Auto is your (Smart) friend.

Blackburnian Warbler, Magee Marsh, OH. Canon SX50HS. Program with a slight tweak.

Exposure is the art of controlling the amount of light that reaches the film or sensor in a camera, so that you get a natural looking image of the scene in front of the lens…with a full range of lights and darks, and colors in a pleasing balance. Not too light, with no detail or texture in the washed out whites and bright colors in the scene…and not to dark, with inky black shadows and dingy grays instead of white, and muddy, unsatisfying colors overall.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES


difficult exposure

It is more difficult that it sounds because no recording medium, neither film in the old days, or the light sensors in today’s digital cameras, can actually capture the full range of light and color that the human eye sees. There is always a compromise…a set of choices that have to be made…so that you can compress the scene before you into, today, a digital file which can then be reconstituted to present an image…whether it is printed, or displayed on an LCD panel…that comes close to what you saw at the time you pressed the shutter.

Tricky business. And, until recently, getting the exposure right was way more than half the art of photography. When I started seriously taking pictures with slide film SLRs, if more than 1/3 of your images were pleasingly exposed, you were doing very well indeed.

It is far different today. Today we expect 90% of our images from any outing to be correctly exposed. Even if we use full Auto!

Back in the day, no serious photographer would have been caught dead using Auto exposure. Auto was a crude thing, a matter of averages and a limited number of brightness steps, that, at its best, only produced an approximation of correct exposure, and that only rarely…maybe one in ten images. Putting your camera on auto all but guaranteed that the number of satisfying images you took would be very limited. After all, what camera meter and electronic circuit could ever hope to match the experience and skill of the human eye and brain? Only rank amateurs…and those too lazy to learn a little photography for pete’s sake…used Auto.

Auto mode on a Samsung Point and Shoot

Those were the days…and, happily, those days are long past. The automated exposure systems in today’s Point & Shoot cameras have gotten so sophisticated that it is a rare instance when any photographer’s personal experience or skill can produce a better exposure than the camera would choose on auto. In fact, today’s auto exposure systems represent a distillation of the experience and skills of hundreds of photographers and photographic engineers mapped onto a computer chip so that it is applied, in real time, instantly, every time you press the shutter. Think of that. Hundred’s of photographers’ and photographic engineers’ experiences and skills are yours to command, right there in the tip of your finger. 🙂

Almost all Point & Shoot cameras today have some sort of smart auto system. Different makes might call it different things, but Smart Auto reads the information from the sensor, does a first level mathematical analysis to see which of up to 20 different scene types it most closely matches, applies the exposure settings from the chosen Smart mode, and then, based on a second analysis of the sensor data which looks for anomalies, fine tunes the exposure for the individual scene.

In essence the camera does automatically, and all but instantly, what the photographer would do if he or she were determining exposure manually. Exposure is more art than science, in that the choices you make, if your are making them yourself, are based on your experience with light and shadow, form and texture…your memory of similar scenes…and your experience of how your particular camera responds to light and shadow. When confronted with a scene, you mentally access your own experiences, and pick the settings that have worked in the past for you in similar scenes, then, based on a closer analysis, generally involving metering or at least consideration of particular tonal problems of this particular scene, you tweak the setting in a way you hope will improve the exposure. 

A full range image using the camera’s Rich Tone (HDR) mode.

Yes, like I said, that is exactly what Smart Auto does in the Point & Shoot camera. Only, instead of drawing on just your experience of light and shadow, form and texture, and your limited experience with how the camera responds, the engineer/artists who design the exposure system draw on a mathematical analysis of of thousands of scenes and direct knowledge of how the camera sensor responds to light.

It is still art, or at least more art than science. The engineers who design the system still have program it to make choices that produce what are, to their eyes, pleasing results when the image is finally displayed as a print or on an LCD screen. Choices. Artistic choices.

And, to be honest, some camera makers, to my eye, are better at this than others. They all manage correctly exposed images 90% of the time…it is just that some cameras consistently produce images that are pleasing to my eye…that approach most closely the way I remember the scene, or the way I want to remember the scene. And some camera makers don’t.

(Full disclosure: I have not used all the makes of digital cameras. I like the way Canon and Samsung render images. I do not like the way Nikon and Fuji render images. The Olympus and Sony cameras I have owned have been between the extremes. I could live with them but they are not my choice. Remember. More art than science. You could have a completely different opinion!)

Anyway. What all this means is that there should be absolutely no shame involved, no matter your level of photographic experience or skill, in putting your Point & Shoot camera on Smart Auto and just going out and taking pictures.

Certainly, as a beginner, that is should be your setting of choice. You will have to take a lot of images before you even begin to learn where Smart Auto is letting you down, and, when you eventually do (and you will)…well that is plenty of time to begin learning what to do about your, or the camera’s, failures. In the meantime, take a lot of pictures. Don’t share the ones that don’t satisfy you, but save them to study when you get to the point where you want to learn a little photography, for pete’s, and your own, sake.


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