What mode do you shoot in?

I’ve been thinking about mode snobbery. The tendency of a photographer to describe the pre-programmed modes in a camera in disparaging terms. My old cameras, Canon EOS 300D and 350D both had multiple pre-programmed modes, such as “sport” or “landscape”. I never used them, preferring to shoot in the “creative zone” modes, mostly to have more control over the image but partly to look like I knew what I was doing. Sad. I would set the camera to fully-automatic mode when lending it to anyone and on occasion felt pretty smug about having to do so, reassured of my ability to use the more advanced modes and exert more control over my photos.

The other day I saw something in which some camera modes were talked about in a slightly disparaging way. “Real” photographers could never use those modes, right? Only I’m not talking about the pre-programmed “sports” modes, or even the fully automatic or Program (P) modes here, I’m talking about Aperture Priority (Av) and Shutter Priority (Tv) modes. In Av mode the photographer sets the ISO they want to work at (unless that is also set to automatic) and selects the aperture (Av) they want to use. The camera works out the best shutter speed to expose the frame correctly, depending on the metering mode in use. Similarly in Tv mode, the photographer picks the ISO and shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. In both cases the camera will indicate if it can’t select a shutter speed or aperture size to expose the frame properly.

These are the two modes I currently use the most. I suddenly felt a little put upon. The suggestion was that great photographers shoot in full manual mode. Clearly there are times when shooting in these modes can’t deliver the results desired, such as very high or low light levels or high contrast in a frame. Just as clearly it was the wrong mode to be using in the situation that was being described, but are there times when it’s acceptable to use them? I would imagine that sports photographers use Tv to ensure they capture the right amount of detail or motion blur in their pictures without worrying about setting apertures too. Maybe not.

When I started shooting 35mm, I was shooting fully manually. So it’s not that I can’t do it. I also occasionally use manual mode on my digital camera when I can’t get the effect I’m after in Tv or Av. Also, having paid for a camera which can make my life easier by doing some of the maths and metering itself, it seems churlish to reject its help. Accepting that there are situations for which Av and Tv are inappropriate, is it wrong to use them when they are? Is using fully manual just mode snobbery or do the semi-automatic modes really restrict creativity and control?

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    10 Responses to What mode do you shoot in?

    1. Jos says:

      I never use the pre-programmed modes. If I wanted to use them, I was better of with a compact digital camera. I bought this SLR so I can have full control over what my camera does.

      I use all the creative modes. P, Av, Tv and Manual. But it really depends on what you like to use, what kind of situation it is and what kind of mood your picture should capture. If I have enough time I play with Av or Tv. In some situations Manual is better (panorama shots). But I usually make photos of fast moving subjects like animals. The scene can change really fast so I prefer to use the P-mode so I don’t have to think of aperture, lightning conditions, etc all the time while still having good control over what my camera does.

      In the end, you can make great photos with any mode you want. Even the pre-programmed modes. Thinking “real photographers” only use manual settings to make photos is like thinking that “real Linux users” use the command line all the time. It just all comes down to what one prefers to reach their goal, right?

    2. gmb says:

      I spend 99% of my time in Aperture priority or Manual. When I’m on location or shooting street or just snapping away for fun I start in aperture priority. If I add lights then I’ll usually switch to manual so that I can control how much ambient bleeds into the frame, unless I’m trying to track fast-changing ambient like a sunset, in which case I’ll stick with aperture priority and program in some +/- EV to compensate. In a studio I’m always in manual mode.

      Most people who are snobbish about automatic modes in cameras are that way because they don’t trust cameras to get it right for them, or rather they don’t know how to think like a camera. It’s all too easy for the camera to get it wrong (compared to your vision) if you don’t know who the camera interprets a scene (for example a sheet of white paper in the frame may make the camera underexpose the rest of the frame, so you have to tell it not to, either with exposure compensation or by being in manual). I’d guess most photographers who express these feelings just feel comfier in manual, but the next time someone says it to you ask them if they don’t think that Jay Maisel or Joe McNally are professionals. They use Aperture mode all the time. Why? Because they understand how to think like a camera.

    3. Andy S-C says:

      I leave my camera in fully automatic mode, so on the occasion of that one-in-a-million scene that needs a quick snap, I can get it, and mostly the camera will do the right thing. On a number of occasions that’s given me the photo when friends with their manual mode snobbery have still been peering at settings…

      If I’ve then got the luxury of time to play with settings for some subsequent shots, I can see if I’m not getting what I want with Automatic, and go to Av, Tv or M depending what’s happening – usually shutter priority if it’s action stuff, or Manual for playing with longer exposures for particular effects.

    4. gmb says:

      It should be noted that part of the reason I don’t use pre-programmed scene modes is that my main camera doesn’t have them, just Program (which I never use), Shutter, Aperture or Manual.

    5. Mez says:

      I tend to shoot with Av or Tv, simply because I prefer to shoot in RAW.

    6. Phil says:

      I use aperture priority for still scenes, shutter-priority for slow- to medium-speed targets and manual for fast-moving targets. Slow means people, medium means animals and fast means sports. The only reason I use manual is because the extra latency of the camera thinking what shutter or aperture to pick in either of the other two means there is too much delay between pressing the button and capturing the image to capture e.g. an F1 car at the apex of the corner 10 metres away.

    7. Ben F says:

      the “sport” mode is good when there’s something flying fast, and you don’t want a blurred picture.. and you’ve got literally a few seconds to take the shot, no time to setup the right parameters

      for still pictures, you’re probably right, for, like ASC said, the moving objects that have caught you out, easier to switch to the “best fit” mode instead of auto, for better quality/less blur/good contrast, etc.

      just my 1min 🙂

    8. Bruno Girin says:

      It’s all about understanding how the camera works, what results you want to achieve and the shooting conditions you’re in. The camera is a tool to take pictures and the best way to take the best pictures is to understand the tool and use the best settings adapted to the picture you want to take.

      Manual mode gives you the most flexibility but can be cumbersome to set up. So I use it when I know that I have enough time to set up and my subject is not likely to disappear in the meantime (works great for landscapes but not that great for ships). Most of the time, I use the Av mode because having control over the aperture is what enables me to be creative and I know that the camera will set the shutter speed to the right value; it doesn’t prevent me keeping an eye on the shutter speed returned by the camera just to make sure it’s doing what I expect it should.

      At the end of the day, semi-automatic and pre-programmed modes are just that: modes that set reasonable defaults for particular situations. If you understand what those defaults are for each of those modes and what effect they will have on your picture, use them, they are very useful shortcuts. Also, considering that digital cameras store a whole raft of EXIF data with the picture, pre-programmed modes can be a great way to learn about how your camera works: shoot with them and then have a look at the EXIF data to see what raw settings the camera used and how it obtained the effect it did.

      Saying that you should only ever shoot in M mode is like saying that when you use GIMP you should only ever edit your photos by changing one pixel at a time to the exact colour you want, rather than use the palette of tools and effects of the software: you’ll definitely get the best results this way, if you know what you’re doing, but it’s a very restrictive way to use the tool. If you really know what you’re doing, you should understand how the tools and filters work and know which one to apply when.

    9. Andy Piper says:

      Well I’m still with an EOS 350D and my own behaviour is typically to go with Av – I’ll have a good idea of the DoF I want to achieve with a shot and let the camera do the rest, being convinced of the benefits of shooting RAW. That’s not to say I never go with the creative modes, as they can be very handy for quick point-and-shoot scenarios, when short on space, or when I know I’ll not want to spend a lot of time post-processing.