As good as Smart Auto is on most modern P&S superzooms, there are a few things it does not do that the aspiring nature photographer will, eventually, want to do. I still recommend that the beginning P&S nature photographer start with Smart Auto, and, if your main interest is landscape, you can probably get satisfying results 99% of the time with Smart Auto pretty much forever.
However, if you shoot wildlife or macro, or even high dynamic range landscapes, you will want to temper exposure slightly to protect the whites and hot-highlights in your images from burning out (losing all detail and going pure white or pure red, or pure green, etc.). And that is easier if you control the way the automation determines exposure…which areas of the image it is reading. You will also, from time to time, even if you shoot only landscapes, want to control depth of field…or how much of the image is in focus, front to back. Finally you will definitely want to be able to control what the auto-focus system locks on to when it determines focus.
A few of the more sophisticated Smart Auto systems now allow you to tweak the brightness of the image. Recent Sony cameras have Smart Auto controls for brightness, color, and vividness that allow you to override the auto settings. However I know of no Smart Auto system that allows you to control how the scene is metered to determine exposure, or to bias the exposure for depth of field, or to determine the focus point. By default, Smart Auto uses Multi-pattern metering for the scene and multi-point auto focus…that means it looks at a up to a dozen points in the scene and decides what you are most likely to be interested in. The system is very good at analyzing the scene for the content…but it generally fails when the subject of the image is small in relationship to the whole frame…as it is likely to be if it is a bird, beast, or wildflower.
If you put the camera in Program (generally the P on the control dial), you gain control over all these factors…plus the ability to bias the exposure for greater depth of field or faster shutter speeds.
To tame the highlights in the image, you use the Exposure Compensation settings. There is generally a button on the camera that gives you direct control of this setting. Most often it is one of the buttons on the 5 way Control Wheel on the back of the camera (center button surrounded by four buttons: top, bottom, and sides. On some cameras (Canon) there is also a wheel that rotates on the outside of all these buttons.). It will be marked with a +/- symbol, and sometimes with the letters EV. It might be an isolated button further up and to the right as well. Pressing it will bring up a scale on the LCD or in the viewfinder, which generally runs from -2 to +2 in 1/3 EV steps (EV is Exposure Value and it is a standardized scale that defines how much lighter or darker a scene will be than the measured value). When you first press the button, a pointer should be centered on the scale. Pressing the control wheel button that corresponds to the minus side (generally the button on the left, closest to the LCD) or rotating the outer wheel or the separate control wheel counter-clockwise, will move the pointer 1/3 of the way toward -1. Press again,or turn again, to move it further, etc.)
Most P&S superzooms that I have used require a setting of -1/3 or -2/3s EV to protect the highlights in the scene from burning out. If you go much more negative than that, the blacks and dark colors in the scene will block up...which is the equivalent term and the opposite effect to the highlights burning out…you lose all detail in the dark areas of the scene.
If you set the Exposure Compensation, the camera will remember it until you reset it, so, once you have determined how much -EV your camera and sensor (and your eye) likes you can just leave it set that way.
There may be times when you want to change it. For instance, if you have a bird or beast silhouetted against a bright background (sky, etc.) it might be helpful to set the Exposure Compensation to the plus side, so that you get more detail in the shadowed subject. In my experience this rarely works…and always leaves the background completely burnt out or way too bright. But you can try. 🙂 Generally I get better results through shadow processing in software after the fact.
Of course -1/3EV might be ideal for birds and wildlife, and even macros, where the subject is smaller than the frame, but you may find that more or less compensation is needed for landscapes…particularly landscapes with bright clouds in the sky. Today’s P&S automation systems all have some kind of Dynamic Range compensation built in…the image processing computer attempts to adjust for wide variations in the brightness in the scene in the processing of the jpeg image in the camera…but in my experience they still can’t handle the brightest whites in sun-lit clouds. For high Dynamic Range images I use the built in Dynamic Range compensation, special techniques like HDR (more in a future article on that) and even so, generally dial to the Exposure Compensation down to at least -2/3s EV.
Most cameras will allow you to create custom setting sets, so that you can create a wildlife and macro Custom set, and a Landscape custom set. More on that in another article as well.
For birds, wildlife, and macro, you will want to set the metering pattern to either Center (sometimes called Center-weighted) or Spot. This will be a menu setting and you will have to dig through the menu system (or the manual 🙂 to find it. (On Sony Cameras and Canon cameras, at least, it is also accessible in Program mode by pressing the Function button). Your choices are generally Mulit-pattern, Center, or Movable Spot.
As mentioned above, Multi-pattern reads a number of areas in the image, and creates a balanced exposure for the whole scene (or in Smart Auto it uses the multiple points to analyze the scene for the correct Smart Mode to apply). This works fine for landscapes and most of the subjects the engineers anticipated you would be taking photos of. However when you are photographing a bird or a bear or a bug from any distance, you want the bird etc. to be correctly exposed and you don’t care much about the surrounding foliage or landscape. Likewise when shooting macro, you want the flower or the insect correctly exposed, not the background. Multi-pattern metering may or may not get it right.
Center metering limits the area measured to a rough rectangle in the center of the viewfinder or LCD, while Movable Spot limits the area to the a very small circle or square that must be carefully placed over the exact object or subject you want to expose for. Generally in Spot, you can move the spot around the frame using the up/down/left/right buttons on the Control Wheel. This is handy for when you have the camera mounted on a tripod and need to meter off something that is not in the center of the frame…but generally too slow for anything but macro photography for the nature photographer. It is easier for the nature photographer, working without a tripod, to center on the subject, half press the shutter release to lock the exposure, and then move the camera to put the subject where you want it in the frame.
I generally use Center metering, as a good compromise, and one that I do not constantly have to think about.
A final exposure tweak possible in Program is Program Shift. The the camera is programmed to respond to different light levels by choosing what the engineers feel is the best compromise between aperture (the size of the hole that passes light to the sensor) and shutter speed (which controls how long light falls on the sensor). Most P&S zooms are optimized for optical performance at wider (larger) apertures, so that the exposure system can keep the shutter speed high enough to avoid unnecessary camera shake fuzziness or blur from moving subjects. However, there are times…landscapes with a lot of depth and busy foregrounds, and almost all macro work…where you want greater depth of field than a wide aperture can provide. (Depth of field varies directly with the the size of the aperture…larger equals shallow depth…smaller equals greater depth. It is just physics. 🙂 Therefore you might want to shift the Program to a smaller aperture and a slower shutter speed…which is still reasonable given the excellent image stabilization in most P&S superzooms.
Traditionally the way to do that is to shift out of Program altogether and use Aperture Preferred metering…where you pick the aperture and the camera picks the shutter speed…but if your camera has Program Shift, and it is easy to access, there is no need to do that. Program shift gives you a range of choices for the correct exposure…balancing smaller apertures by automatically decreasing shutter speed, and vice versa, as you turn a control wheel (either the one surrounding the 5 way rocker Control on the back of the camera or a second dedicated wheel) or press the direction buttons on the 5 way rocker. On Sony cameras it is really easy as the Program Shift control wheel falls right under your right thumb. On Canons it involves pressing two buttons at once to being up the control, and then using the wheel surrounding the 5 way control. Not so easy, but doable when you need it.
Last but not least, we come to focus placement. In Auto or Smart Auto, as I mentioned above, the camera checks focus on several areas of the scene. It either picks the most likely spot for focus, or picks a spot between what it judges to be the most important elements of the scene. It does tell you what it is doing. When you half press the shutter release, you get green (generally) boxes around the areas that it is planning to put into focus. You do have the option of letting off on the shutter release and giving it another chance to focus…or moving the frame slightly and trying again. All multi-pattern auto focus is biased toward the closest object to the camera.
A better way for the nature and wildlife photographer, as in exposure metering, is to switch the focus to a smaller area…either center focus or movable spot focus. Both work for focus the same way as they do for metering…directing the focus to objects and subjects near the center of the frame, or exactly under the spot. This is especially critical for telephoto work, where your depth of field is restricted by the focal length, and where the camera’s bias toward the closest subject is very likely to put focus on something in the foreground (grasses, leaves, twigs, etc.) instead of on the bird or beast you are attempting to photograph. In macro work, especially on a camera without a dedicated Macro mode, the focus is likely to fall on background objects instead of what you want…especially if you are a little too close to the subject for the camera to focus comfortably.
Again you will have to dig into the menu system to change the focus area…or, in Program, use the Function button on Canon or Sony cameras.
I do about 60% of my shooting in Program mode, using one of my Custom setting memories. The rest of the time I use one of the specialized Modes…Sports, Macro, or In-camera HDR, depending on what I am shooting (once more, more on specialized modes in a future article). All of my birds and wildlife are shot in Program, except for birds in flight. All my Macro on the Sony cameras, and most of it on the Canon superzooms, is shot in Program.
Once you have graduated from Smart Auto (if and when you do :), Program is your smart choice. 🙂