Want To Stop Shooting In Auto Mode? Answer One Simple Question

Today’s DSLR cameras are essentially small, powerful computers. They contain a vast array of settings, features, menus, buttons, and dials, which can be quite intimidating to new users. For this reason, many people simply never take the camera off the Auto setting, ever. This is unfortunate, as shooting in Auto mode will of-course produce nice images, but it seriously limits the creative input of the person taking the shot. Aside from composition, shooting in Auto mode forces the camera to make all creative decisions. So how do you begin to take control over your images without feeling completely overwhelmed? Start  by answering one simple question: is my subject moving or stationary? That’s all you need to get started: moving or stationary? If your subject is moving, you will shoot in Shutter Priority mode; if your subject is stationary, you will shoot in Aperture Priority mode. Let’s look at each mode.

In Shutter Priority mode, you are shooting subjects that are moving: people, cars, water, etc. so often the trick is to freeze the action in order to have a sharp image. The rule of thumb is the faster the subject is moving, the faster your shutter speed needs to be. For shooting sports, you should have a shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec., the faster the better. For moving water, however, you have creative decisions to make which effectively demonstrate why getting off of Auto mode is important. Do you want your shot of a waterfall to have that soft, cotton candy look or do you want to show off the power of the water by emphasizing it’s turbulence? Your shutter speed will determine which look you get, something Auto mode will determine for you. Let’s look at two different water images, one with a slow shutter speed and one with a fast speed:


A slow shutter speed, about 1 second, was used in this waterfall image to give the water that silky look.

ShutterFastA fast shutter speed, about 1/200 of a second, was used in this image to show off the power of the water.

If your subject is stationary, you should shoot in Aperture Priority mode, which determines the depth of field, or how much of the image is in focus front to back. This is where your creativity comes into play. For some images, such as portraits, you want the background to be out of focus so that it does not compete with your subject. For others, such as a sweeping landscape, perhaps you want as much in focus as possible. Depth of field can change an image dramatically so you want to make this decision creatively and not let the camera choose for you. Here are a few images which demonstrate what different apertures can do:


This image has an Aperture of 2.8 so that the trees close to the camera are in focus but the ones further away are not.


The Aperture in this image is 22 so that everything front to back is in focus.


The Aperture in this image is 2.8 so that the athletes in focus pop out from the soft background.

To give yourself creative control, you need to get out of shooting in Auto mode. Start this process simply, is my subject moving (Shutter Priority) or is it stationary (Aperture Priority)? The faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed. If you want a lot of your image in focus front to back, use a larger Aperture number (16-22). If you want your subject to pop out from the background, have less in focus, use a smaller Aperture number (2.8-5.6). In this way, you are creating the image you want and not simply living with what the camera chooses for you. One simple question, two shooting modes to choose from, endless possibilities. Are you ready to try?

Happy shooting.


One thought on “Want To Stop Shooting In Auto Mode? Answer One Simple Question

  1. Hi Carol,
    I just happened to navigate to your page when I was browsing for a camera club to join to better my understanding of photography.
    You explained shutter and aperture priority so well that I have an “a-ha” moment.
    Thank you very much for that great explanation. I will remember that when I am taking some pictures.



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