Why Your Camera’s Auto Mode Is Evil (And Why You Should Avoid It)

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Digital SLRs are like handbags. You either carry one around because you want to impress people with it or you have a utilitarian need for it.

These days, everyone seems to have a DSLR and I often wonder which category most people with them fall into. I have a faint suspicion that 95% of people are in the former category and for them a camera is simply a fashion or image statement. In the odd chance that you are in the latter category – and you bought a DSLR because you consider yourself an artist – this article is for you.

And when I call you an artist, I don’t mean that you’re into wearing skinny jeans and/or stripy stockings, like everything “vintage” and have a habit of using words like “rad” and “babes”. Because that would plant you right back into the former category again. I mean that, on some level, you are driven by a yearning to create something. And you bought a DSLR as a tool with which you plan to accomplish that.

So, let’s get started.

The first control you’ll probably notice on your camera is the PASM dial. It’s the fiddly round control that sits on top and left part of your camera body. And it’s called that because it’s an acronym for the main four modes that your DSLR has: Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual. Some cameras will give you a choice of additional modes, but you don’t need to worry about them for now.

Program Mode is an automatic mode, which is a feature for people who are recovering from a lobotomy. Don’t use it. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that there’s another automatic mode, aptly labelled Auto. Forget about that, too. Which leaves you with 3 other modes, in which you can grow your skills as a photographer and an artist.

family photography

So, why am I against you using automatic modes? Well, it’s the same reason why, when your closest friends come over for dinner, you might be tempted to make the dinner yourself instead of calling in take-away.

It’s because you want to make the art you’re producing – be it cooking dinner, taking photos, making coffee or manning a reception desk – your own, and it’s important to you that the recipient of your art experiences that there’s a unique element of you that has influenced the final outcome.

Art is unique. it’s an expression of something important to the artist. It is not something that can be created by a machine. Which is why “automatic” and “artist” are always at odds with each other.

Using automatic modes will help you take sharp, well-exposed pictures. And that’s important. But photography, at its core, has nothing to do with that. A good photograph is one that communicates. It tells a story. And you, as an artist, are someone who shares your stories through the photographs you create.

pregnancy photography

Think of your camera as more of a fancy pen rather than a visual instrument. If you had a pen in your hand instead of a camera right now, what story would you write? Who would you write about? What would your angle be? Which emotions would you want to elicit in your audience?

And would you want the pen to just write the story for you?

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  • Comments
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  1. Eniola Odurinde

    I agree about auto mode being evil. When my dad first bought an SLR, I tried to teach him to use the semi-automatic modes- even program mode, but he blatantly stuck with auto!
    Whenever I viewed the images, I always sighed, and though ”That would have been so much better in manual mode!”

    • Reply
  2. Gideon Tunguy-Desmarais

    Yea, but there ARE those times when you need to take a quick snapshot of the moment, and you happen to have your DSLR – then auto or Program may have. To be used

    • Reply
  3. Kimberly Miller

    Thanks so much for the new perspective about the art of photography. I agree that each shot is a unique expression. For me, it’s a way to capture the beauty that I see before me and encapsulate so that I can se it again and again.

    I love that you have such a vision of the art and you are true to that vision. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
  4. Bill

    I totally agree with these points. If you’re going to buy a high-end camera, why set everything to “point and shoot” mode? Yes, the photo quality will be much better, but it almost defeats the purpose of having a DSLR!

    One exception, in my opinion, is the “Guide” mode on Nikon’s entry level DSLRs. It helps newbies (or anyone) choose different modes based on what they will be shooting and then guides them to adjusting camera settings accordingly. If nothing else, this helps them learn what the different settings/features actually accomplish, and thus make them a better photographer.

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  5. Jim Goudy

    I use the program mode all the time, but with this exception. What most people fail to realize the auto modes meter to 18% grey. Knowing that, I always adjust my +/- exposure to bring out my blacks or whiten my whites.

    • Reply
  6. BREE SY

    YE RIGHT:)

    • Reply
  7. Stuti S

    This is a really excellent article! As someone still tentatively entering photography as a hobby, I appreciated your explanation of the different modes. And I really enjoyed your description of photography as a form of telling a story. Approaching it like that produces better frames than stereotypical rain-on-flower shots, oooh-sunset! shots. :P It makes the pictures meaningful.

    • Reply
  8. AC Aveta

    If you have a DSLR and are into photography, then the MSA modes are what you will be using most of the time. However if you’re out with friends or family and just want quick mementos, then P mode is also an option for speed when you have impatient family like I do. There is a reason it is included on the dial.

    • Reply
  9. Lawrence Bredenkamp

    Aren’t you afraid someone will hit you with their handbag? :)

    I bought a point and shoot camera (when digital first came out) and yes they take clear photos but are boring, booooooring. Oh and rather limited too.

    I am now much happier creating pictures and I don’t really care if no-one else wants to “read/hear” my story, I do it for me.

    Same reason I roast my own beans and make my own Espresson coffee.

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