How to Wean Yourself Off Auto Mode

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Hey everyone! Today I want to talk about one of the easiest ways to improve your photography: stopping using auto mode!

Now, I know basically everyone and their mom who has a photography blog or whatever has told you to do that, but going straight from auto to full manual is a bit daunting, so here is sort of a chronology for you to follow in order to get used to using certain aspects of manual mode.

Let’s get started!

Get a Camera with Manual Mode

image of a Canon EOS Rebel T3i APS-C DSLR camera

Obviously, in order to use manual mode, you’ve gotta have a camera that has it as an option. Odds are, your camera has a manual mode. These days, DSLRs, MILCs, and even some higher end point-and-shoots like the Sony RX100 or Canon G7 X have a manual mode. If you don’t have a camera with those capabilities, now’s the time to upgrade. For this post, I will be using my Canon T3i and my 18-55mm kit lens to prove that you don’t need a souped up camera and expensive lens to take decent shots. While you may want those things down the line to make your life easier, the camera does not make the photographer.

Turn Off Flash

This is a simple step. If your camera has an auto mode without flash, turn that off. Unless you know what you’re doing with flash, 90% of the time the photo you’re trying to take with the built in flash will look better without it.

Study the Exposure Triangle and White Balance

This is critical to understanding photography. The exposure triangle is comprised of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. ISO is the sensor’s sensitivity to light, aperture is how open the “pupil” of your camera’s lens is, and shutter speed is how fast the camera takes the picture.

Understanding how these three elements interact (and affect stylistic aspects of your photography like depth of field and motion blurs) is crucial to getting properly exposed photos in manual mode.

White balance is another incredibly important aspect of photography: it affects the coloration of the image. If your images look too blue or too orange, it’s likely that you have the wrong white balance set up for your particular shot.

Barry Carroll wrote a what I consider a pretty comprehensive guide to the exposure triangle, which you can read here. For more info on white balance, check out this post by John Bosley.

Use Program Auto

Program auto is the first step in this process where you, the photographer, are actually going to be messing around with some features. Program auto automatically sets the aperture and shutter speed while allowing you to input stuff like ISO, white balance, flash, or exposure compensation.

Exposure compensation makes a photo brighter or darker (usually by changing the shutter speed); on Canon, the further to the right the stop on the light meter is (positive numbers), the brighter the photo is, and vice versa. I know Nikon is the opposite (left is positive, right is negative), but I can’t speak for other brands like Sony or Panasonic. Some cameras, like the RX100, don’t have a graph to illustrate exposure compensation, but just give you a number (positive, zero, or negative).

Program auto is also good if you need to take quick photos without worrying about your camera exposing properly (most of the time, anyway).

Use Aperture or Shutter Priority

This is the step where I was stuck for a long time. Aperture and shutter priority are basically the same as program auto, except you can modify whichever setting you have as a priority (the camera automatically sets the other feature to properly expose the photo). You can also use exposure compensation in these modes; in aperture priority, it changes the shutter speed, and in shutter priority, it changes the aperture.

Using aperture vs. shutter priority is a matter of personal taste and dependant on what kind of photography you do: I typically use aperture priority to get the depth of field I want, since I mostly photograph toys and nature, but if you’re photographing something like sports or animals, you may want to use shutter priority in order to insure that your subjects won’t be blurry.

Use Full Manual

We made it!

In full manual, you adjust all three aspects of the exposure triangle, as well as white balance and other features. But wait! How do I make sure the photo is exposed properly if the camera doesn’t automatically do it for me?

This was the reason I was hesitant to use full manual for so long. Turns out, it’s super easy: you look at the light meter and make sure that number is set to 0 (if you’re looking through the viewfinder rather than at the LCD screen, it appears at the bottom). If it’s not, adjust the ISO, shutter speed, and/or aperture until it is.

If the photo still comes out looking a bit under or overexposed, dial your settings up or down a stop and see if that helps. Just like in program auto and shutter/aperture priority, sometimes the camera will think something is properly exposed, but the image won’t match what you see. If the camera continuously thinks your photos are properly exposed when they clearly aren’t, you may be using the wrong metering mode. Courtney Slazinik wrote a great blog post on this that you can read here.

I typically adjust the ISO first, then the shutter speed, trying to keep my aperture as closed as possible. However, if you’re shooting handheld, make sure you don’t set the shutter speed too low, or you’ll get a shot with a ton of camera shake (and motion blur, which you may or may not want).

Whew! That’s a lot to take in, especially if you’re holding your new camera with all of these capabilities for the first time. Here’s a quick recap:

  1. Get a camera with manual mode if you don’t already have one (duh!)
  2. If your camera has an auto-without-flash mode, turn that on
  3. Understand how the exposure triangle and white balance work
  4. Try your hand at program auto, utilizing ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation
  5. Once you’re comfortable with program auto, try out aperture and shutter priority. Find out what situations benefit from which setting
  6. Take the plunge and try full manual
Unedited photos. Left to right: auto w/ flash, auto w/o flash, program auto, aperture priority, and full manual.

One thing I want to say before I sign off is that there is nothing wrong with using program auto or aperture/shutter priority. A lot of photographers dogmatically endorse using full manual in all situations, and while you definitely have the most control with full manual, in some situations you may prefer to use some of the automatic features of your camera. As technology gets better and better, the camera’s ability to accurately sense its surroundings gets better as well. One feature that my RX100 has that I adore is its auto ISO feature that allows you to set a minimum and maximum ISO value, allowing you futz with the shutter speed and aperture without having to change the ISO and not worry about the picture getting too noisy with a higher ISO than you’d want.

Thanks so much for reading, and I’ll see you in the next post.