When first starting out in photography, the switch to full manual mode can be more than intimidating! That is where learning to use Program mode can help you learn more about your camera’s functions and how to control them. Program mode is a great first step to getting off Auto and gaining some of the freedom that the more advanced capabilities of your camera have to offer. So go ahead and find the P for Program mode on your mode dial.
What can Program mode do for you?
In Program mode the camera will still make the majority of the decisions for proper exposure for you. The camera will still choose the shutter speed and aperture based on the light available. This means you will still get correct exposure, but at the same time it unlocks some other features that give you more control. You can then learn about those functions without having to worry about shutter speed, aperture, and proper exposure.
The functions you will be able to learn about and control are ISO (sometimes this mode is called ISO Priority for this reason), white balance, flash, and exposure compensation. Program mode is a great first step away from fully Automatic mode.
What is ISO and why control it?
ISO is the level of sensitivity to light as it hits your sensor. An ISO of 100 is not very sensitive and would be used when there is already plenty of light, such as a bright sunny day. As you move up through the ISO range, to 200, 400, 800 and higher the sensor becomes more and more sensitive to light. To achieve this the sensor is powered with more electrical charge. That electrical charge can lead to noise or digital “grain” in your images.
When you use Auto mode in low light the camera almost always tends to raise the ISO instead of changing the shutter speed or the aperture. When you use Program mode you have manual control over the ISO. You can set and use a low ISO to reduce noise in your images. If the image is underexposed, you can use Exposure Compensation (another “unlocked” feature) to balance the exposure.
What is Exposure Compensation and why control it?
Exposure Compensation is a function that allows you to override the camera to adjust the exposure lighter or darker. On most cameras you can set the exposure compensation up to +3 or -3 stops and use 1/3 stop increments in between to really nail the correct exposure.
Your camera is smart, but not always smart enough. Tricking lighting situations can “fool” the camera sensor into making an image too dark or too bright. In Auto mode you cannot correct this. In Program mode, you can dial in a positive or negative exposure compensation, respectively, to fix this.
Additionally, you can use Exposure Compensation in situations where you have to turn off the flash (another “unlocked” feature in Program mode). Without a flash an image may be underexposed. Using positive Exposure Compensation can adjust the exposure and correct it.
What is the flash and why control it?
For most users, the flash is a pop-up feature on the top of the camera. Some cameras do not have built-in flashes, but instead have a “shoe” where a separate flash can be attached.
In Auto mode, the camera decides if a flash is needed. It often “pops” up when you really don’t want to use it. In some situations, flashes are prohibited such as art museums. Flashes can result in washed out foregrounds and strange shadows in some situations. Flashes can wash out skin tones and create “red-eye” (when the flash light reflects of the back of the eye the subject in the photo has red glowing eyes).
Program mode will allow you to override the decision of the camera. You decide whether to use the flash or not. When paired with Exposure Compensation and the ability to set your ISO, you should be able to get the image’s overall exposure correct.
What is White Balance and why control it?
Different light sources cast different colors and this can affect your images. For example, indoor lights in a school gym can cast a yellow color. Shade can cast a blue color. White Balance is the camera’s adjustments to balance this lighting to a white light (think bright daylight) where colors are more accurate.
In Auto mode, the White Balance is selected automatically by the camera. AWB (Auto White Balance) works accurately much of the time, but once again, certain lighting situations can “fool” the camera. In Program mode you can set your own White Balance.
One way to do this is to select the type of lighting you are shooting in. For example, if I am shooting in the shade, I set the White Balance to Shade (I am telling the camera what type of lights I have in my scene). The camera then knows to balance the blue by adding some warmer tones to my image. The other way to set White Balance is by using Custom White Balance. To do this you would need a white balance card set and follow the steps in your camera manual. Custom White Balance is the best way to get consistent color across a series of images, for example a series of food images for a restaurant menu. By setting the White Balance you are giving the camera the more information about the lighting and it can use this to improve your images.
What is the takeaway?
Program mode is a great first step to getting off Auto mode. You can learn several important camera functions in this mode. If you master Program mode, then move on to Aperture Priority mode and Shutter Priority modes. Once you have those three aspects of exposure mastered individually, it will be much easier to put all three together when you finally switch over to full Manual mode.
If you’d like to try some free hands on lessons using ISO, Aperture Priority, Shutter/Time Priority, we have them on our website http://www.focusedcamera.net along with lots of free cheat sheets and tutorials.
If you’d like to take a class or workshop to “Get Your Camera Off Auto” we offer in-person and remote learning opportunities. Check out our class offerings and get in touch today!
The short answer is yes!
Do expert or professional photographers always use manual mode? The short answer is no they don’t (unless they do one of a few specific genres of photography all the time). To further illustrate my point, let’s say Ansel Adams or Steve McCurry or Annie Leibovitz came over for dinner and you asked him or her to take some pictures using auto mode on your crop sensor camera with the kit lens. What do you think their photos would look like? If you said “better than mine” or something along those lines, then you already know and understand that what you do behind the camera and your understanding of composition (lighting, balance, form) is so much more important than what camera mode you are using or what camera you own.
You can be a “real” photographer without manual mode.
As I mentioned above, first you need to learn and understand composition and give yourself lots and lots of practice. Hours and hours of practice. No one becomes a pro in any field without practice and experience. Practice also helps get the creativity flowing. When you practice and something doesn’t “work,” don’t give up. Troubleshoot. Try something different – angles, lighting, background, camera settings. If the changes make the problem worse, then try something else or another way. For some helpful starters check out this previous blog post on the Basics of Composition.
Ansel Adams began taking photos when he was 12. His famous photo, Monolith, was published at the age of 25. That’s 13 years of practice! In those days, photos were taken on plates and had to be processed in a darkroom. You had a limited amount of plates so creativity and thought and planning had to go into each and every image. This is the aspect of photography that many beginners overlook. With digital it is so easy to snap and snap and snap without any thought to arrangement, lighting, or other compositional tools. Don’t be in such a hurry! Slow down and think about your photography. At the same time, don’t be afraid to take 25 photos of the same scene, changing angles or settings, until you get it right!
Don’t rush yourself to use manual mode. Use the settings that you are comfortable with and if that means practicing on auto mode, then do it. Above all else, when you are just beginning, if there is a photo you “have to get” then definitely use auto to get the shot. Never risk missing a moment because you were too busy getting the dials set. Use auto to capture the moment. Check the camera’s settings provided to you by auto mode, and if you feel comfortable, try aperture or shutter priority modes. Dial in the settings provided by auto mode and then make adjustments based on that starting point to try to improve the photo.
These modes do still require an understanding of the exposure triangle, so give yourself time and practice to learn the effects of changing ISO, shutter speed, or aperture. When you use auto mode, always look at the settings the camera is selecting for each shot, and over time you will begin to understand what the camera sees (how it selects those settings) and why certain settings work in certain circumstances.
Once you have given yourself permission to slow down, don’t pressure yourself, and use auto while learning, you will find photography is more fun! What would be the point of photography if it wasn’t fun to do? Then you will be ready for those priority modes. Very rarely will you need full manual mode. I can count on one hand the amount of specialty circumstances where you would need to control both aperture and shutter speed. Normally, you only need to control one of these fully for the creative effect you desire. Priority modes let the camera brain do the rest of the work! Which of these modes you should use will depend on what your subject will be.
In aperture priority, you set the aperture and the camera will select the shutter speed and ISO. For my purposes, which is mainly flowers and landscapes, I am often most interested in having control over the depth of field and the amount of blur in the foreground and background. So I use aperture priority most of the time because this allows control over the depth of field. If you are taking portraits, this would also be the correct mode to use.
In shutter or time priority mode, you set the shutter speed and the ISO and aperture are selected by the camera. If I was taking pictures where I needed to stop motion, for instance a child’s football game, then I would need to use shutter priority set to fast shutter speed. For free lessons and practice with these shooting modes visit our mini-tutorials page.
In my experience, both of these modes are extremely effective, much easier to use than manual mode, and can make you a “real” photographer (with proper practice and composition). I have professionally sold photos taken using these camera modes, like the example of this white hydrangea which used aperture priority mode.
FocusEd Camera on Fine Art America
So when might you need to adjust both aperture and shutter speed? When do you need to use full manual mode?
Macro (extreme close up photography) is a favorite specialty of mine and it can be difficult to get correct exposure at high magnification levels. Just a tap or breathing movement can change the lighting and focus point, so there are times where full manual can be useful. Aperture is often still the main factor in the composition to get the depth of focus I want. I will set aperture first, then adjust shutter speed to get enough light and keep the ISO low.
Another instance where I use full manual is in landscapes where there is water and I want the blurry water effect or when I am using a neutral density (ND) or other filters. Landscape photographers mostly use narrow apertures, like f/22, to get large depth of field. They may also use ND (neutral density) or polarizing filters or want a long exposure to blur a waterfall and therefore need longer shutter speeds. Your camera is smart, but not smart enough to know that is what you want. It will try to pick average settings so you get a moderate ISO and a moderate shutter speed. Full manual allows you to change both of those to get the right combination, like a longer shutter speed and the ISO can be lowered to reduce grain.
I don’t do a lot of studio or portrait work, but those are other genres where full manual mode could be required. If you want to keep the ISO low and are using flashes you may be limited to certain shutter speeds (if your shutter is too fast, the flash won’t have enough time to light the scene). You would also want low ISO for product photos that might be reproduced at a large scale. In these cases, having control over all three aspects of the exposure triangle would become necessary.
Another photography style that I have only dabbled in is stitching photos into montages or panoramas. If you are interested in this form of photography you will have to use full manual mode. The settings must be the same in order for the images to flow together properly. The lighting should also be kept consistent (if possible).
So as you can see, there is no reason you need to shoot in manual mode all the time, unless it is just because you want to! In which case, the struggle might be more fun than frustration. We each have our own idea of what makes a hobby enjoyable. I don’t like solving quadratic equations, but some people do! If the frustration of learning manual mode is keeping you from picking up the camera, then take the pressure off and don’t use it! Try priority modes instead!
Afraid to play with the settings because you are worried you won’t be able to undo something? We’ve got you covered! You can always do a reset (in your camera’s menu – check your manual) and put the camera back into the default settings it had when you first pulled it out of the box. So no excuses! Go take some photos!
Here is a scavenger hunt to get you started and check out our YouTube or Rumble channel for the accompanying video instructions.
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