lightroom (when shooting RAW).

In the D700, when I am in, say Ap Priority, I still have control over ISO, White Balance, Flash (on or off camera), metering mode, the AF programming, etc. Best part about AP is the control I have of the DOF.


Corey Luke said...

Great blog post Harley.

I shoot manual pretty much all the time, can't get past habits from the old K1000 I guess.

I do shoot Tv & Av when I'm in a situation that I need to shoot quickly. I think I may visit program mode a little just to "try it on."

Funny thing, when I got my 1Dmkiii I didn't even notice the lack of a green box until someone else wanted to shoot it.