It’s common to think that most professional photographers, or all professional photographers, shoot in manual mode, for the simple reason that it offers the greatest possible control over a photo. Why would you leave your camera to make important decisions without your input? However, as valuable as manual mode is, you may not need to use it 100% of the time — even as an advanced photographer. In this article, I’ll explain semi-automatic modes and cover some cases where they can be the quickest option available, without sacrificing any control over your settings.
Table of Contents
1) What Are Semi-Automatic Camera Modes?
Three of the most important settings for photography are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. It’s these three settings that lie at the heart of your camera modes. In full auto, you can’t adjust any of them. In full manual, you have to adjust all three. Everything in between is a semi-automatic mode.
Semi-automatic camera modes are the ones that give you control over some of these settings, while the camera adjusts the others automatically. On most cameras, the three semi-automatic modes are shutter priority, aperture priority, and program mode. (It can be argued that another semi-automatic mode simply includes using Auto ISO in manual mode.)
That doesn’t include full auto mode, where your camera chooses the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO without your input. It also doesn’t include “scene modes” that many cameras have on their PASM dial, since those, again, don’t offer you any control over these settings.
2) Aperture Priority vs Shutter Priority vs Program Mode
The single most popular of the three semi-automatic modes — and the only one I frequently use — is aperture priority mode. Here, you end up adjusting your aperture to taste, and the camera automatically selects a shutter speed that gives you the proper exposure, according to its meter reading. On most cameras, you also have the ability to limit the range of shutter speeds that the camera can choose from, if you so desire (which can be helpful if you need to maintain a fast shutter speed to freeze motion). You’ll have to enable Auto ISO to do so, though.
Shutter priority mode does the exact same thing, but with shutter speed and aperture flipped. You select the shutter speed you want, and the camera changes your aperture accordingly. Once again, it does so by matching the meter reading. Shutter priority mode isn’t as popular as aperture priority mode, since, in most cases, you’ll care quite a bit about the specific aperture you use, and it could be a significant problem if your camera switches from — for example — f/8 to f/4 if the light changes suddenly, no matter what you’re photographing.
Last is program mode, which is even less commonly used among professional photographers. On paper, this mode seems useful: It automatically selects both aperture and shutter speed, but it gives you the ability to cycle between different combinations if you don’t like the initial suggestion (which is why program mode differs from full auto). This is fine, except that both shutter speed and aperture will shift as the light changes. So, if you need a particular aperture or a particular shutter speed, you’ll need to watch both of them constantly. For that reason, I don’t recommend program mode to advanced photographers, unless you have a very specific use for it.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that all three of these modes (as well as manual mode) let you pick between using Auto ISO or using Manual ISO. Plus, you have the ability to apply exposure compensation if you disagree with the camera’s meter, and you want a brighter or darker exposure than it automatically suggests.
3) When Would You Use a Semi-Automatic Mode?
The main situation when you should use a semi-automatic mode — specifically, aperture priority or Auto ISO in manual mode — is when you think that your meter is helping more than it’s hurting.
Semi-automatic modes are very useful if you’re constantly referring to your meter from shot to shot, and it generally seems accurate (or, it generally seems to have the same, consistent amount of over- or under-exposure).
If you’re shooting in manual mode, and you’re always looking at your meter to ensure that your settings end up balancing in the middle, chances are good that you could do the exact same thing in a semi-automatic mode, but quicker.
This is frequently why I use aperture priority mode for landscape photography in the field. As the sun sets, and the light changes quickly, my meter adapts in real time to the changing conditions. I’ll keep my aperture steady, and — although I could change shutter speed manually every few seconds — I would rather have my camera do the exact same thing automatically, so that I can concentrate on other matters. It’s true that I might adjust the exposure compensation after a while if my camera doesn’t read the changing light very well, but the occasional exposure compensation adjustment still tends to be quicker than constantly watching my shutter speed.
Or, for wildlife photography, I know many photographers who use manual mode with Auto ISO enabled. So long as it’s dark enough that you’re not in danger of reaching your camera’s lowest ISO (and thus potentially overexposing the photo on accident), this is an equally viable option for situations when you generally trust your meter and you might not have time to adjust ISO yourself, as you follow an animal across a scene.
4) When Would You Use Manual Mode?
Manual mode is a crucial part of every advanced camera, and it’s something that you absolutely should learn how to use properly if you want to get the most out of your equipment. In many cases, manual mode works better than a semi-automatic mode. So, when should it be your choice?
For some photographers, the answer to this question is always. Many professionals want full control of their camera at all times, and the uncertainty of any automatic mode — for example, what if the camera’s meter is completely fooled by a quick change of light? — isn’t something that they’re willing to accept. And that’s a perfectly fine approach.
On the other hand, even if you don’t have an issue with semi-automatic modes, there are still plenty of cases when manual mode works better. The biggest of all is when you need consistency.
If you’re photographing a bride under constant light, and you want her face to remain the same brightness regardless of the tones in the background, manual mode works very well. Once you hone in on the correct exposure, you won’t need to worry about your camera shifting your settings as she moves around and the background changes.
Or, for landscape photography, you might want to take a panorama where every photograph has the same exposure, making them easier to merge in post-production. Manual mode is also ideal in this situation, whereas a semi-automatic mode might require irritating adjustments to your exposure compensation to make each shot consistent along the way.
It also helps to default to manual mode for flash photography, since each variable — shutter speed, aperture, and ISO — often needs to be a very specific value, in order to balance ambient light properly with your flash and get the look you want. This is very useful for portrait photographers, as well as other genres that require flash. Personally, for macro photography, I always default to manual mode when I’m using a flash.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that, in semi-automatic modes, you might have the ability to lock your exposure using the AE-L button. I do this on occasion for panoramas in landscape photography. Rather than switching to manual mode, the AE-L option simply locks the exposure that you already have, and it keeps it there as you take photos. The downside is that AE-L is easy to disable by accident. If you turn your camera off and back on, for example, it stops applying. For that reason, manual mode is generally preferred if you need guaranteed consistency, especially over a long period of time.
5) Which Mode Should You Use?
The best camera mode depends upon your specific uses. I know some photographers who shoot all-manual everything, always. Others swear by aperture priority, and they typically use AE-L rather than switching to manual mode. As with all things in photography, you need to decide this for yourself.
If, though, you’ve avoided semi-automatic modes until this point, give them a try. Most of them let you set any exact exposure that you want, just like in full manual mode. For example, if I need my camera to use 1/4 second at f/8 at ISO 100, I can do that in aperture priority mode quite quickly (unless it requires more than five stops of exposure compensation to achieve, in which case those settings probably aren’t a good idea, regardless of the mode).
Everyone has their preferences. But at the point where you fully understand aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, it’s all about setting them quickly, easily, and accurately. Which one of the PASM modes lets you pick exactly the settings you want for every photo, with the fewest hoops to jump through? That’s the bottom line. For me, focusing on landscape photography, it works out to be about 75% aperture priority and 25% manual, while you may be completely different. At the end of the day, though, semi-automatic modes are perfectly viable for advanced photography, and they’re worth paying careful attention to as you try to optimize your technique.
I’m a bit puzzled as to how program mode differs from either aperture-priority mode or from shutter-priority mode.
On program mode, if you choose an aperture say of f/8, the camera will choose what it thinks is the best shutter speed. But on aperture-priority mode, if you choose an aperture say of f/8, the camera will also choose what it thinks is the best shutter speed.
And, on program mode, if you choose a shutter speed of say 1/500, the camera will choose what it thinks is the best aperture. But on shutter priority mode, if you choose a shutter speed of say 1/500, the camera will also choose what it thinks is the best aperture.
So both aperture-priority mode and shutter priority mode seem to be doing the same thing that program mode is doing, but limiting your control to only setting either aperture or shutter speed.
You say that program mode “is fine, except that both shutter speed and aperture will shift as the light changes. So, if you need a particular aperture or a particular shutter speed, you’ll need to watch both of them constantly.”
But you’re always having to watch to change something when the light changes?
I just wanted expound on your article and to add an addendum:
The biggest mistake that most photographers, beginner and onward, is that they don’t really know what the light meter does or is. If you know, then you should be able the right exposure or very close in one shot. e.g. if you want a certain skin tone, you should be able to get that in one shot. If you subscribe to ETTR, (expose to the right), you should able get the proper camera setting for this technique in one shot. If your camera cannot handle the dynamic range of the photo, you should not blindly bracket the exposure if you know what the light meter actually does. If you use grad filters, you don’t blindly grab one or the other, you know which one you need. You get my point.
You do not, as you wrote: “…If you’re shooting in manual mode, and you’re always looking at your meter to ensure that your settings end up balancing in the middle….” You do not look for a middle grey patch in your field of view to meter. You do not zero the meter as most photographers do when using manual, (if that’s what you mean, please correct me if I interpreted you wrong). You are not ensuring “…that your settings end up balancing in the middle….” That is not what the light meter is use for.
The light meter is a tool, a measuring tool. It is no different than a thermometer or a volt meter. It is a tool that measures reflective light based on a constant. The constant is what you camera manufacture defines as “middle grey.” A thermometer’s constant is zero celsius, (or 32 Fahrenheit). A scale based on water freezing at sea level. Likewise the exposure meter is based on the scale where “middle grey” is the base on which all other setting are based; its constant.
When you make roast beef you determine done-ness by the temperature of the meat. If you want rare you use one temperature; if you want well done you use another. Likewise, when metering, you determine the meter’s setting by how you want that particular area tone to appear in your file. There is no one setting that fits all. It does not exist by zeroing your meter every time.
When using full manual on the camera you should use spot metering and meter on the surface you deem to be the most important. Then you set that point to the setting on the meter on, to the left, or to the right of the center point of the scale. How much you move it is based on experience and how your well you know your camera. This experience is based on Ansel Adam’s Zone system. Using his method of zone metering in conjunction with your known camera’s meter response. You set the metered area to that point on the scale which gives you the tone you want. See Ansel Adam’s book, “The Negative” for those who want more info.
It’s not against Automatic or semi-automatic metering, using matrix or otherwise, but if you know how or what a meter is, you can determine your exposure for your needs more consistently. i.e. use the exposure compensation button and or settings with knowledge.
The algorithms for matrix are really good these days but if you use “semi-auto” you are still letting the camera GUESS your exposure. If you are using full auto you are HOPING the camera will give you proper exposure. If you use manual and Zone metering you KNOW your exposure.
“The light meter is a tool, a measuring tool. It is no different than a thermometer or a volt meter.”
Oh dear. Obviously, you have never been required to use traceably-calibrated measuring instruments, such as thermometers, voltmeters, and light meters. For your information: thermometers, voltmeters, and light meters measure absolute values; whereas camera through-the-lens (TTL) light meters indicate only relative values. Therefore, the in-camera light meter is entirely different from a thermometer, a voltmeter, and an incident light meter. Nikon, wisely, names its TTL metering annunciators: “exposure indicator”.
The commentator Betty has previously written very useful information on in-camera exposure meters. Did you bother to read the comments before you posted yours [rhetorical question].
One of the many mistakes that ‘digital photographers’ make is to espouse and/or promote the use of ETTR long before they have properly learnt what ETTR actually means, when to apply it, and especially when *not* to apply it.
Only when the available light is more than sufficient for the situation does ETTR make sense. In the typically variable overcast light in the UK, the term “ETTR” is far more often used for the purposes of satire than it is used for the purposes of photography :-)
Have you ever attempted street photography towards the end of a day in Winter [another rhetorical question] — only an idiot would espouse ETTR.
As you implied, thoroughly understanding the Zone System is a prerequisite to understanding TTL metering and the process of image recording and reproduction.
I a bit confused.
What do you mean by “…camera through-the-lens (TTL) light meters indicate only relative values…” Relative to what? Relative to 18% grey or middle grey? If so, then that’s what I wrote. That middle grey is its absolute.
A thermometer is only useful if calibrated to water freezing at sea level. Every marking on the thermometer scale is relative to that freezing point. Every light meter, in camera or handheld, is calibrated to an absolute otherwise it can’t be called a meter. That absolute is middle grey as determined by each camera’s manufacture. Every marking on the lightmeter’s scale is relative to that middle grey zero point.
The camera’s built in light meter is no different than a hand held one other than the fact the built in camera meter factors in the light traveling through the lens.
An incident meter reads the light differently because it measures the light falling onto the subject whereas the reflective light meter measures the light bouncing off the subject.
“exposure indicator” in Nikon’s jargon refers to the scale in camera or on the back/ top LCD, not the meter itself as a whole. Analogous to the tick marks on a glass thermometer; these can be also called temperature indicators but is not the thermometer itself as a whole.
I am not a fan of ETTR. I just wrote it as example if some chooses to use the light meter in that fashion.
As least we agree on the Zone System as a prerequisite / learning tool :- )
Thanks for your reply. You have more than adequately illustrated my point.
Thermometers, voltmeters, and light meters such as lux meters, are calibrated to standards which conform to the International Organization for Standardization definitions of measured values and their units, including both their base unit(s) and the base dimension(s) of their units.
Therefore, a measured value from a thermometer in degrees Celsius; a voltmeter in volts; or a light meter in lux; is most definitely NOT open to interpretation by the manufacturers of these measuring instruments.
Conversely, the standards relating to camera ISO sensitivity [NB: “sensitivity” is the deprecated term for “responsivity”] contain a caveat along the lines of: cameras which contain an evaluative metering algorithm are exempt from complying with ISO responsivity standards; it is left to each manufacturer to decide a suitable mapping from absolute exposure level to the rendered image brightness, at each of the camera’s stated ISO sensitivity levels.
The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standard for the sRGB colour space — IEC 61966-2-1:1999 [the standard adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium] — specifies (amongst all the other levels) the following mappings from sRGB level to displayed brightness level:
99 12.5%; 118 18.1%; 137 25%; 255 100%
I first became aware of the ISO evaluative metering caveat when using the Nikon D3 series, which tend to render their metered mid-tone (Zone V) level at an sRGB level circa 125 instead of level 99. This is equivalent to using an exposure compensation of +0.7 EV. Setting Active D-Lighting to “Low” reduces this positive exposure bias for many/most scenes.
Photographic exposure — luminous exposure — is a definitive absolute unit, name: lux second; symbol: lx·s. It is not an arbitrary unit, neither is it a negotiable unit of measure.
As I stated previously: Nikon, wisely, names its TTL metering annunciators: “exposure indicator”.
Hopefully, you would not rely on the reading given by a thermometer which is stated by the manufacturer of the device to be a “temperature indicator”, nor rely on a voltmeter which is stated by the manufacturer to be a “voltage indicator” :-)
Brent, Please don’t think that I’m trying to be argumentative for the purposes of provoking an argument. My very few areas of expertise are solidly founded in science and logic. If I started a learning course entitled Tact & Diplomacy 101, I’m sure that I’d be dismissed within the first five minutes. I apologise for failing to apply the principle of charity while reading your original comment.
I’ve noticed the underexposure when I’m taking astrophotos. A lunar image that looks good on the LCD is missing most of the shadow range once I D/L it. I’d though it was just due to my eyes night adapting.
Manual vs semi-auto, as far as it results in good photos, thats all thats important. We only can take photos of what we can see, what we can see and how we see it and how we shape that skill is most important thing for me in photography. I was geeky enough to buy manual for my first dslr 2 weeks before I bough it, its good to be technically strong but its not most important, and there is no need to complicate things using manual to “be professional” if there is need to use manual.
Thank-you for an excellent article. I had never considered the manual mode with auto ISO!
On thing to remember about metering is that there are two very basic modes: Reflected and Incident. You touched on the concept briefly when you mentioned reducing variables on a face, or with flash exposure. Incident metering bases exposure strictly on the amount of light falling on a scene and ignores the reflectivity of the subject. It’s a good way of removing as many variables as possible. Unfortunately, it usually requires a separate light meter.
A good way to understand the difference (and see the advantage) is to remember that a reflected light reading (any through the lens reading) will result in an exposure that will give an overall 18% (or middle) grey field. It doesn’t matter if the subject is white sand or deep green foliage. To get the “right” exposure, some compensation has to be applied. (This was far more critical in the film emulsion days.) Conversely, an incident reading measures the amount of light falling on the scene, and returns an exposure that will show 18% grey as 18% grey, and other tones as they actually are.
In the film days I prefered using incident readings, but I’m lazy and now usually rely on my cameras meter and compensate as needed. But you’ve prompted me. Time to take out my LunaSix and experiment.
Yes, the good old incident meter still wins in conditions where the reflected meter is fooled.
It is as well to remember though, that both meter types will tend to underexpose in the digital domain.
With digital, the aim is maximum data capture, not a 12-18% mid tone, and that means exposing to the right just short of clipping highlight detail. In many instances this will produce an image which looks overexposed in the LCD screen but is in fact optimal. Dialing back the brightness in post will restore the correct appearance at the same time as preserving all the information in the file.
I’ve noticed the underexposure when I’m taking astrophotos. A lunar image that looks good on the LCD is missing most of the shadow range once I D/L it. I’d though it was just due to my eyes night adapting.
thank you for your piece – very informative
to help me with my processing !!! could you advise !!!
the panorama at the top of the page seems – to me !! – to curve downwards at the edges
the geo consistency seems to have been lost – is it me
I see what you’re talking about, and, yes, it does look a bit curved. I think that’s because of the landscape itself, rather than the actual horizon line, but it very well could be an artifact of my stitching process. If you’re seeing something similar in your own photos, and it seems unnatural, you might be able to fix it by using the warp tool in Photoshop and pushing down the bulge.
Good and informative article as always, Spencer. For what it’s worth, in most cases I just don’t believe the use of manual mode is anything other than snobbism, a little bit like insisting on only drinking wine out of lead crystal glasses or listening to music exclusively on vinyl. “Real photographers shoot in manual,” the prevalent opinion seems to be.
I cannot really subscribe to that. For at least 80% of my shots, the D750 is in aperture priority mode, though I do use exposure compensation quite a bit, either as a result of experience or after having looked at the histogram. Almost all remaining shots are taken in shutter speed priority, and only when I need absolute consistency do I shoot in manual mode. This is the case when shooting panoramas, for example.
I just don’t understand what is so different about a) setting my aperture to, say, 8, and having the camera set the shutter speed and b) setting my aperture to the same value and setting the shutter speed manually following the recommendation of the meter. Maybe there is something here that I miss, but it seems to me that if you trust the meter to suggest what you should set the shutter speed to manually, you should also trust it to set it by itself. Of course, you still need to verify that the selected shutter speed is something you can live with, but you don’t need to set it yourself to do that.
Most of us, I believe, tend to take things a bit too seriously, and at least in my case, I would be far better off trying to hone my photographic rather than camera-technical skills. For the majority of visitors to this site, photography is a hobby that is supposed to be fun; to spend an inordinate amount of time and hassle doing things that will not even be visible in the final product at normal viewing distances is not my cup of tea.
Obviously, your mileage may vary.
I too am an avid reader of PL. Now some people, not just professionals, rather like shooting in Manual Mode, especially if their camera is sitting on a tripod. And in this case using Aperture Priority and even EV compensation tends to be a waste of time.
Trusting a meter reading from the camera (which I don’t) in a lot cases can lead to an image that is not properly exposed, and as such there are better ways to achieve this. But that’s another story.
To compare Manual Mode to snobbism, drinking wine out of lead crystal, etc. is not really a fair assertion Mr. Daniel. If you are happy with the results from your Nikon D750 and non camera-technical skills that’s good. Happy shooting and best wishes…
I agree with you – obviously
I grew up on manual focus & – for what its worth – I have decided ( after so many years of getting my prints developed badly ) to go digital !!
but I have chosen image quality first – so the
Sony a7rii sensor & all the advantages of the mirrorless system
The Zeiss Loxia Manual focus 21mm 2.8 prime lens
The hitech polarising filter – Filter mount & a decent tripod
I intend to take my images as a – life through one lens !!!
so will not buy another lens
so – like my previous set up of pentax camera & lens – I will stick to one & see what I can do
your thoughts would be appreciated
Glad you liked the article! Some photographers certainly do shoot in manual mode more often than would be necessary, but I think it’s also a familiarity thing. If you really understand shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, manual mode lets you control them without any surprises. Some people just work better when they know the camera isn’t going to make a wild decision that unpredictably affects their photo, which is understandable.
I’m with you, though — if your goal in manual mode is to match the meter reading, you could do exactly the same thing, but more quickly, in aperture priority.
Very muddled thinking from beginning to end.
First, manual exposure is not ‘snobbery’. It is the foundation stone of photography. If you don’t understand manual exposure, the rest is just hit and miss.
Second, all exposure modes will produce a good, consistent exposure if the photographer understands exposure and how to modify it when circumstances dictate. You don’t need manual mode exclusively for that.
“Maybe there is something here that I miss, but it seems to me that if you trust the meter to suggest what you should set the shutter speed to manually, you should also trust it to set it by itself”
Yes there is something that you miss. For a static subject what you say may be true, but for a subject moving against a changing background manual will give a correct exposure while auto will give produce a number of different exposures – most of them wrong.
You should never blindly trust the meter to do anything other than to mislead you. The meter is dumb and is only as useful as the person behind it. The photographer has to know what to point the meter at and how to interpret what it tells him. Left to its own devices, the meter simply wants to make everything 18% grey. You may be OK with that.
Manual mode, used intelligently, will virtually always produce a good exposure. There is one exception – see below.
Auto modes work well when the light is changeable and subject is static and the background does not change. If the subject is moving (or changing size in the frame) against a changing background, auto modes are hit and miss. This especially true when the subject or background are very light or very dark. Manual mode deals with all of this perfectly.
If both the light and the subject size/background are changing, then no metering mode will help. Basically you are stuffed – unless you have the reflexes of an electrocuted squirrel, you have vast experience in assessing compensation on the fly and your pinkies are lightning fast on the compensation dial.
“I would be far better off trying to hone my photographic rather than camera-technical skills.”
More muddled thinking. The two are complementary and inseparable. What is the point of your photographic/artistic masterpiece if it’s out of focus and badly exposed due to inadequate camera technical skills? It just sounds like an excuse for not bothering to learn your craft.
As a beginning, I started mainly in A, then I realized that when my shots were getting blurry, I switched to S. Then when S was too dark, I finally tinkering with M. Still trying to get a better feel for adjusting, but it’s a lot easier to understand what does what after spending time in each mode. I like doing M, but I just throw it into Auto still when I need it to be a bit more reliable since I’m just not there yet.
Thanks for adding this! Early on, it’s all about experimentation, and trying to get a good mental picture of how the three main settings interact with one another. It sounds like you’re making good progress.
That’s was an enjoyable article, thanks. Also, what a stunning panorama of Iceland (I’m assuming). What month did you go there? I ask because I’m heading to Iceland and Faroe Islands in late October.
Thank you, Jason! Yes, that was Iceland, taken on the road to the Thakgil campground (a very beautiful area). I visited during late July, so I’m not sure how the colors will be during October, but that’s a great time to visit the island. You should be able to see some Northern lights, if you’re lucky, and most of the roads will still be quite passable. Hope it goes well!
Another very complete, yet concise article, Spencer. I’m glad to see that I’ve got the basics down of when to shoot half or fully manual, after 15 years of fully-controllable digital cameras ;-)
One situation I always use Manual Mode is, of course, astrophotography.
A “hybrid” situation is time lapse photography: there I shoot Manual Mode when light conditions are stable (e.g. on a blue-sky day or at night), but sometimes use Aperture Mode. The latter for instance at the beginning of dusk or towards the end of dawn, when there’s enough light for auto metering to work and deal with changing conditions – I can then check the exposure only every dozen of shots or so, and adjust the exposure compensation when necessary.
Glad you enjoyed it! Time lapses are a tricky situation, without a doubt. Manual is ideal for frame-by-frame consistency, but it’s best to change your exposure along the way if lighting conditions change dramatically. It seems like you have a solid method for that type of photography.
As for astrophotography, absolutely! The meter is terrible at determining accurate exposure at night, when there’s very little light. Thanks for adding that point.
You’re very welcome!
I should also add that my tactics for time lapse photography have evolved with the software I use, the well-known LRTimelapse. Over the years this has gotten ever better at smoothing out frame-to-frame exposure inconsistencies.