What I Learned Shooting With My Camera’s Automatic Settings

A couple of months ago I responded to a call for contributors for the website Brilliant Business Moms. As someone with more than a basic knowledge of photography, I could teach people about the automatic modes on their cameras, ie the little pictures on the camera dial. I thought this would be an easy post. All I had to do was explain, as simply as I could, what each mode does and grab a few pictures to demonstrate.

What I thought would be simple, turned into a frustrating project, which caused me to question what I know about photography. While working on this project, I felt the same insecurity I had as a beginning photographer. Quite a few headaches and a whole lot of stress later, the project was completed. This project became an experience that not only taught me more about photography, but more about myself as well.

When I started taking photos in the different automatic modes I was not getting the kind of pictures I wanted. I quickly realized I would need to rely on my knowledge of photography to get the camera to take the kind of pictures I needed it to.

Even then I wasn’t happy with the photographs I got. I didn’t want to include these photos as part of the blog post because they were not representative of my work. Yet, they were the best I could get within the limits of the automatic shooting modes.

The landscape mode itself caused me the most stress. I could not for the life of me figure out why it wasn’t giving me the results I was expecting. In fact the camera was selecting the exact opposite settings I thought it should. I thought maybe I understood the mode wrong. Maybe I’d been shooting landscapes wrong this whole time. Maybe I didn’t understand photography as well I thought.

I researched the landscape mode and every thing I found confirmed what I was expecting the camera to do. Nothing I read explained why the camera was selecting the wrong settings. Then I found an article specifically on landscape photography. While reading that article I learned something new about shooting landscapes. Specifically about shooting with the settings I was expecting my camera to choose. And suddenly it all made sense. The camera was making an assumption that works for most landscapes, but not all.

Mt. Hood

Recently, at a workshop I was teaching, one of the students asked what was the likelihood of photographers selecting the same settings the camera would pick. I smiled and told her none. But at the time I couldn’t explain exactly why. Now I can.

The camera’s automatic modes have preset limits, so while it automatically selects the settings, it does so within the limits the manufacturer has programmed into each different mode. The camera cannot see the actual scene you are shooting. Nor does it does take artistry, personal taste, or even the actual subject of the photo into consideration. All the camera does is read the light and chose the settings accordingly. The resulting photo will be the best possible photo based on nothing but what the camera thinks is best.

Cameras today are sophisticated and they can take decent photos. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a great picture. But you cannot consistently get beautiful photos from automatic shooting. There is so much more to getting a stunning photograph and doing it consistently . . . on purpose.

This is why photographers don’t shoot in automatic modes. We have a specific vision for our photo. We study and learn how to use our cameras so we can get the results we want. And we know how to get those results over and over again.

Tulip and Grapes

Going back to automatic shooting taught me new things about photography and reminded me why I learned how to use my camera in the first place. Doing this project also taught me something about myself.

I drove out to the tulip fields one evening to capture the last few images I needed for the blog post. I had a 2 day headache and felt terrible. All I really wanted to do was curl up and watch TV. But I had a rapidly approaching deadline. So I wandered among the tulips, trying to capture photos in the automatic modes. Even though I was frustrated with what I was getting and annoyed I had to be using the auto modes . . . I felt better.

By the time I hopped in my car to drive home, my headache was gone and I had more energy than when I’d left home.

Photography is my therapy. It gives me energy. It’s so much a part of who I am that I need to be taking pictures.

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Oneonta Gorge

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