Being in Control

It’s one of the ironies of photography that we spend ever increasing amounts of money to purchase better and better cameras and lenses, acquiring more and more automatic features to aid us in getting the best images possible.

Canon 5DIII Top SideAnd then what do we do?  We turn everything off and shoot completely manually, because “that’s what pros do”.  Think about that for a minute.  Does that make sense to you?  Give your head a shake.

I recently had a moment shooting an event where I had to do just that.  Then I did a little experiment to find out just what I was missing by doing all the work myself.  Read on for the results.

I was shooting a community event recently with two other photographers.  We talked for a bit beforehand and inevitably the question was asked “what settings are you using?”.  There was a backlit stage, crappy fluorescent lighting in the rest of the space and all of it was either too bright or too dark to be useful.

Two of us exchanged settings and explanations, then we turned to the third photographer.  She looked at us as though we had two heads (which of course, we did) and said:  “I’m letting the camera decide.  Paid good money for this thing and it’s going to go to work for me.”

Her photographs were great.  A few shots were a bit dark where the backlit stage confused in-camera metering, but overall, her shots were well colour-balanced and well-exposed.  Mine, on the other hand, tended to be dark and certainly needed to be colour-corrected in post-processing to compensate for the crappy lighting.  Most importantly, though, she had many more of the “decisive moments” from the event than I did.

I’ve been thinking about that night ever since.

I’ve always believed that photographers should understand the technical aspects of their craft as much as they understand composition and telling a story with pictures.  I spend as much time studying camera theory as I do shooting photographs.  I enjoy it, and most importantly, I know why things work the way they do.

But in a fast-moving shoot, knowledge is NOT king.  Response time is king.  I spend way too much time on location fiddling with buttons and menus, adjusting as I go, and reviewing results as I go.  And I have missed a key shot or two along the way.

So I did a little experiment.  I was out with friends, shooting in the late afternoon on a cloudy December day.  We were at a wonderful art market called Primitive Designs, practicing low light and flash photography, along with compositional techniques.  I decided to let the camera do all the work that day.

Canon 5DIII Shooting ModesWell, not all the work.  Even with the camera set to “Intelligent Auto” and the lens on autofocus, there were still decisions to be made on focal length and shooting mode.  But white balance, focus mode, shutter speed, aperture, ISO and flash power were out of my hands.  It was a scary beginning, but ultimately, surprisingly liberating.

The files produced by letting the camera do the work were .JPG files.

To keep things honest, I also collected RAW files with settings I picked in manual mode.  Shooting RAW does not mean the camera ignores all settings.  Anything that controls how much light hits the sensor still applies (aperture, shutter speed, ISO).  Other settings are ignored.  And I also switched to manual control of flash settings rather than continue to use the camera’s automatic choices.

Sharing the results with you requires two disclaimers:

  • Raw converters used to import files from the camera to the computer interpret those files according to the software used.  There is no such thing as a universal standard.  The result can look very different in two different RAW converters such as Lightroom and Capture One.
  • In order to present the images in this blog, RAW files had to be converted to .JPGs. In converting them, the software takes out information to compress them.

All that said, here are a few examples – fully automatic capture on the left and fully manual capture on the right.  No retouching from me.


In all cases, the “automatic” files had more contrast and more colour depth.  RAW files are typically more flat.  But up close, the RAW files preserve more fine detail.  And there was a general problem of underexposure with the automatic files when using flash – my manually managed RAW files were universally much brighter.

Both sets of files are usable.  In both cases, adjustments in software such as Lightroom would improve the images.  But the effort to collect them was much less with the automatic files.  In a setting where working fast is important, there would be value in trying out the automatic method.

There is a dark side to letting the camera do the work all the time.  When interchangeable lens cameras first emerged, experienced photographers shook their heads, suggesting that the thoughtfulness, planning and creative vision that drove photography would disappear in favour of throwaway shots.  They were way ahead of their time.  The proliferation of visual trash posted to social media sites today bears out their concerns.  Photographers should have to use some brain cells to get good results.

But, ironically, not having to concentrate on settings frees up time and brain cells for the very thing that the “masters” said we would lose:  thoughtfulness, planning and creative vision.  Some photographers, like my colleague at the event, make the most of it.

So, if you’ve spent good money on a camera advertised with “automatic this” and “next generation that”, why not put the camera to work once in a while and see what you get.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if you became a better artist as a result?

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