Let (within reason) the camera do the work!

getting the most out of automation, part 1

A very tricky exposure problem, handled with the Sony HX400V's built in auto HDR program.
A very tricky exposure problem, handled with the Sony HX400V’s built in auto HDR program.

When reading reviews of new cameras, the reviewers generally take the availability of manual settings, or, failing that, the degree to which the user can control otherwise automated functions as an indication of how suited the camera is for advanced or even professional use. The assumption seems to be that any serious photographer is going to want, at least from time to time, to take direct control over the photographic process: kind of like the pilot of a 747 taking the plane off auto-pilot in the middle of a storm, or for a tricky landing, or in any situation where he doubts the ability of the automation to handle the unusual demands of the situation.

People are sometimes shocked when I tell them that I never take the camera off automatic (well, to be honest I keep it on program all the time…which is slightly different than auto…read on). I don’t even use aperture preferred or shutter preferred. I seldom use any of the scene-specific modes, unless the camera has an excellent macro or sports mode. I use the custom modes, or memory options if available, but I have them set to the program modes I most often use. I am not sure I could find the white balance controls on the camera I’m using now. I haven’t taken any digital camera I have ever owned off auto-focus, ever (though I do use manual focus assist if the camera offers it).

I am, pretty much, a point and shoot guy all the way. In fact, in the time since I have been using P&S digital cameras, the makers have built more and more effective automation into the cameras. I used to adjust exposure for difficult scenes..scenes with both deep shadow and bright areas (high dynamic range scenes)…using Exposure Compensation and careful selective metering of the scene. Today, with high dynamic range processing available on most sophisticated P&Ss (and even in-camera, multiple exposure HDR), I set the basic hdr program to auto and it handles 95% of even the most difficult exposure challenges without any intervention on my part. For scenes where I want extra drama, I use the auto three exposure HDR.

I shoot exclusively in jpeg. Most of the advanced automation is only available in jpeg mode, and I see no real advantage to shooting in raw and having to do what the camera does in software after the fact.

Does that make me a bad photographer? Does that make me less of a real photographer than the guy or girl who is always fussing with the settings, who shoots only raw, and who considers auto as the resort of the weak minded, the lazy, and the totally clueless?

It is not like I don’t understand how to use the manual settings. I have paid my dues. I am a card carrying member of the do-it-the-hard-way photography guild, because, when I was learning photography, the hard-way was the only way to do anything. I cut my teeth on the sunny 16 rule and carried a hand-held exposure meter…two meters in fact…one standard reflective/incidence and a spot meter. I studied Ansel Adam’s Zone system. My first SLRs had match-needle metering. When auto-focus came out, I was among the many serious photographers who swore it would never do for real work…passing fad! no future!

So, what am I doing these days, extolling the virtues of P&S?

Perhaps it is because I do understand the advantages (and the limits) of manual control of the photographic process that I have become such a staunch convert to automation. The fact is, twelve years of working with digital cameras…twelve years of looking at the results, of studying the images these cameras produce…has convinced me that, in 95% of situations, when it comes to exposure, the camera is smarter than I am. More…in something close to 90% of the remaining situations where manual control might have produced a better image, five minutes in Photoshop or Lightroom will do the same thing. That doesn’t leave much room for me to better the exposure automation.

I can still remember my very first day of using a digital camera. I was teaching at the time and it happened that the day the camera arrived we were going on a field trip to a local college. While there I took pictures of the kids in all kinds of situations…including inside the athletic complex. The pool was housed in a large open well in the building, two stories high, with a balcony around the second story and a huge skylight for a ceiling. Under the balcony there were florescent lights, and they had incandescent spots on the pool itself. The kids were on the balcony. I happily snapped away, knowing that I probably wasn’t getting anything good. I mean, three different light sources, bright light over pool and the kids semi-shadowed by the balcony overhang…what chance?

When I got home and put the images up on the computer I was simply amazed. The camera had balanced all those light sources perfectly, read the lights and shadows better than I could, and produced very good images…from a technical standpoint, excellent images. That made an impression on me that has not faded, and that has been confirmed again and again in the field, and has been reinforced as each new generation of sensors and processing engines has expanded and refined the automated abilities of these amazing digital cameras.

Which brings us to the difference between Auto and Program. Almost all P&S cameras have both an Auto and a Program setting. Some today have more than one Auto mode…it might be Auto, Superior Auto, and Intelligent Auto. Auto is really what it says. The camera does everything. It analyzes the scene and decides which program mode best fits the exposure challenge. It sets the exposure. It selects the focus mode. It decides what you are most likely to want to focus on. It sets the focus. I can only assume it is also selecting white-balance and sharpening and color space and all the other things that can be set on a digital camera. It does not tell you what it is doing. It just does it. And 95% of the time it will get it right, or close enough to not matter. Honestly, today you could put your camera on Intelligent Auto and come back with 95% acceptably exposed images.

As a wildlife and nature photographer though the one thing I need control over is where the camera will focus. I do not want the camera to decide what I am most likely to be focused on. I need control of that.

Here we want focus on the owl, and on its eyes in particular. Multi-point focus would likely have focused on the branch in front of the owl.
Here we want focus on the owl, and on its eyes in particular. Multi-point focus would likely have focused on the branch in front of the owl.

Program is Auto with control. First off, it allows me to set the focus point to the center of the field or even a movable spot focus. My most recent P&S have allowed me to override the selected focus point with a manual control…for those situations where you are focusing through brush, without taking the camera off auto focus.

Many cameras will allow you to shift the program…that is, to change the balance between shutter speed and aperture…while still maintaining the selected exposure. this is useful for controlling depth of field on the one hand, and stopping motion for action shots on the other.

Many cameras will allow you to choose between wide-area, multi-spot exposure metering (sometimes called average metering), center weighted metering (average metering with more consideration given to the center of the frame where the subject is likely to be), and spot metering (which meters only on a spot in the center of the frame…sometimes you can even move the spot around in the frame.

All P&Ss allow you to change the ISO setting in Program mode, which is another way of controlling both shutter speed and aperture.

Most allow you to override the selected exposure by a factor of 2 in either direction (over or under exposure) using the EV control. I have yet to use a digital P&S that did not overexpose the highlights of the scene in auto or program. A touch of negative EV compensation will cure that.

And all of this without leaving Program mode. All of this while still letting the camera do the hard work of determining correct exposure and focus. You might call Program controlled automation. Combine it with some old tricks of framing from the do-it-the-hard-way days, and you are well on your way to getting the most out of automation, by letting the camera do the work. Within reason.

You do have to pay attention. It does you no good to know what the camera is doing and to have the options to change the choices the program makes unless…unless you are paying attention! Automation does not mean that you let the camera make all the decisions…just that you let the camera make all the adjustments.

So, use Program mode and pay attention. In Part Two of this article I will detail the things you want to pay attention to, and the ways you can control them in program mode on most cameras. Read on, and you will be well on your way to technically correct exposure and focus on the vast majority of your shots.

And that is the bottom line. That is the reason for this article. I have limited time to pursue photography. While I am in the field, I want my creative self completely engaged in imagining every possible composition in any given setting, in seeing every image that might be there. I don’t want to have to deal with exposure and focus, except as elements of the possible images. Therefore I let the camera do everything it is able to do for me. I am confident it can, withing reason, if I am paying attention, do an excellent job of computing the correct exposure…better than I could using manual controls. I am confident that it can quickly and easily, if I am paying attention, establish correct focus…just as fast or faster than I could manually.

Let the camera do the work…

And that brings us to Part 2…

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