The Right Way to Shoot Full Auto (or, “The Lady in the Hat”)

Yes, that's a firework, and not the result of a space kitten horking up a hairball.

For those of you who haven’t read the “About Us” page, I promised that I’d include my mistakes in here along with the usual tips, advice, and everything else. Well, this is as good a time and place as any to start sharing those bloopers.

A couple of weeks ago, I’m sitting on the beach in Point Pleasant with my wife, waiting for the July 4th fireworks to start. A short distance away, I happen to see a woman sitting in her beach chair. She’s got her SLR, and the Nikon logo’s clearly visible on the neck strap. So I think to myself, “Y’know, I should ask her what settings she’s going to be using tonight.” And since her camera was in the same family as mine, in a manner of speaking, I wouldn’t get lost if she had to guide me through the menus.

Armed with my plan, I trudged across the sand, camera in hand. “Excuse me. What settings did you plan on using for the fireworks tonight?” She looked at me a bit quizzically.

“On the camera. Which settings were you using?”

“Oh, that!” She smiled. “I usually either put it on no flash, or the lady with the hat.”

This conversation already wasn’t quite as informative as I’d hoped, or so I thought. I thanked her for her time, trudged back to my wife and my beach chair, checked my gear, dialed in the settings I planned to use, and settled in. Half an hour later, the fireworks started, and I dutifully snapped away.

Several hours later (I think the locals all decided to use the same back roads to avoid the tourists), I downloaded my photos, browsed, and started to feel more than a bit deflated. You know those beds they used to have in motel rooms where you’d get a “massage” if you dropped in a quarter? My fireworks photos all looked like they’d been made while the camera was sitting on one of those beds.

There were two reasons for this: first of all, I’d ignored my own advice to use a tripod, and shot handheld the whole night, figuring it’d be easier to follow the fireworks as they arced through the sky. It was, but I don’t care if you’ve got a better grip than Joe McNally, if you’re shooting with shutter speeds at or approaching a full second, you’re going to get blur and jiggles. Second, I didn’t realize exactly how much I’d blurred and jiggled; too worried I’d miss a good shot, I never once checked to see how my photos were coming out. All of a sudden, “the lady in the hat” was looking pretty good.

The conventional wisdom among a lot of SLR users – which, like all conventional wisdom, tends to be more convention than wisdom – is that you don’t buy a big, expensive camera just to shoot it in full Auto; that’s what fully automatic compacts are for. Screw the conventional wisdom. Yes, if the camera gives you control over ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, learn and use those controls. But shooting in Automatic can be useful if used right – as a teacher rather than a crutch – and comes in handy if you’re unsure of the controls, or of yourself, in a given shooting situation.

Familiarize yourself with your camera’s quirks in Automatic, since some of them will give you an idea of how you want to change your settings. In low light, for instance, most cameras will default to the brightest aperture available, alongside an ISO boost and a slow shutter speed. Also pay attention to your camera’s Scene modes (“the lady in the hat,” incidentally, is the icon most cameras use for Portrait mode). The most common will be Portrait, Sports, Beach/Snow, a low light setting, Sunset, Landscape, and Child, with each camera adding other options (Macro, Document, et al.) depending on the camera’s capabilities and the whims of the manufacturer. These will also help to familiarize you with the things you do, or don’t, want to do in a given situation.

Your camera, and most photo viewers used on your computer, should give you the option to view the data, known as EXIF data, associated with the photo. At a bare minimum, the file name, date, time, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO should all be listed; many cameras will also display histogram data, resolution, focal length, exposure compensation, and other data.* Make use of that data, since you can not only see what the camera “picked,” but you’re now free to tweak your settings if you and the camera have different ideas about how the scene should look. You can also do this on the fly if you’re not sure of your settings and you want to be in the ballpark with a bit less trial and error; take a quick shot on Auto, and then change either your shutter speed or aperture as needed for a bit more control.

Well, there you have it. I make the mistakes so you don’t have to. Hopefully you’ve learned something from all this. If it’s taught you nothing else, of course, at least take away the value of checking out your shots from time to time, as this will save you vast amounts of money on aspirin later. But also don’t let yourself be intimidated by all the buttons, menu options, and other crap with which the manufacturer has so thoughtfully festooned your camera. In the weeks ahead, we’ll talk more about using the A, S, P, and M modes; meantime, get out there and keep making photos!

*What the EXIF data won’t tell you is some of the other in-camera adjustments made by the scene modes. Some scene modes adjust your camera’s white balance. Many will boost the saturation of one color or another to warm skin tone, bring out the blue in the sky, the green in a landscape, or the red-through-orange part of the spectrum for autumn leaves.

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