I can still hear the words I was told when I bought my first DSLR: “You have to learn to shoot in Manual mode.” When I first started to get serious about photography, I had no idea what apertures, shutter speeds, or ISOs were. I didn’t know what I was doing at all, and because everyone seemed to say so, I dove right into YouTube tutorials and online articles about how to get away from the dreaded Auto mode setting on my camera. After all, no serious photographer would be caught dead using Automatic…right?
The truth isn’t so black and white. Auto mode, while often derided by online commenters and popular YouTube photographers, is not the scourge upon modern photography that some people claim. While it might not be the best way to get the precise picture you want, and while learning to shoot manually is a rewarding and hugely beneficial way to increase your skills as a photographer, there is nothing inherently wrong with using Auto.
In fact, Auto mode comes with some clear benefits. In this article, I explain what Auto mode is and explore its major advantages. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll hopefully understand why you shouldn’t feel so bad if you set your expensive DSLR or mirrorless camera to that familiar green Auto setting.
What is Auto mode in photography?
Therefore, with your camera set to Auto mode, your camera does all the heavy lifting, while you simply point and shoot.
Many advanced photographers criticize Auto mode, primarily because it prevents you from carefully selecting the settings that you need to achieve specific artistic results. But as I suggest throughout this article, Auto mode does have its place, and it can be very useful – especially for complete beginners.
Why Auto mode can be good
What makes Auto a valuable camera mode? Here are a few of its most important benefits:
1. Auto usually just works
As the photographer, you have a much better idea of the picture you want to take than your camera does.
However, it’s also true that you may not know how to make your camera do what you want it to do. In such cases, Manual mode can be a major distraction, while Auto mode can actually ensure you produce the images you’re trying to create.
Photographers sometimes talk about the decisive moment, a term used by famous street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to describe that instant in which all the elements within the frame come together to form the perfect photographic opportunity. Unfortunately, many amateur photographers wistfully watch those decisive moments pass by because they’re fiddling with aperture controls and thinking about shutter speeds.
I’m all for learning more about how to use your camera, but sometimes it’s nice to just put your camera in Auto mode and let it do all the grunt work for you.
Plus, modern cameras are filled to the brim with all sorts of high-tech enhancements, and there’s been a string of steady improvements to the built-in Auto mode. For the most part, therefore, shooting in Auto will give you a well-exposed picture that will suit your needs. The downside is that your camera might make frustrating choices when picking the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (and if there’s not enough light, you will likely see the pop-up flash rear its ugly head).
But if you don’t mind the creative decisions your camera makes or you just don’t feel like learning the complexities of the exposure triangle, then, by all means, go ahead and shoot in Auto mode. After all, it’s about the picture – and if you’re happy with the results, then why not go with it?
2. Auto lets you focus on the scene
When you take out your camera to record a moment, memory, or special event, there is usually a lot going on around you. There may be people, kids, music, animals, wind, rain, or a combination of those elements (in addition to a whole lot more).
An experienced photographer will know exactly how to set up their camera to get the kind of pictures they’re is looking for and will know just what settings to tweak and change in order to get the right images. However, even experienced photographers can get a bit overwhelmed when there is so much going on – and for casual photographers, it’s even worse.
It’s times like these when Auto mode can be your best friend. Don’t feel embarrassed about using it; instead, openly embrace that comfortable setting! Auto will help you get the shots you want without feeling overwhelmed. And if your camera takes care of its settings, it frees you up to focus on what really matters: the moment itself.
3. Auto will stop you from missing critical shots
What is the low point for most photographers? Those moments – and the accompanying sinking feelings – when they realize they just missed the shot. (Even photographic veterans have been known to leave the lens cap on from time to time!)
If you’re just getting started with photography or trying to improve your skills, then fiddling with the aperture controls or trying to determine the right metering mode for a particular scene can be enough to make you want to toss your camera out the window in frustration. It’s easy to miss a great picture because you were wrestling with your camera settings and trying to get things just right before clicking the shutter.
By contrast, Auto can free you up to take pictures while also appreciating the experience around you. Instead of worrying about the ISO, trying to figure out the shutter speed to use, or wondering if you need to use the flash, you don’t have to think deeply when using Auto mode; it’ll take care of all these settings (and more) for you.
The trade-off, as I mentioned above, is that the results might not be exactly what you wanted. But at least you’ll walk away with some nice pictures while also having the freedom to talk to other people, take in the scene, and be present in the moment.
4. Auto can help you understand your camera
One of the biggest barriers to entry for people who want to learn more about cameras and photography is all of the confusing technical details. Understanding the basic elements of exposure is enough to make most heads swim! On top of that, there are other considerations: white balance, focal length, megapixels, etc. The list goes on, and it makes photography far more alienating than inviting.
Fortunately, shooting in Auto mode is a great way to dip your toes into the more complex aspects of photography, provided you don’t mind doing a little bit of extra legwork.
You see, embedded in the metadata of every single picture is a whole slew of information known as EXIF data. And most image-editing programs let you peek at this EXIF data to find out more about the technical underpinnings of each image.
If you take pictures using Auto mode, key details – including the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – are saved in the EXIF data, along with a slew of additional information like the camera model, whether the flash fired, and the metering mode that was used. Looking at the EXIF data of your photos is a fantastic way to learn about the technical aspects of photography so you can get a better sense of how a picture was taken. It’s almost like getting a movie and watching the behind-the-scenes bonus features or listening to the director’s commentary because it gives you a sense of the creative decisions that were made to get the final result.
One quick tip: If you want to get more serious about shooting in Manual mode or one of the semi-automatic modes on your camera, try shooting in Auto, then use the EXIF data to manually replicate the shot. Then experiment by tweaking the exposure settings; that way, you can see how adjusting these values affects the final image.
But be careful! The more you play around with your camera’s settings, the more you’ll become interested in the much larger world of photographic settings – and you’ll soon understand how to creatively control your camera in ways you might have never thought possible!
Reasons to use Auto mode: final words
There’s a stigma attached to photographing in Auto mode, and some folks may think you are less of a photographer if that’s all you use. I encourage you to ignore this completely! If you use Auto and you like it, then by all means, keep using it!
Sure, it’s nice to have more control over your camera, but by giving up control and just using Auto, you’ll be free to focus on other things that matter more to you. If that sounds like you, then put your camera mode dial to that little green square and click away.
Now over to you:
Do you plan to photograph in Auto mode? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below!