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Tips & Tricks

How to Use Automatic Exposure Modes Wisely & Responsibly

By Bing Putney on March 1st 2017

Serious photographers always shoot in manual mode. Right? Wrong. It all depends on what you’re shooting! In landscape photography, you would want to take your time, and ensure that every setting on your camera is exactly as it should be. In this scenario, you would certainly set everything manually. If, however, you’re covering an event, or shooting on the street –anything fast-paced or run and gun– there is no shame in switching some functions over to automatic. Try it! You might like it.

The key is to know how these automatic modes work, and what options you’ll need to set to maintain control of what’s happening in-camera and get the shots you want. Assuming you know the fundamentals of your exposure triangle and the effects of each of those factors, it’s not hard to let the camera handle some of the work for you.

Metering Modes

The first consideration when letting your camera take the reins is the metering mode. This is the setting that will tell the camera how to analyze the scene. The three most common modes are Multi-Zone (or evaluative), Center Priority, and Spot Metering. For a primer on how these different modes work, check out this video excerpt from Photography 101 with Pye.

Basically, if what you’re shooting is going to be in the center of your frame, go with center weighted metering. If you’re not sure where you’re going to place your subject, multi zone metering is probably your best bet. If you’re shooting in raw, multi-zone will usually do a good job of keeping everything in a range where you’ll be able to work with it later.

Spot metering is usually most useful when working in manual mode. Since it only meters the center/designated point and ignores the rest of the image, it’s useful when you have time to set your exposure and then find your composition. However, if needed, you can use spot metering in automatic mode if you combine it with the exposure lock button on your camera. You can line up your subject with that center point, hold down the exposure lock, and then recompose however you’d like.

Exposure Compensation

Exposure Compensation is a powerful and generally under-appreciated setting that you can use in any automatic exposure mode. What you’re essentially doing is telling the camera how bright or dark the subject or scene that you’re shooting is. If you’re shooting someone standing in front of a bright white wall, for example, your camera will, by default, try to make that wall a nice medium shade of grey, and therefore underexpose your picture. By cranking up your exposure compensation, you can tell the camera that you want the photo to be brighter, and it can adjust your settings accordingly.

If you’re working with a DSLR with an optical viewfinder (like Pye’s Canon 5D mark IV), getting your exposure compensation to the sweet spot may involve taking a few shots and checking them on the LCD screen. On the other hand, if you have a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, (like my Sony A7Rii) you can adjust the compensation while framing your shot and see how it will look before you hit the shutter.

Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority

If you’re shooting moving subjects, you’ll want to use the shutter priority mode to control motion blur. The general rule of setting your shutter speed to match your focal length is only meant to compensate for camera shake. Freezing motion will take a significantly higher shutter speed, and will depend on what exactly you’re shooting and how fast it’s moving. Try starting in the 1/500th range, zoom in and check for noticeable motion blur (chimping is not a crime). If it’s blurry, crank up the shutter speed.

If motion blur is not a concern, Aperture Priority mode is a great option. Since the aperture has, arguably, the biggest impact on the look of a photo, you can decide how much depth of field you want, and lock that in. You can still, of course, keep a thumb on the exposure compensation wheel to keep everything in order.

It’s also possible on many slightly higher end cameras to set the minimum shutter speed in Aperture Priority and Program mode. If you’re taking pictures of kids who might not be very good at sitting still, you can tell the camera not to set the shutter speed below 1/250th to keep everything sharp.

Auto ISO

In any of these auto modes, you can choose to set your ISO manually or leave it in auto mode as well. If you’re in a scenario where the light is changing drastically from shot to shot, leaving your ISO in auto mode is a good idea. This way, when in shutter priority, your camera can adjust aperture and ISO to maintain a good exposure. If your ISO is set manually, and the scene ends up being too dark, your camera will reach the lens’s maximum aperture, be unable to compensate any further, and you’ll get underexposed shots. The light meter in the camera’s viewfinder will start flashing at you to warn you that this is happening, but when moving quickly, it’s easy to miss.

In many cameras, you can also set the minimum and maximum ISO in automatic mode. If you know that you don’t like anything taken above ISO 6400, you can set that in camera, and your camera won’t surpass that setting unless you adjust it manually.

Program Mode

The big P. Also known as PANIC mode. If you care enough about your photography to be reading an article of this length on SLR Lounge, there is a better option for you, in nearly all circumstances, than program mode.

If, however, you find yourself in an extreme situation where shooting in PANIC mode seems to be the only option, there are a few ways to keep some control over your shots. First, since there are multiple balanced combinations of shutter speed and aperture to properly expose a given scene, it’s important to know that you can scroll through these various options. On most cameras you can use the front or rear control wheels to do so.

[REWIND: ISO, Aperture & Shutter Speed | A Cheat Sheet For Beginners]

You can also maintain manual control of your ISO in program mode. If you’re moving from bright daylight to a dark interior, adjust your ISO while keeping an eye on the shutter speed and aperture until everything is where you’d like it.

And of course, as mentioned above, exposure compensation is your friend.


All of that being said, you should still use manual mode whenever possible, and, speaking from experience, it’s possible most of the time. Manual mode simply gives you the most control over your photos, so just take the time to meter your scene before you start shooting, and put a bit of thought into your settings. It will make you a better photographer.


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Bing is a professional portrait and on-set still photographer who lives in Los Angeles, and frequently travels the world to explore new and interesting cultures and pastries.

Instagram: @bingputney

Q&A Discussions

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  1. mark arnold

    Couple of years ago I would have said “me too” to all manual.  But I have come to use “P” mode in my creative documentary style shooting times.  

    As a wedding shooter…. working with the bride against the window…. I have the exposure locked depending on the shot or look I want.  I use exposure comp quite a bit.  If dad or any of the family walks in and is looking at the bride for the first time….  I swing camera and shoot away knowing the camera is adjusting for the light or lack of surrounding a door.  I want that camera un-aware expression.  Narrow depth of field … really am not thinking about this.  

    With the rocker switch on the canon 5DmkIV… I can easily cruse up in ISO (under my control) and let the camera work the settings.  I can swing exposure comp too.  

    I can do all this without taking the camera away from my face.

    If I am rocking OCF ….. Yes, manual.  Manual all the time.

    Just my 2 cents.


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  2. Stephen Jennings

    My Preference… Manual. Always, in every situation. Auto ISO has it’s place for sure, but honestly I don’t think my cameras have ever once been out of M since I purchased them. 

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  3. Kyle Stauffer

    These are my preferences…. I’m always interested to see what works for others and why.

    Natural light in bright situations – Aperture priority, evaluative metering, and use exposure compensation to adjust my foreground/background subjects accordingly. I don’t see a need for me to be guessing and setting shutter speed when it’s going to be over 1/500th of a second most of the time. I think this helps me to not pay as much attention to the camera from one moment to the next as light changes.   

    Low light situations using natural light and/or flash – Manual with auto ISO and evaluative metering and use exposure compensation to adjust my foreground/background subjects accordingly. I don’t see a need for me to be guessing and setting ISO when it’s definitely going to be over 200 and my aperture and shutter speed aren’t going to change. I think this too helps me to not pay as much attention to the camera from one moment to the next as light changes.   

    Overcoming the sun with flash or creating artistic low light effects is the only time I use full manual mode.                     

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    • Jim Berton

      just a question…how do you set exposure compensation while in manual mode?

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    • Kyle Stauffer

      If you set the camera to auto ISO while in manual mode, the camera picks your ISO based on the parameters and compensation you set….  For instance in a darker situation without flash my 85mm will most likely go to 1.8 and my shutter speed won’t go lower than 1/160th. I know that my ISO will be between 500-1000 for the various lighting so I let the camera make those minor adjustments for situations  like Mark mentioned above.

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