Should I Just Leave My DSLR On Its “Auto” Setting?

by William Lulow

As I have indicated, the digital revolution in photography has seemingly made it easier to take pictures. Just set your digital camera to AUTO and snap away. The camera’s computer will automatically calculate the correct exposure, focus the lens, pop up the built-in flash (if needed) and otherwise give you the shot you want. Or will it? Under most general circumstances, it will provide you with an image that’s exposed and focused correctly. But what does “correctly” mean? Does it mean that all the detail in the original scene is rendered the way you, the photographer saw it? Or does it mean that it will be rendered the way the camera “saw” it? This is the great danger in fully automatic, digital photography.

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This was a New York Times photo of tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova,  shot by Sean Dempsey. He most probably had his camera set on a MANUAL preset in order to get both players’ faces in a decent exposure. This is a tougher shot to get than it looks.  If you had your camera set to AUTO for a shot like this, most likely you would have gotten one face exposed correctly and the other either over or underexposed. The camera doesn’t think for you. It would try to average an exposure like this but the automatic exposure feature is often fooled by bright highlights and dark shadows. So, here is one case where the AUTO setting might not have worked as successfully as the manual one. Knowing that this photographer works for an agency where he had the access to make a picture like this, one can assume that he certainly knew what he was doing.

When a photographer places the camera on AUTO mode, she really has no idea what kind of image will be made. Many shooters these days, simply rely on the camera’s computer to figure out exposures. There have been times when I’ve used my cameras on AUTO as well! The digital revolution has made picture taking simpler, but not necessarily easier. Coming up with a shot like this is not easy. It takes some thinking and a knowledge of lighting and equipment.

Learning how to get the most from a digital camera takes more study and practice these days. As I have written about previously, there are many more settings to deal with, and shooting with a digital camera is completely different than with a film camera. Thinking that the camera’s computer will make picture taking easier is a mistake many people make.

I’ve even experienced difficulties when I’ve had my lenses on AUTOFOCUS. The autofocus system in most DSLRs is an electronic rangefinder that relies on certain algorithms to determine the correct focus. The photographer can program the camera through a series of electronic arrays to which the lens then responds. In low light situations, however, it is often difficult for these electronic rangefinders to determine exact distances effectively. I have found that I sometimes need to make a series of exposures with the lenses on MANUAL as well as on AUTO to ensure that I get a really sharp image. If you rely totally on the camera’s autofocus system, you will surely be disappointed with the results. If you are shooting in bright sunlight, this presents another problem. Many of these same algorithms are often fooled by bright, shiny, reflective objects within the field of view. They might be rendered in focus, but the shadow areas might not.

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This image is a case in point. I made this exposure having stopped by the side of a road not far from my home. I just decided to leave the camera on AUTO because I didn’t have a lot of time. When I downloaded the image, I found that most of the shadow areas were soft. I figured that maybe, with so much sky in the picture, the sensor was fooled by the light and focused mostly on the sky. So, I went back the next day, put the camera on a tripod, focused the lens manually (using the LCD’s enlarging feature as an aid) and noticed that everything was now sharp. This little “experiment” taught me not to rely too much on the autofocus feature. It can be a great help in very general situations, but it cannot be relied upon every single time.

And so, if you are one of those photographers who simply puts your camera’s settings on AUTO trying to simplify the picture making process, you don’t understand fully the nature of photography. You might get lucky once in a while, but I’d bet that a good many of your captures are either disappointingly soft or have the wrong exposure. Now one of the main differences between today’s technology and that of traditional, film photography is that most mistakes can now be fixed using Photoshop. Wouldn’t it be better just to get it right in the camera?