Three Key Steps to Getting Off Auto

Written By Gill Prince

Making the decision to move away from automatic can be a daunting one. The reality is the most cameras take extremely good photographs on auto – and sometimes it’s hard to see why it’s worth making the effort to move to manual modes. But the reality is that some of those amazing shots you see – the silky water, the out of focus background, or the frozen action in sports - simply can’t be achieved on auto. 

Sometimes they happen by accident - if the camera needs to choose certain settings in order to expose the shot correctly, and those settings happen to create the effect you wanted. But photography is much more enjoyable, and much more satisfying, when you know why it does those things, and can make the decision for yourself.

I thought it might help to break down the three key aspects of auto, and how you can transfer those into settings that you control. For the purposes of this article I’m going to suggest we work in aperture priority mode – so set your camera to A on the top dial, or Av if you’re using a Canon. This is still ‘manual’ to all intents and purposes - and for more information on that, read my separate article on Why I Love Aperture Priority.

Seesaw Diagram (1).jpg

Beyond this, you will need to look at your camera’s instruction book to find out how to change each of the settings below – but they are fairly important points, so it should be easy to find that information. If you don’t have the instructions, just Google your camera make and then the question.

Aperture

Choosing an aperture is one of the most important aspects of photography, from an artistic perspective. A wide aperture (big hole in the lens) makes the subject sharp (as long as you’re focused on it) and the background goes out of focus – see the elephant image on the left below. Though I would add here that this effect is more noticeable when you are close to your subject, and if the background is far away – so if you don’t see the blurred effect, get closer and make sure there is a big gap between your subject and what is behind it. 

Conversely, a narrow aperture (a small hole in the lens) will bring the background far more in focus as well as the subject – see the elephant image on the right below. So making a decision about what aperture you want is the first real step towards getting off auto. This difference in whether the background is in focus or not is something that’s known as ‘depth of field’, but that’s a whole separate article!

Depth of Field.jpg

In aperture priority mode, you control the aperture (size of the hole in the lens) and the camera will choose the shutter speed, to ensure that the shot is correctly exposed. So you just need to find which dial or wheel on your camera will change the aperture when in this mode. 

Aperture is measured in some very odd numbers, which are actually fractions, hence it’s referred to as an ‘f/number’ and sometimes ‘f stop’. 

Generally, most kit lenses start at f/3.5 (small number, but big hole!) and go to f/22 (big number, but small hole) – but other lenses may have more numbers at either end. This can be confusing to start with, and is one of the hardest aspects of photography to grasp, so don’t worry if it doesn’t sink in straight away.

Shutter speed

Aperture and shutter speed work like a seesaw. When one goes up the other must come down, in order to keep your shot perfectly exposed. Shutter speed is referred to in terms of being fast or slow, and also long or short, which can also be confusing. 

With a fast shutter speed (or short exposure) the shutter only stays open for a very short amount of time, sometimes as little as 1/4000 of a second. But with a slow shutter speed (or long exposure) the shutter stays open for much longer. Even a 1/60th of a second is classed as a slow shutter speed in photographic terms, and for some ‘long exposure’ effects people use shutter speeds of up to a minute or more.

The key thing with shutter speed is that while the shutter is open, things can move. Which is how you get those blurry effects with water or clouds. But it’s also why your shots are sometimes not sharp. This happens if you move the camera while the shutter was open – something that’s known as ‘camera shake’. 

As a general rule, it’s usually recommended to shoot at 1/100 of a second or faster, if you’re hand-holding your camera. This should ensure the shot is sharp but it depends a bit on what lens you are using. You need faster shutter speed than that if the subject is moving. To really freeze the action on a moving subject like a dog, for example, you really need a shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second or more.

The key thing with shutter speed, is that the shorter, or faster, the shutter speed, the less light is getting into the camera, and so shots can easily become underexposed. Which is why if you make the shutter speed faster, you have to compensate by making the hole in the lens (the aperture) larger to let in more light. This is why I refer to it as a seesaw, and once you grasp this, it really is the essence of taking control of your camera.

Sensitivity or ISO

This is the last part, but a very important one. When we talk about changing your ISO, we’re talking about changing the sensitivity of the sensor within your camera which captures light and creates your image. It’s the modern equivalent of film.

Increasing the ISO makes the sensor more sensitive, so it doesn’t need as much light to create an image.

Many cameras are set to Auto ISO initially, which means the camera will automatically increase the sensitivity of the sensor if necessary. However, it sometimes doesn’t always make the best decision and will increase it more than it needs to be. So it’s always better to be in control of your own ISO.

This is important because increasing your ISO is only something that you should do if you have to. The more you increase it, the more you get something known as ‘grain’ or ‘noise’ in your images. It’s just a limitation of the technology, and while it’s barely noticeable at lower ISO levels, the more you increase it the more noticeable it becomes – particularly on things like a plain blue sky, which get a mottled effect in them. 

You can see this effect on the two shots below.

ISO.jpg

Most cameras use a baseline ISO of 100, although some are slightly higher or lower – so you should aim to leave it on this level if you can. Only increase it if you need to, because there isn’t enough light to take the shot without. For most mirrorless or DSLR cameras, up to 1600 or 3200 is acceptable, but anything higher can start to be an issue, although things are improving all the time.

Putting it all together

All of the above can sound horribly confusing, but if you follow a logical sequence when taking a shot, it’s actually relatively straightforward. Something like this - working in aperture priority, and using the example of an outdoor, natural light ‘head and shoulders’ portrait:

  • Set your aperture wide, to throw the background out of focus – f3.5 will work, and will also let in lots of light. Make sure you are close to your subject, and the background is at least a good few feet away.

  • Hold the camera up to frame the scene and review the shutter speed that the camera is giving you. If it’s faster than 1/100, you can take the shot - assuming that the subject isn’t likely to move. If the subject is an animal or a child, I’d probably aim for closer to 1/250th or 1/500 if possible.

  • If the shutter speed the camera is suggesting is not fast enough for what you need, increase your ISO one level at a time, until the shutter speed comes back up to where you want it to be.

  • You can then take the shot – knowing that a) you have the correct aperture for the artistic effect you want, b) you have a fast enough shutter speed to avoid blur or unwanted movement and c) your ISO is a low as it can possibly be for this particular shot, giving the minimum amount of grain.

One last thing to remember. While you may be able to reduce the visibility of noise/grain in post-processing, you can never fix blur. So if in any doubt, it’s always better to increase your ISO than it is to use a shutter speed that is too slow!

This is of course a very high level overview, and each element can be gone into an a lot more detail. But hopefully it will help to provide a start point, and to demonstrate why it’s worth taking the time to move beyond auto, for all of the wonderful artistic effects that this brings . . .

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