Auto exposure, auto focus, auto ISO. These features can make your photography easier, but at the same time they can also make it less creative. Even established pros using the best equipment money can buy often turn off auto features simply because they know they can do a better job of figuring out how to create an image than their camera can.
Let’s take a look at the basic auto controls and evaluate their usefulness.
All the photos accompanying this article were made using manual control of ISO, exposure and focus. In each case the photographer found it best to take control of the image making process.
First off is auto ISO. Personally, I would never use this setting. I always want to shoot at the lowest ISO setting I can that still lets me safely make images without suffering from blur from camera shake. As far as I’m concerned, there are just too many variables involved in making this decision for me to want to trust the camera to make the right one. Often, I’d rather put the camera on a tripod, than bump up the ISO, since this will give me a better quality image.
Next is auto exposure. Now there are times I’ll go with Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority automation, but more often than not, full manual control is the best answer. While camera auto exposure modes have definitely gotten more sophisticated over the years, only the photographer knows what their vision is supposed to look like. Camera exposure meters are calibrated to 18 percent gray and that’s how they see the world. All too often, when you’re shooting in memorable conditions, they don’t average out to 18 percent gray. It’s far better to consider the elements in your composition and decide what you want to emphasize. Often this approach will have you considering adding light via flash or reflector or blocking light with a gobo or diffusion screen.
It might be sacrilege to say this, but autofocus is overrated. And I’m speaking as someone who routinely shoots with a pro sports camera (Canon 1DmkIIn). Yes, there are times when the combination of a pro body and L series lens can produce amazing results, but often those results are just as much a credit to pre-focusing, planning and anticipation. The fastest autofocus in the world won’t help if you’re focussing on the backfield in a football game when it’s third and 20 and the situation favors a long pass or when you’re focussing on a nearby tree branch and a bird flies by.
Overriding autofocus becomes particularly important when you’re trying to emphasize one part of the image over any other. Often it’s your control as the photographer that makes that choice. Sure, you can let the autofocus sensor focus on your subject, press the focus lock button and recompose the shot, but personally, I’d just as soon turn autofocus off and do it myself. Autofocus is just about completely unnecessary for landscape photography where you’re usually shooting at hyperfocal distance anyway.
Taking control of the image-making process will not only help you improve your photos, but it will also help you improve your skills as a photographer. As you learn more about the effects of your efforts, it will help you understand more about the photographic process. This is a time to take full advantage of your camera’s LCD screen to evaluate the results of each effort and ask if there’s a way to improve your image. The instant feedback digital technology gives you is one of the most powerful arguments in favor of a DSLR over a film camera.