Taking Control

canon mode dial
If you never move the mode dial off the green rectangle, you'll never get the most out of your camera - by NJM2010

The automatic features on modern digital cameras are nothing short of amazing. Back in the day we were jazzed when cameras came out with an internal light meter and through-the-lens metering that displayed the actual shutter speed and f-stop instead of just a needle; you’d think it was the second coming of photography. I don’t want to sound like grandpa telling you how good you have it today, but when it comes to photography, your camera is nothing short of a modern marvel.

Yet, for all that sophistication, your camera can’t replace you. Sure, it can take very good photos by averaging the exposure, the problem is that the difference between a good picture and a great picture is frequently that the great photo employs an f-stop and shutter speed other than the one the camera computer would calculate.

There really is no option; if you want to move from being a good photographer to a great one, you have to learn to take over from the computer.

Luckily, you don’t have to jump in all at once, you can ease into driving by selecting shooting modes that share the responsibility for proper exposure between the camera computer and the operator.

Canon shooters have two helper settings short of Full Auto. One is Creative Auto and the other is Program mode. Creative Auto is almost identical to Full Auto with the exception that you can tell the camera lighter or darker, change the depth of field with a slider, and switch to a limited number of picture presets. The camera will still decide whether it needs the flash.

If you switch to Program mode, the camera computer makes a guess at the proper ISO and exposure and you can tweak both the f-stop and shutter speed to your preferences. You can also set the ISO manually and the computer will guess at the f-stop and shutter speed. In Program mode you have to tell the camera to use the flash with the little button that looks like a lightning bolt.

After that are Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority modes where you set one parameter and the computer balances out the rest.

No matter how good computers get at exposure, they will have a hard time with the art. That’s why the human component of photography needs to practice and get familiar with how your camera works. Practice tweaking the settings and exposure until you start seeing the pictures you want.

There are times to trust the computer and times to take over. If you want to be great, you’ll have to know the difference.