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.
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.
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.
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.