Manual vs. Auto – Questions answered


I am not really a teacher, but I think I am qualified to correct several misconceptions.  Many newbies and some experienced at photography, including some of my friends,  believe that if you change your camera settings from AUTO, that you will be shooting manual.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  To be shooting in manual, you have to set your camera to the M, which is true manual.

Okay, let’s see what you are getting into if you decide to shoot in M (MANUAL).  First you have to measure the light, so you can decide on your shutter and aperture settings.  How do you measure the light?  You can use the built-in light meter in the camera.  Aim the camera at a neutral scene, or the palm of your hand, or a gray card, or at the blank blue sky about 90 degrees away from the sun.  Any of these can give you recommended settings for your shutter speed, and aperture, depending on how you have set your ISO.

ISO??  Yep, your camera meter needs to know about your film (or digital sensor) speed.  You can pick from a number between 100 and 6400, (most cameras.)  So after you obtain the settings recommended by the meter, then you have to know how to change the settings in the camera.  Your manual should show you how to do that.

If the recommended shutter speed is to slow or fast for your liking, then you can adjust, but then you have to re-adjust your aperture setting to compensate.  Remember,  Aperture means how much light you should let in, and Shutter Speed means for how long a time period that you want to let that light.  If you change Aperture to a large opening, you have to cut down on the time, so you go to a faster shutter speed to compensate.  You will still end up with proper exposure for the picture.

Now after all of this work, do you really want to shoot “MANUAL”?  I don’t think so.  After spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a modern camera designed to make the job easier, why would you want to.  Heck, count me out.  But I do have the basic knowledge if I ever need to.

I began shooting seriously about 60 years ago, when I took a course through the New York Institute of Photography.  Then, manual was the only way to go.  Ugh!  It was work.  But it made me a better photographer as I learned the basics.  Cameras were all manual, except some had a built-in meter to measure the light.  Otherwise, you used a hand-held light meter.

Now with the modern camera, shooting AUTO is for the beginner, who is unfamiliar with the settings, and/or who just want to get pictures easier until they learn more.  There is nothing wrong with that.  The camera is designed to give you good photographs that way.  But you will get good photos only under ordinary conditions.

So getting back to changing from AUTO, I believe most individuals who turn that dial away from AUTO, think they are shooting in manual, when they are really not.  Most usually go to Av  (aperture priority), or Tv (Shutter priority).  One of these modes is what most photographers, including pros, shoot.  But, circumstances can come up where they need to know how to use the true Manual.  But please know, that just because the dial doesn’t say AUTO, doesn’t mean that you are shooting in Manual.

So let’s get back to changing from AUTO to one of some other settings.

ISO – set the camera between 100 and 6400, or Auto, in most cameras.  The higher the number, the more sensitive the film or digital sensor is to light.  If you set the ISO to Auto, you don’t have to worry.

P (Program)  (EDITED AFTER INITIAL PUBLICATION.)  This is nearly Auto, but you have a bit more control.  You can change the Aperture, and the Shutter automatically changes to the right speed.  The same if you change the Shutter, the Aperture will automatically change to the correct opening.

Av (Aperture Priority).   You set the aperture manually that you want, the camera will read the light and give you the right shutter speed.

Tv (Shutter Priority).  You set the shutter speed manually that you want, and the the camera will read the light and give you the right aperture.

There are other settings on some cameras to make things easier, too.  These are actually more Auto settings, but you can make adjustments if you need.

– A little flower symbol means macro or close-up photography.

– A running man symbol indicates fast action.

– A mountain or trees symbol indicates landscapes or scenics.

I rarely shoot in full Manual anymore.  Personally, when I am shooting birds, I shoot in Tv (Shutter Priority) with the ISO on auto most of the time.  Why??  Because if I shot in Manual, I wouldn’t have the time to measure the light and make the right settings.  By then it would be supper time and the birds would be gone. (Well, that may be an exaggeration.  But it would take more time.)

By shooting Shutter Priority, I know that will I have a high enough shutter speed to catch the action if the bird takes to flight.  I usually set the shutter at about 1/1600 of a second average.  Difference in light can dictate what figure I use.

If it is a really bright day, I may shoot Aperture Priority.  By setting my camera to a real large aperture opening, I will be assured that the camera will give me a fast shutter speed.

There are other fine tuning adjustments that can be made as you go, like adjusting the EV (exposure value), for darker or lighter situations, but that may come in a future “lesson”.

I hope this advice helps you a bit more.  But, like the doctor said, “if you still need help, take two pictures and call me in the morning”. 🙂

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29 thoughts on “Manual vs. Auto – Questions answered

  1. Good tips, except for your explanation of Program. I can only speak for my cameras (Canon G10 and T3i), but in Program, you control ISO and white balance. The camera determines aperture and shutter speed. I don’t know of a camera that allows you to change these settings in Program.

    • On my Canons I can change the Aperture and Shutter Speed in Program by turning that little wheel atop the camera. I thought the T3i could do that too. I just double-checked a few minutes ago on my Canon 70D to make sure I knew what I was talking about. (I don’t shoot Program anymore). Anyway, set it on Program, look through your viewfinder (on my 70D), turn the little wheel back and forth, and you can see the settings change. I am glad you like the tips. Let me know how if your T3i can do that.

      Heck, I better check again mine again, maybe I can control ISO and White Balance, too. I have been away from Program so long, and maybe I haven’t kept up with the changes there. 🙂

    • It appears they do change, but both at the same time, so it’s difficult to really process the “if/then” thought line (“if I set my aperture on this, then the camera will do this with shutter speed, resulting in this exposure”). I would rather just use Av or Tv mode — you get the same results without the “dueling” settings flickering on the back of the camera. But thanks for showng me another thing the camera can do — I never knew it and I was taught that Program only allowed the control I mentioned! 😊

      • What happens that the aperture opens or closes to compensate for the shutter moving from a fast to a slow shutter speed. It still gives you the same basic exposure for the scene. For example, if all of a sudden you want a faster shutter speed for something moving, turn the wheel to a faster speed and the aperture will adjust automatically.
        I am the same feeling you have, I usually shoot in Av or Tv. But when I got these new EOS cameras many years ago, I used Program until I found out what the heck I was doing. 🙂

  2. I like to change modes just to keep in practise but do shoot in Av or Tv for shooting birds.if it is dark I “up”my ISO.i couldn’t wait to try and shoot photos with a narrow depth of field or slow the speed for water falls. Thanks for the lesson and the reminder to read the manual.I still haven’t learned all the instructions but been reading it for a couple of years and learned a lot.Happy shooting!

  3. Great tips, thanks Bob! I also will feel less “guilt” using “Auto” and experiment more with other settings. I always had the feeling something I enjoy so much should not be so overwhelming! I appreciate the comments also. hugs

  4. Thanks for the explanation, Bob. Much appreciated. I usually shoot in full Auto mode, because, as you said, it is the faster one – not so much hassle with the settings. Sometimes, when I need to have really short shutter times, I do shutter priority, and only when I have all the time in the world, for static scenes in the (near) dark, I do full manual.
    Have a great day,
    Pit

    • Thanks for your input, Cathye. There is nothing wrong with using manual or anything else. It is what works best for you. I use aperture priority or shutter priority a lot, but that is because my specialty is photographing birds, and there are everchanging conditions, light, lots of movement by the bird, of course. So I don’t have the time to make the instantaneous settings adjustments in manual. I save manual for my landscapes or ‘people’ pictures. All in all, it is the end result that counts, no matter how it is achieved.

  5. Well, this was very interesting, informative and helpful! So far with my camera I have been shooting in P mode, trying to learn some of the ins and outs. I HATE the auto mode on the Canon SX50, it’s awful, so I never use it. I have played with Av and Tv – Av when I’m doing a landscape (advice from another blog I follow) and Tv when I’m trying to get flying birds. I may try your advice and work in Tv more often and see how I do. (Even though my camera is smaller, cheaper, simpler than yours 🙂 ) Thanks for the tips, Bob!!

    • Thanks for your comment, Amy. I hate Auto, because the camera is in complete control. No way to make any adjustments. As I told Amy above, Av or Tv works best for me, because I need to be ready if the birds make sudden movements to fly. But, your SX50 is an exceptional camera and is capable of getting excellent results.

  6. Excellent lesson from the Master! That said, I use Av most of the time to keep the aperture close to each lens’ sweet spot, and also to make up for the fact that my 60D camera doesn’t have as accurate auto-focus as do your current 70D or your old 7D, so if my camera misses slightly, I still get a good photo.

    I can’t wait to hear your review of the new 7D when it arrives, I’ve started saving for one.

    • Jerry, I appreciate those kind words. I hope that I didn’t come across as an egotist. I was just stating how I do things, not trying to get anybody to change their methods. I am certainly no expert, I just know what works for me and has served me well and I have profited financially from it. BTW, I am expecting great from that new 7D Mark II. Stay tuned……. 🙂

  7. Had to use Manual just last Thursday to get shots of the eclipse. with everything except the kitchen sink ( welding glass, red#25 and an old SFX film filter I had laying around) piled up on the lens for filtering I actually felt smarter than the camera for once, doesn’t happen very often! What ISO
    range do you set your camera at when shooting Auto ISO?

    • Thanks for the comment, Gene. I don’t set it at any particular range. I just set it at Auto and let it do it;s thing.
      BYW, Jim Cunningham told me that you were having a problem with focusing your Tamron lens. Bummer! I have absolutely no problem with mine, and I have two friends that are thrilled with theirs. I shoot with a 70D, one of my friends has a 7D, and the other shoots with a Nikon. I have ordered one of the new Canon 7D Mark II.

      • No, not the focusing but IS issues making the image in the viewfinder jump all over the place while making weird noised. It is into Tamron for the 2nd time right now and they just told me they were going to change the IS unit. Hopefully this will do it because I am missing that lens.

        • Okay, Jim apparently mis-understood you. Now one thing, though, when you press the shutter half way to engage the IS, the image does ‘jump’ a tad as it stabilizes, but just for a fraction of a second. And you will hear it. You will notice the image is much steadier than before you engaged the IS. This is all normal. But, of course if it is as bad as you describe, then you have a problem.

  8. it helps me. I tend to shoot in “P”. Not really sure why. But generally the pics (some of them) turn half decent. Think I will try Aperture and Shutter priority and see what happens.

    • Oh, I should have mentioned ‘P’. I used to shoot there all of the time. But after I got used to Aperture Priority, I use it pretty much. Also Shutter Priority. Really depends on the situation.

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