Photography: “Auto” can be good for you

No flash.

I spend a lot of time in this column suggesting to the weekend photographer that he or she should take the camera off the ‘auto’ setting and start manipulating the image the camera records. After all, the ‘auto’ setting is one the camera gives you as being the ‘average’ reading – but we would like to think our shots are better than ‘average’.

However, automatic cameras have become so good these days, there is a tendency to think they are foolproof. You are guaranteed a great shot every time. Correct exposure, sharp as a tack and looking professional. Unfortunately in the real world, that does not necessarily happen, as this photographer found out who wrote:

“Dear Harry,
A question for you regarding my Sony Cyber-shot. I recently was a guest at a beautiful wedding, the reception was quite well lit so I thought rather than use a flash and have everybody look like ghosts I would turn the flash off.

What I had not taken into consideration was that the shutter speed would be slower without the flash. Most of the photos were blurred, either by me shaking, or the people I was photographing moving during the shot.

At least I am assuming that was the cause of the bad shots, what is your opinion Harry?

Thanking you, Sunny.”

Your assumption is spot on, Sunny. The clever brain (or electronic smarts) inside the camera knows that a certain Exposure Value (EV) is required to produce correctly exposed shots. That EV has two variables, but which are related directly to each other, and they are the size of the aperture and shutter speed.

No flash, but after using Photoshop.

Now even though you felt the venue was well lit, and I do often tell people to turn off the flash to stop the rabbit in the headlamps appearance, that venue’s ambient lighting was not enough to get to the EV required without some extreme values in aperture and shutter speed.

The electronic brain knows you can’t hand-hold at much slower than 1/30th second so will try to use that shutter speed and open up the aperture to whatever is needed to get the correct EV. That’s the theory.

However, when the camera runs out of aperture setting, then all that is left for the camera brain to adjust is the shutter speed and its little electronic brain gives it an even slower shutter speed, at which you cannot hand-hold. Blurred shots are the result.

Now whilst all of the above is relevant, there were a couple of points in time at the reception where you could have averted the disaster. When you were composing the shot there would have been a winking indicator in the viewfinder to tell you that the camera felt flash was needed. You chose to ignore that, deciding that your brain was better that the Cyber-shot brain.

Secondly being a digital, you had the opportunity to review all shots after you have taken them. Instantly. You could have looked at the first shot on the three inch LCD and would have seen that it was blurred and worked out then, what you worked out later, that the shutter speed was too slow to hand-hold, despite the image stabilization feature. Sometimes we can ask too much of our equipment!

You could also have then gone into the menu and tried to up the ASA rating in the camera, since it will go to 3200, albeit with some ‘noise’ and lack of sharpness as the trade-off. Even at only 800 ASA, you would probably have got away with it, but it’s easy to be wise in retrospect.

So what was this practical lesson all about? Really, the message is to remember that any automatic camera has limits. “Auto” does not equate with “fool-proof”. The second message was to check your shots after you have taken them. That is what the LCD/digital camera can give you over the old film technology, where you waited for a couple of hours to see if you had a usable shot.

Thank you Sunny, and please keep taking shots. Photography is a pastime that does give you the opportunity to improve, and the more shots you take, the greater the improvement.