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STOP using AUTO mode for crying out loud!

James Bacarro, Full-stack Marketer, Dubai

23 April 2017

Have you seen people buying DSLR cameras and they always shoot in AUTO mode? Do you have friends like that?
Or do you see them everyday — When you look at the mirror? Peace man! or woman..

Have you taken photos from your camera and thought – “Hmm, it looks so much just like my phone’s camera.”

Shooting in auto mode is good for smartphones.

Shooting DSLR in AUTO mode is like buying a smartphone but using it only for SMS. There’s so much more you can do with your camera.


What you should learn – at least.

EXPOSURE. Or the RIGHT exposure.

If your photo is too dark – that called UNDEREXPOSED. If it’s too bright – OVEREXPOSED.

But to get the right exposure, here are 3 terms you need to know of:

  3. ISO


1. APERTURE (also called the F-stop)

Do you remember IRIS from your Science class? It’s the part of your eyes that controls the amount of light that gets into the eye.

Our cameras also have an IRIS and the size of the opening is called the APERTURE (f-stop).

You have to remember: The bigger the aperture number, the smaller the opening. And vice versa – the smaller the number, the bigger the opening.

Quick review: Which one has a wider opening?  f 2.0  or  f 8.0

Answer: f 2.0

What are the main differences?

If the aperture is wide open (small f-stop number like f 2.0), the more light get’s into the camera — and vice versa. Wide aperture is very useful in low light environments – dark rooms and evening shoots.

Do you want a nice portrait that has a blurred out background? A wide aperture will do that for you as well. You wouldn’t want a wide aperture when taking group photos though as it will result in having a few subjects in focus and some being blurry.



Imagine 30 of your friends are in a room and you don’t know which friends are there. You were asked to close your eyes when you enter that room.

Then you are asked to open your eyes for 1 second only, and you close your eyes again. How many friends did you see and can name within that 1 second? 3 or 5 friends? Now with the same scenario, you were asked to open your eyes for 5 seconds. You probably identified 20 of them?

That’s how SHUTTERSPEED works. The longer the shutter is left open on your camera, the more light gets into the camera’s sensor. And the more light gets in, the more information your camera receives and the brighter the image will look.

Shutter speed is measured in “fractions of a second”.

Now you will see values like this:

1/1000s, 1/500s, 1/250s, 1/125s, 1/60 s, 1/30 s, 1/15 s, 1/8 s, 1/4 s, 1/2 s, 1 s

But sometimes, you only see the values: 1000, 500, 250, 125, etc.

For example, 1/2 s means the shutter is open for half of a second.

The bigger the denominator, the faster the shutter opens and closes.


When do you need fast and slow shutter speeds?

The basics.. to freeze fast moving subjects like in sports – you would need faster shutter speed. Depending on your subject, that’s probably a shutter of about 1/250 s and up.

Slow shutter speeds are helpful in low light setup and creative shots like this.


What’s my preferred shutter speed?

For handheld shooting, I don’t have very steady hands so my minimum comfortable shutter speed is 1/100 s. When I shoot at 1/100, I’m almost 100% sure that my photos are not blurry. If the place is too dark, I can go down 1/60s but I would have to take multiple snaps because I’m sure some of it would come out blurry.


3. ISO

“In Digital Photography ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. The same principles apply as in film photography – the lower the number the less sensitive your camera is to light and the finer the grain.” – Daren Rowse

ISO settings vary from camera to camera but you will see common ISO numbers like 100, 640, 1000, 6400, and more numbers in between.

The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to the light and at the same time, your photo will have more grain. You would sometimes want grain on your photos for added effects but in most cases, grainy photos would not be pleasing to look at.
The general rule is “Use the lowest ISO as much as possible”.


What’s next?

Now that you have some knowledge about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you have to combine them all together to achieve the RIGHT EXPOSURE.

Here are a few photos as case studies to easily understand the thought process. These are not for advanced photographers (I’m sure there are technical issues that they would find).

Below is an untouched portrait of my wife. You see that the background is a bit overexposed. My focus here is to have a right exposure on my wife’s face. And I’m a fan of overexposing photos a bit.

Shot with Canon 600d and a 50mm 1.8 lens
Aperture: f2.8 – I can set the f-stop to 1.8 (widest) but that will super blur out the background – which is not what I was aiming for as I wanted to see some details of the buildings.
ISO: 200 – next to the lowest ISO available which is 100.
Shutter speed: 1/320 s  – I increased the value to compensate with the low aperture (2.8). If I used my favorite 1/100, it would have been too overexposed.

Here’s another, straight from the cam, photo of my wife. She’s obviously my favorite subject 😀

The sun was directly behind her. Try taking this in AUTO mode and my wife would surely be just a silhouette. Then you will surely hear comments like “I can’t take from this side – It’s against the light!”.

Shot with Fujifilm x100s
Aperture: f 4

ISO: 200 – I don’t see much difference shooting in ISO 100
Shutter speed: 1/200 sec.


Why you need to stop shooting in AUTO mode?

For one, you spent some hard earned cash to buy that camera. Try to maximize its value for money.

When you set your camera in AUTO mode, you let your camera’s brain decide which ISO, shutterspeed, and aperture to use. And almost always – the results are inferior when compared to shooting in MANUAL or SEMI Manual (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority) – which will not be discussed for now to avoid information overload.

I hope you have picked up some of the basics. Try it right away on your camera and be more sophisticated rather than just ‘looking’ sophisticated. It does need some practice for you to get used to it though.

How do you practice and learn faster? Write down a summary of what you learned on the comments section below.


Til then! Keep moving forward!

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