Four Reasons Why Beginners Shouldn’t Rely on Automatic Modes Too Much

Four Reasons Why Beginners Shouldn’t Rely on Automatic Modes Too Much

Experts shoot manual mode – that’s a myth. However, there are some reasons why you shouldn’t rely on your automatic and semi-automatic modes too much.

I hardly know anyone who completely relies on manual mode. Only in landscape photography is it my personal first choice. On the other hand, I also don’t know any advanced photographer who would openly state that he or she only shoots in automatic modes. There are many semi-automatic solutions and auto ISO is a powerful too. Every setting has its own advantages in the field. It’s up to the photographer to decide which mode fits best in a given situation.

Especially when you’re out there to get a job done, you need to adjust your camera according to the circumstances. In this case, manual mode can make you lose opportunities and good images.

For beginning photographers and learning purposes, however, it’s quite useful to ignore the shortcuts and go back to the basics. Not always, but as a conscious way to practice the 101 of photography. Here are four reasons why beginners should move away from automatic modes every now and then.

1. You Don’t Learn the Basics

A controlled environment is perfect to figure out the differences in exposure.

There is more to a hobby or profession than just knowing how to use a tool. There are millions of great photographs which have not been shot in manual mode. Most of the photographers know their tools and can shoot great results in every mode. Even beginners will create great results leaving the exposure triangle behind and focus solely on subject and composition. Most smart phones don’t tell you about the specific settings. They only let you turn the exposure brighter or darker.

That’s basically all we need: A lake in the foreground, a mountain in the background, and a beautiful sunset.  But let me ask a provocative question: Isn’t it a bit sad to spend so much time creating amazing photographs and not really knowing what is going on inside of a camera?

The cameras of the future will probably improve their automatic modes in a way, that in 99% of the cases, your manual mode will produce equal or worse results. Looking at modern smartphones, we only get a glimpse of the future benchmark. For hobby photographers and social media addicts, that’s great news. Shoot away your selfies and snapshots and post them online. Here, photography is only a tool and not the main concern. In this case, we’re not talking about photographers.

People who call themselves photographers – or are at least interested into photography – probably want to go beyond clicking pictures. Manual mode helps you understand what is going on inside this really interesting device. Isn’t it fascinating that a small chip or even film can capture visual information?

Additionally, people who know how the basics work, will also have access to understand modern technology. We don’t know which developments will happen in the future. But people who understand what is going on inside the camera will always be able to manipulate the system to shoot better photographs.

2. You Don’t Practice Your Muscle Memory

Often, you've got to be quick. An animal doesn't wait for you to get the esposure right. Automatic mode would struggle in this contrasty light, too.

Without our muscle memory, we would hardly be able to survive. Once a child learned to walk, it can repeat the action with ease. Due to our muscle memory, we can subconsciously deal with complex physical tasks. Musicians will know about that. In the beginning of a musician’s career, every movement will be thought through. Scales are analyzed and played while the brain is operating at full stretch, only to find the right keys, strings, or holes to play "Brother John."

It doesn’t take too long until a pianist gets a feeling for what will happen when he or she presses a certain key. After a while, a pianist will be able to improvise and hit the right scale without thinking. This is where we want to end up as a photographer. We want the camera to become part of our body. Whenever we want to open the aperture, push the Iso, change the focus point, or freeze movement, we don’t want to look at our camera body and think: “Erm… Which dial do I need to turn now?” We want our finger to turn that dial without us even noticing it. That doesn’t happen, if we don’t take our time to learn the "Brother John" on our camera. Mastery needs practice of the basics.

3. You Will Miss Opportunities

This could have been one of my favourite images, if only I got the settings right in the five seconds, I got.

Always shooting in automatic and semi-automatic modes makes you miss opportunities. There are situations where manual mode is the best option. You take complete control of the setting which enables you to perfect your image.

It doesn’t mean that you should always shoot in manual mode but rather select it more often than you actually need to. This way, you are quick whenever it’s time to ditch the automatic mode and take more control.

In your free time, while you’re not under pressure to get a job done, it’s worth experimenting with the whole toolbox of your camera’s exposure. To me, aperture priority is the way to go in most cases, but I also failed in different circumstances, because I never minded to add auto ISO. When I needed to capture movement, it often took me too long to find the right combination of ISO and aperture to freeze the subject – a lost shot.

4. You Will Struggle Enjoying Film

Old but gold. I love the simplicity of my Nikon F-301.

I’m not a big film fan, but every now and then, I take my Nikon F-301 out. It’s fascinating to work with “old” gear and get a little closer to the basics. My camera has a light meter which does an amazing job. Still, I have to think about the overall situation to get the whole frame exposed the way I want it to look. It’s an intense way of practicing photography and I envy the patience of fellow photographers who mastered photography without chimping.

Working with your digital camera in manual mode helps you understand how to deal with your film camera. I have a friend who recently claimed: “I hate film. I shot film twice and it’s either one of three results: The photographs are completely blurred, completely black, or fatally overexposed. I need to see the result immediately to be able to correct my mistakes.”

While I agree that film is not the best medium for everyone, I still think that most people could enjoy a little slowed down photography. It’s good for our souls. I find that pictures which reach me as a print and not as a digital file are always special. The process might be slower, but the results last longer. Practicing in manual mode can help you avoid too many failed exposures and understand your film camera better.

Improvement Through Failure

The problem with manual mode is that we might lose the opportunity to capture a scene. A car has already driven away, the sun is hiding behind the clouds, and our subject might ask himself if we even know what we are doing, turning all those dials.

Practicing photography in manual mode will definitely end up in failed attempts every now and then. However, it’s exactly these situations where we can learn the most. You shouldn’t try a new technique at the 80th birthday of your grandma and you should be sure to deliver the right quality to your customers. But whenever you’ve got time to practice, take your time to fail, too.

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

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The general basics of the gear are simple enough to figure out. The issue is to understand light in relation to your gear and round-tripping to a raw processor to figure out which can easily take a few months. If one is willing to invest that time and effort, you can simply use manual all over the place, unless, you are feeling lazy and already know a creative mode would do the job equally well.

I love the first beach photo but how about cropping out much or all of the sky? I find the foreground SO much more fascinating.

Took 3 years of film photography in high school. The most annoying parts of it were being limited to one film speed and burning/dodging in the dark room. But man, it really forces you to learn how to get a good shot.

I know a seasoned pro who shoots P mode a lot: Joe Buissink.
But he also makes it very clear that you'd better know what your cameras is doing at any given time or you're in trouble.
In one of his videos he also explains at length how he uses P mode, which also requires a lot of muscle memory, but can be highly effective.
Me, I usually shoot in aperture priority, letting the camera set isi and shutter time. Unless I shoot strobes, then I go full manual.

Definitely #2 for me. Once in a while, I'll dedicate a shoot or two in manual mode just to stay in practice. And, it's kinda satisfying having that tactile feel when adjusting the dials. "Two clicks, two clicks, go go go!" :)