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Part 1: Getting the Most out of Auto Mode

When most folks talk about Auto mode, it’s usually in the context of “getting out of Auto.”  Though I am a big believer that anyone who has  bought themselves a nice fancy dSLR should eventually get out of Auto mode, it’s something that takes time. It took me about 18 months from when I got my first dSLR.

If you’re new to photography it’s important to get to know your camera and learn some photography basics  before stepping out of Auto. Only by first understanding  what’s possible  in Auto mode, can you then appreciate it’s limitations and why you would want to move to semi-manual or manual modes. And even then, getting out of Auto doesn’t mean going to full Manual mode. Your dSLR has semi-automatic modes and lots of features that you can configure before going full Manual. This post is the first in a series on this journey.

What does it mean to be in Auto?

There are lots of reasons why Auto makes a lot of sense. When I first got started with my dSLR, Auto mode was truly great and for the most part, my photos were in focus and relatively well exposed. (At least I thought they were because they looked better than my point and shoot photos.) I didn’t really have to think too much about it. In Auto, I got great pictures like this.

In Auto, here’s what the camera will typically do:

  • Auto Focus – When you half-click the shutter button, the camera will find your subject and lock focus. You don’t have to worry about telling it who you want it to focus on because it will do it for you by typically finding the closest subject and locking in focus. For the typical snapshot, this is awesome. The camera will get it right 90% of the time. The challenge with the other 10% is when what you want to focus on is not the closest subject and the camera just won’t go there. Here’s an example:

  • Exposure – Once you lock in your focus, the camera will determine the right settings to make sure that your picture comes out properly exposed. That means that it won’t be too dark (underexposed) or too light (called overexposure). Often you hear folks talk about ISO (sensitivity to light), shutter speed (how long it keeps the lens open when taking the picture), and aperture (how big the lens opening is). In Auto, the camera determines all these settings for you. Sometimes it gets it right. Sometimes it doesn’t. Indoor shots can be particularly tricky.  For example, this next picture, where Auto chose ISO 360, f/4.8 and 1/30 sec. The result was a dark blurry picture.

  • Flash – Ah, Flash. In Auto mode, the camera will automatically pop up your flash whenever it detects that the camera needs more light. If the camera thinks that the picture will turn out blurry, it will automatically pop up that flash.

As you read through these, you may be thinking that these are not all bad. I would agree – IF you are taking pictures of stationary objects in open shade outdoors. If you’re trying to photograph a 2 year old in late afternoon sun (you know, during the “golden hour” before sunset that everyone ooos and ahhss about) Auto will not cut it. In lighting like this, Auto will trigger your flash which will slow down your shutter speed (causing blur) and widen your aperture so that you’ll get a picture just like you could using your inexpensive point and shoot camera.

So when you meant to get this….

No flash (Aperture Mode | ISO 400, f/5.0, 1/25 sec)

Here’s what you get instead…

Auto popped my Flash (Auto | ISO 200, f/4.8, 1/125 sec)

But don’t despair. While your camera is in Auto, there are a few things that you can control.

  • Flash mode – you can tell the camera not to pop the flash even if it thinks it needs more light. This is a quick setting similar to how you control your flash on point and shoots. It should be a setting that you can adjust using the buttons on the back and/or top without having to go into the menus. By disabling your flash in conjunction with the next setting, you will gain dramatically more control over your settings.
  • ISO – The alternative to adding light from your flash is to make your camera more sensitive to light. We do this by increasing your ISO. This is also another control that you can adjust from the back of your camera, This may be a two step process to first turn off Auto ISO using the menus and then adjust it using the buttons on the back. Increasing your ISO will typically fool the camera into increasing your shutter speed to prevent blur. If your picture appears underexposed just increase your ISO some more. Typically, you’ll want to make sure your shutter speed doesn’t fall below 1/100th sec (there are exceptions) to keep your photos sharp.

So if you don’t want the horrid orange glare of the flash, just turn it off and increase your ISO. The drawback (you knew it was coming, right?) is your picture may come out looking a bit grainy. We call that noise. Most dSLRs let will go up to 3200 ISO. Grain starts showing up, depending on how sophisticated the camera is, above 1200. My D40 and D90 cameras maxed out around 1200 but my D600 allows me to go comfortably to 3200 without noticeable noise.

Adjusting your ISO manually can make a huge difference. When I let the camera auto select my ISO setting it typically misses by a long shot. For whatever reason, it doesn’t increase it enough to take a photo at a fast enough shutter speed that doesn’t result in blur. Here’s a rule of thumb when setting ISO.

  • Bright sunny days: Keep it under 200
  • Cloudy days: 400
  • Sunset: 800-1200
  • Inside low light without flash: 1200+ (until you start seeing the noise)

IMPORTANT NOTE: You may need to change your camera to a mode other than AUTO in order to adjust the ISO setting. Any of the other modes will do and then simply shift it back to Auto and the camera will be fine.

So here you have it. If you do nothing else, learn how to do these two things:

  • Learn how to manually turn off your flash
  • Learn how to manually set your ISO

In the next part of this series, we will take a look at shooting with different scene modes and learn a few more things that will help you get out of Auto mode.

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