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A is for Amateurs, P is for Professionals, M is for Masters: Hogwash!

A long time ago, I heard someone utter this bit of nonsense. Depending upon the genre of photography you shoot, there are good arguments for using manual controls and settings. However, there are times when your camera’s automated technologies prove the Luddites wrong, then automation is king.

In Praise of Aperture Priority

During my teens, I had no choice other than learn to use manual controls. Although it had TTL metering, my first SLR, a cheap Zenit from the factories of Soviet Russia, only had manual exposure and focus. After it broke, I bought an Olympus OM2n, which had an auto mode switch. That was not auto mode as we know it today, but aperture priority. It was a revelation. It speeded up my shooting. Adding to that the diminutive size of the OM system, meant that the camera was extremely portable, exactly the combination I needed for a lifestyle that included camping, hiking, climbing, and sailing.

Those old film cameras struggled to meter correctly if there were large bright areas in the frame. However, once you were used to that behavior, it could be corrected; compensation was possible two stops either side of the recommended exposure. That seems miserly compared to the five stops of contemporary cameras, though it could be pushed much further by changing the camera’s ASA/ISO setting.

Modern cameras' metering systems are much better equipped for dealing with back-lit scenes. But even so, exposure compensation may be necessary in extreme situations.

That faster speed of working still applies to shooting in aperture priority today, and metering has become a lot more sophisticated than in the 1980s. Furthermore, with the turn of the secondary dial, or by pressing the +/- button and turning the main dial on less advanced cameras, up to five stops of exposure compensation can be dialed in, which is more than adequate for most situations.

So, when do I use aperture priority over manual mode? The answer to that it most of the time I have a camera hung over my shoulder.

Imagine shooting a wedding or party. You are indoors photographing the dining settings under subdued light, and suddenly notice something happening in the bright sunlight outside. You step out, raise your camera to your eye and get the shot. In manual mode, you may lose precious seconds changing the shutter from, maybe, 1/20th second to 1/8000th. However, in aperture priority, the camera does that leg work instantaneously. If necessary, you can quickly dial in exposure compensation. But even if the exposure isn’t exactly what you were looking for, then the raw files from modern interchangeable lens cameras will almost certainly have sufficient depth to recover the details in the shadows and highlights when you rely on the camera's metering. Even if you miss the exposure by a couple of stops, the image is recoverable.

That benefit doesn’t just apply to wedding photography. Street photography also involves big and sudden changes in lighting. Capturing those candid shots of spontaneous moments requires quick reactions. Aperture priority is fast and increases your chances of getting the shot.

Overcoming Your Reaction Time

Even if your camera’s exposure and focus settings are set and ready to shoot, your reaction time is likely to be around ¼ second. With fast-moving action, that’s long enough to miss some shots. Especially so with unpredictable events, like birds' behavior and active sports. Some cameras have a feature that buffer the shots while the shutter button is half-pressed. Mine will save up to a maximum of 14 frames that will only be permanently recorded once the shutter button is fully pressed.

In Wildlife Photography, You Use Shutter Priority, Right?

A great many wildlife photographers use shutter priority, especially if they are shooting fast-moving subjects such as birds in flight. This is understandable, as the main concern of the photographer is to stop action. You set the shutter to 1/4000th second, place the ISO on auto (restricting it to parameters that give acceptable levels of noise), and let the camera work the aperture.

This isn’t my way of working. Why? With wildlife photography, although your reactions must be quick, there is usually plenty of time between shots to set your camera to account for the light and the subject's movement. Although setting the shutter is important, the correct depth of field is equally so. Leaving the camera on shutter priority risks having too little or too much depth of field. You probably want more than just the creature’s eye in focus, and the camera might decide to shoot wide open, thus giving too little depth of field.

At f/9 the entire bird is in focus. While the background is blurred enough for separation of the subject, there is enough detail to add context to the image.

Consequently, I use aperture priority.  At one time, this method of working left me with a risk of too slow a shutter to stop movement, and I might not notice the shutter speed drop. Therefore, I shot in manual mode with auto ISO. But there's a better way of working. A failsafe system is available. It is now possible for me on my camera to impose a minimum shutter speed when shooting in aperture priority. When the shutter tries to go slower than this minimum speed, the ISO goes up instead. Genius!

The other big advantage of aperture priority is that it is restricted by the limits of the aperture size. In shutter priority mode, I can change the shutter speed from 60-seconds to 1/8000th, and there was nothing physically stopping me from accidentally under or over-exposing. Meanwhile, the apertures on a lens cannot go beyond their minimum and maximum sizes. Therefore, accidentally shooting the wrong exposure is more difficult.

Even in Bulb Mode, I Call on the Camera's Advanced Tech

It’s a late winter’s evening and I have my camera set up on a tripod overlooking the sea. There’s little light, so the temptation is to open the aperture wider. But I also want a full depth of field, so I stop down to f/9. My shutter will now be open for over 12-minutes.

Is bulb mode the answer? Sort of, but that requires calculating how long the exposure should be. Yes, I can do that in my head, or use an app. However, my camera has a clever trick that allows me to watch the exposure gradually develop on the rear screen, and see the histogram gradually move to the right as it does so. I can ignore the metering altogether, precisely judging the correct exposure, and stop it when the image is as bright as I want it.

A variation on bulb mode, Live Composite only adds new light onto an image, so can be used to simulate long exposures

I use the same method when shooting with an ND 1000 filter too. I’m quite good at calculating how long the exposure will be in my head, and there are apps and charts that will do the calculation for you, but why bother with that when you can just watch the image materialize. For me, it’s a bit of magic, reminiscent of prints appearing in the developer tray, and it makes life easy.

M Might be for Masters, but A is for Acumen

Of course, there are good reasons for understanding how metering and exposure work. Getting to grips with having complete manual control over your camera will make you a better photographer. Besides, it’s fun learning how to do it. But once you have mastered the manual controls, it makes sense to offload some heavy lifting to the camera’s processor if it increases the chances of getting a good image.

Nevertheless, discovering a method that works for you is most important. If you enjoy shooting entirely manually – I sometimes do, and I have film cameras that give me no choice – then stick with that. What I have written here is not prescriptive. Nevertheless, over time you might find that embracing some automation might be enjoyable and improve your hit rate too.

Are you committed to using entirely manual controls? Perhaps you even abandon the shutter and cover the lens instead; I knew someone who delighted in doing this. Or are there automated features on your camera that you rely on? It would be great to hear your thoughts.

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62 Comments

Martin Owen's picture

My car has various settings. Gearbox, auto (sport or economy) or manual (stick or flappy paddles). Suspension, comfort or sport. Suspension height, low or slightly higher. You use which is most appropriate for the conditions in which you are driving. A racetrack is different from a long distance highway cruise. Daily commute different from a twisty mountain road on vacation. You use the tools and automation (or lack of it) for the most appropriate scenario. Exactly the same with the camera.
If you know what the manual settings do, then you are better placed to to make good use of relevant automation.
Terms amateur and professional are meaningless. A professional is paid an amateur isn’t.
Some amateurs are extremely proficient and skilled. Some professionals are the opposite.

Ivor Rackham's picture

All very true, Martin. Thanks for the great comment.

Rich Umfleet's picture

Well said! Where's the applause button?

William Murray's picture

If someone produces beautiful images, using auto settings, does it matter?

Isn't the point just to enjoy it?

Edit: In fact, what does it matter at all, as long as you enjoy it. It doesn't even require you produce a particular standard of work.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Exactly!

Alan Brown's picture

Hey Ivor, that takes me back. The old Zenit-E with (fast) ISO 200 Ectachrome trying to capture the action at rock concerts. The ease/cost of shooting and instant gratification results certainly has its advantages.

I agree that having to learn on such basic equipment likely prepared us with a strong foundation but at the end of the day as long as the end results are acceptable it really doesn't matter whether automation is leveraged or not.

I tend to default to using aperture priority in the most part myself, but do employ spot metering as this falls in my comfort zone and enjoy the level of control (a throwback to my OM2-SP days...).

As long as it works it is good, right?

Ivor Rackham's picture

I have a Zenit ET that I found at a car boot sale about a month ago. I'm not sure if you have those in the USA. They are a bit like a yard sale, but everyone turns up with the cars full of stuff they want to get rid of, and a table to display it on. I bought it for the Helios lens and paid £5 ($6.70) for it. A real bargain! I also have an OM2 SP that I won on Ebay for £45 ($60). I was looking for an OM2n like I once had, but found this. It has the 50mm f/1.4 attached. I just need to persuade my wife to let me set up the darkroom in the kitchen for a couple of days!

Thanks for the great comment!

Jan Holler's picture

Speaking of darkrooms, my last stay in a darkroom was a very long time ago. But I would like to ask you if you have ever tried to use the Caffenol process?

https://www.fieldmag.com/articles/how-to-develop-film-with-coffee-caffen...

Since projectors are not that expensive if you buy them second-hand, I started to play with the idea.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Never tried that, but I must! Thank you

Johnny Kiev's picture

I use caffenol on and off, usually when I run out of developer, in the main it gives results pretty much like my developer of choice, Fomadon, but every now and then it goes wild, as in this example https://www.instagram.com/p/CSU646VsfQu/

Jan Holler's picture

I appreciate your answer, thank you. I visited the link, I like your photos.

Bill Patterson's picture

Very well written article which covered all the important points. The automation has made it possible to concentrate on composition rather than all the technical stuff and still get great images.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you for that kind comment, Bill. I absolutely agree with what you say. I often get lost in thought, concentrating on composition and the wonder of the subject, and can easily forget the exposure settings. Thank goodness for aperture priority!

david kidd's picture

True....

Ivor Rackham's picture

Glad you agree, David.

Jan Holler's picture

Exactly! You can sign all that. You simply use all available possibilities to achieve the goal. Machines are much faster than humans when it comes to calculations.
I see Olympus has some functions there that Nikon cameras don't offer, which seem very useful.
And all those who think that only manual photography is the right thing to do also use a (the) light meter (in the camera). Most of the time the S or A mode does exactly what we would do manually, but much faster.
Another good article from you, Ivor. Thank you.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you Jan. I think all manufacturers have their own unique features, and we learn to work with them and make the most of what's available. Those that are included in the Olympus kit suit me, and I am sure there are things about Nikon cameras that are exactly what you need.

I can happily work manual cameras, like my vintage TLRs, but automation has become so good in modern interchangeable lens cameras that they can be relied on.

Thank you once again for the kind comment. It's very much appreciated.

Jan Holler's picture

Maybe it helps if you started photography at a time when there was only manual mode. A-mode was a big step when it appeared in SLR cameras. Professional (sports) photographers were the first to adapt to it. There was already enough to do with tracking focus manually. Everyone was happy not to have to control two things at once with their left hand: Focusing and changing the aperture, while the eye has to follow the subject and read the exposure indicator. With the A mode, all that was eliminated and the photographer "only" had to worry about focusing correctly.

Today, most active photographers, at least a large proportion, have grown up with PASM and AF. When such a person promotes manual photography as the true photography, I think it is a bit too romantic.

Cheers.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I use any mode, but beginners should learn to use manual. I won't help anyone starting in photography if they want to skip the M mode.

Eric Robinson's picture

I would suggest beginners learn to use the most appropriate mode right from the get go. As most beginners would start with general photography, city scenes, landscapes and possibly street having the camera in aperture priority allows them to forget the camera and concentrate on photography, the composition and other aesthetic decisions such as dof . In my opinion there is nothing to be gained from using manual mode for the sake of it. My advice is use the mode that makes the camera most transparent.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Phones do exactly that, general photography. I think the point of learning photography is precisely to learn how to extensively use the camera and turn any knowledge into an advantage. That's when you forget about the camera because it becomes second nature. Stuck on set ups learned on youtube and rushing on a 1.2 lens will only confuse and disappoint many down the road and in the end, those videos are more a plus to the manufacturers than the beginners.

Gary Pardy's picture

Fuji gang grins smugly and condescendingly at PASM

I'm a massive fan of Aperture priority and Auto ISO, though definitely delve further into FULL MANUAL when consistent, artificial lighting is available, or when subject motion becomes a primary consideration.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Because Fuji have PSAM? :D

Stuart C's picture

A couple do but most don't.

Kirk Darling's picture

"A is for Amateurs, P is for Professionals, M is for Masters."

If anyone actually told you that, they were just screwing with you. It doesn't even make sense, considering that "P" is more automated than "A."

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yeah, I never understood why they said that either.

Rob Mulligan's picture

The "P is for Professional" thing is a Ken Rockwell deal from way, way back. So considering the source...

A K's picture

Great article! For general family and street I've been really enjoying A mode with auto ISO and shutter speed pref so I can set my Aperture for desired DOF, then ask the camera to stay above 1/200 shutter and below ISO 6400 (this is on Olympus E-M5 III). Also center priority AF. Been liking the results 90% of the time, occasionally just tweaking exposure comp and only going full manual at night. For fast sports I've been doing manual but auto ISO + back button focus (recalled w custom dial).

Photographing this way has been a joy as i can focus on improving my timing, lighting and composition and react quickly.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks AK. That sounds a lot like the way I work. How are you finding the E-M5 Mark III? I used to have a mark II and loved it. Would like to add the Mark III to my collection at some point.

Viewfinder Journey's picture

Automatic should be removed from cameras. Absolutely useless. Even beginners and amateurs should not use it as it teaches nothing.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I get your point. But, when my son was very little, maybe 5 or 6, he was determined to take some photos, so I switched my DSLR to auto and handed it to him. He came away happy with some well composed shots, so I guess it has some uses. (He's now 19 and at university doing an art degree, and can drive a camera.)

Rob Mulligan's picture

There is no point, he's trolling.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Ivor, what you are really saying is that you set up the camera for your son because of the knowledge you have acquired in the past. You never presented the camera to your son with the question, what set up do you want or even let him know he had options. In the end however you made the best choice for him. So it was great to have the auto option but at 19 now if you were to teach him from scratch like you did at age 6, your approach would most likely be totally different.

Rob Mulligan's picture

Eeeeyaaaaa.... Shoot an outdoor sports event with changing light some time. Naaa... Don't bother, you're stuck in 1959.

William Murray's picture

My wife shoots some lovely images on auto; I'll be sure to convey your opinion.

Rob Mulligan's picture

If you use "M" with auto ISO and you get to control the two most important factors and the camera controls the least most important factor.

Kirk Darling's picture

Back in the film days, differences in ISO spelled big differences in performance and appearance. And it wasn't easy to change film from shot to shot. It was a pain even with removable backs.

So it hadn't been immediately apparent to me to use auto ISO so freely, because indeed in modern digital cameras ISO is the factor that introduces the least change to the image.

Rob Mulligan's picture

Bingo.

Matt C's picture

I'll just say this.. anyone still fretting about what exposure mode they're in isn't anywhere near being a professional.

Rob Mulligan's picture

It's taken from a typically goofy Ken Rockwell quote from over a decade ago:

"Professional Exposure Mode

I almost always shoot in Professional exposure mode, the "P."

Today's Professional mode was originally called "Program" back in the 1970s by camera marketers, and this name still turns up in in some instruction manuals.

Pro photographers call it Professional mode, since that's what everyone uses. If we need different shutter speeds or apertures, all we do is flick the rear dial to get them.

Calling it Professional mode also helps steer newcomers the right way, since they are often working off old-wives' tales and trying to shoot Manual or Aperture-priority with no good reason.

Pro mode gets us where we need to be faster, with less twiddling as conditions change, than any other exposure mode. Use the other modes as needed, but lead with Pro mode."

Richard King's picture

in the old days of film you loaded a roll which effectively set your ASA or ISO, focussed, slowly chose a shutter speed and apeture and checked metering, then took the shot

if we used flash, we set the power on the flash and manually adjusted the camera to compensate

it was a slow expensive process, but things were simple then

nowadays, in a busy shoot we have a myriad of potential settings all there to help (or screw up) a shot, and in your head you need to keep track of all of them

focusing modes
a range of exposure modes
exposure compensation
ISO
auto iso

add to that to the bunch of nuanced settings

I often use manual mode, just to keep control and track of things. I wish there was a totally manual mode disabling any type of compensation too

my problem with most of the auto modes (p,s,a) is that other actors are not instantly obvious... auto iso, exposure and flash compensation.

we have all run from inside to outside on a shoot and shot a bunch of stuff 2stops over, forgetting about compensation

So my plea to camera manufacturers is... make the hidden stuff much more obvious

Ivor Rackham's picture

That issue of running outside becomes much less of an issue with mirrorless, as you can see the exposure error before you press the shutter button. Thankfully, modern sensors are much more forgiving about over and under exposures.

Thanks for the interesting comment, Richard.

Christopher Levinson's picture

I agree. I’m comfortable with Manual but I use Aperture 90% of the time because it works for me. The idea that you’re not a “real” photographer unless you somehow shoot in a specific way is exclusionary gatekeeping - it’s the end product that matters, not how you get there.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Exactly

Rob Mulligan's picture

"Professional Exposure Mode

I almost always shoot in Professional exposure mode, the "P."

Today's Professional mode was originally called "Program" back in the 1970s by camera marketers, and this name still turns up in in some instruction manuals.

Pro photographers call it Professional mode, since that's what everyone uses. If we need different shutter speeds or apertures, all we do is flick the rear dial to get them.

Calling it Professional mode also helps steer newcomers the right way, since they are often working off old-wives' tales and trying to shoot Manual or Aperture-priority with no good reason.

Pro mode gets us where we need to be faster, with less twiddling as conditions change, than any other exposure mode. Use the other modes as needed, but lead with Pro mode."

Ken Rockwell 2010

Ivor Rackham's picture

Is that where it originated? Thanks. I guess he was making the same point as I make about aperture priority; it's faster.

Rob Mulligan's picture

Yup - from 2010. Ken made it up, and Rockwell being Rockwell, it's all wrong and all right at the same time. Still, making fun of Ken Rockwell never gets old.

Jan Holler's picture

Yes, Program mode. https://www.bhphotovideo.com/lit_files/42036.pdf
Nikon F100 manual, scroll to page 6 or 43. It is called "Programmed Auto" by Nikon.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Aperture Priority is King for me when not using flash. Especially, with the automated minimum shutter speed. And, being able to map settings to a button. For instance, when I'm indoors, I like to keep the auto min ss to 1/125th when there isn't much movement. When things get a little lively, I hold down the AEL button, which my thumb naturally rests on, to give me a boost of 1/250th ss (this can set to any value). Then, release when things come down. No need to fiddle with dials and having to remember to set it back.

Shutter priority for panning shots such as in motorsports.

Manual when shooting with flash. Or, when I just wanna feel and hear the clicks. "Click click. Click. " :)

Ivor Rackham's picture

Interesting way of working, I'll give that a try. I have my AEL button for back button focus, so It'll have to be one of the plethora of other programmable buttons on my camera that I forget what I have programmed them to! Thanks for the great comment.

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