Copyright Michael Karbo, Denmark, Europe.

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    Chapter 22. Automatic or manual settings

    A photographer has, in fact, the following options when he sets his camera for a new exposure:

  • Automatic setting.

  • Semi-automatic setting, where you can compensate in different ways for the setting the camera has automatically selected.

  • Manual setting, where you select all the exposure parameters yourself.

    Most images are taken with automatic programs, so let us start by looking at them.

    Program dial, which switches between the different exposure programs.


    A is for automatic

    Exposure programs are also called modes, the state of a program. In a fully automatic state, a camera does everything itself.

    This sort of exposure program is standard for the very cheapest of cameras, where money hasn’t been spent on buttons, dials and other unnecessary expenses. There is only one mode left – the fully automatic, where a photographer has no influence on the selection of exposure parameters. Other cameras call this program either A or Auto. It can also be displayed with a green or red symbol.

    The camera itself selects light sensitivity, diaphragm and shutter speed based on a programmed routine, which hopefully works well for the subject in question. A lot of cameras also activate the flash themselves when it is needed.

    If there is a good light meter and good light conditions, this program can be quite sufficient – for maybe 60-70% of exposure situations.

    But if you look at it with an ambitious photographer’s eyes, then a fully automatic program is very uninteresting.

    P is for programmed automatic

    It is, in a way, rather silly producing a fully automatic exposure program, which doesn’t let a photographer have any influence on an exposure – at any rate with a modern digital camera with enormous computer power.

    It is, therefore, much more logical to design a programmable automatic program, which combines the automatic with all kinds of user options. This program is called P, which stands for Program auto mode.

    The P program can really be quite brilliant; in its finest form it combines the best of the automatic with a high grade of flexibility and user selectability.

    Basically a P program is automatic. Which means that a photographer can point his camera at a subject and press the release down. This often gives good images – just as with the Auto program. A photographer can himself set:

  • ISO values

  • White balance

  • Alternative light metering

  • Exposure compensation and the AE lock

  • Bracketing

  • Flash

  • Diaphragm and shutter speed with program shift of exposure parameters.

    All these functions allow a photographer to control an exposure himself within a ”frame” of well-functioning automatics.


    Cameras are constantly being developed with new smart functions. One of the newest is flex or Program shift. This is an extra speciality for selecting exposure values with a P program.

    To start with a camera itself selects the right combination of diaphragm and shutter speed. But there are several combinations of diaphragm and shutter speeds, which can give the same result. Flex gives us an opportunity to shift between the alternative combinations. This is easily done by, for example, pressing on ArrowUp and ArrowDown with the camera’s tilt button. The settings are then shifted between combinations that give the corresponding exposure:




    1/250 seconds



    1/320 seconds



    1/400 seconds


    Found with light metering

    1/500 seconds



    1/640 seconds



    Figur 83. The program shift or ”flex” is a very fine facility, which quickly shifts between a number of alternative settings, all giving the same exposure.

    Figur 84. You see here a Mode dial, which is used to select the camera’s mode of operation. Canon has, as you can see here (with model G5) chosen to place both subject and user-defined modes as ”stops” on the dial. On other sorts of cameras they might be placed on push buttons or activated via the menu system.

    The manual mode

    With the recording mode M, you control both diaphragm and shutter speed yourself. This is done with a rather slow but at the same time thorough working method, which gives you 100% control over the exposure.

    In the olden days, it was really tricky taking exposures with manual cameras because a photographer had to assess the light and calculate the exposure himself. It is somewhat easier in the world of the digital, where we have a light meter, an image computer and a LCD screen to help us. On top of this, you can take a number of test exposures while trying to find the right lighting.

    In order to take exposures at all, you have to set your camera for both diaphragm and shutter speed. The values are displayed on the LCD screen or the display and can be altered either with a tilt button or a dial. With some cameras you can adjust the values in small steps of 1/3 EV, with others in whole EV steps.

    Help from the LCD screen

    In many cameras, the manual mode is extra smart because you can see the image directly on the LCD screen, as it looks like with a selected combination of diaphragm and shutter speed. This is a great help for the photographer, who can then quickly find the right exposure parameters. If the image looks too dark, then it is underexposed and the shutter speed can, for example, be reduced. It’s very user friendly.

    Figur 85. The manual mode is being used here. The LCD screen displays all the relevant information so you can quickly find the best settings. (Olympus 5060Z)

    Please note that many cameras use an indicator, which tells you if an image (according to the camera’s light meter) is overexposed or underexposed. So with these aids, the manual mode is a very good method of operation – when you have enough time to organise the exposure.

    Figur 86. This manual recording mode uses a little indicator to give information about the exposure. (Fujifilm S5000)

    Prioritizing diaphragm and shutter speed

    Where the manual mode lets the photographer regulate both diaphragm and shutter speed independently, the two next modes are semi-automatic:

  • Program A or Av stands for Aperture priority. You select an aperture size and the camera uses the light meter to find the right shutter speed.

  • Program S stands for Shutter priority. You select the required shutter speed and the camera finds an aperture, which fits to it.

    Both these exposure modes work rather well. You select, for example, a shutter speed, which fits to the situation. You press the release half way down and the camera’s automatics find the diaphragm, which will give the correct lighting. The diaphragm step is displayed on the LCD screen. If it isn’t possible (according to the camera) to find an acceptable exposure when using the selected diaphragm, then the camera will tell you this by showing the closest diaphragm step with a red or flashing display on the LCD screen.

    The shutter speeds below are calculated to 1 second of the Av program, but as this doesn’t give enough light, the speed is shown with red text as a warning:

    An example

    As already mentioned, the programs AV and S are identical. You select one of the exposure programs and the camera chooses the other.

    If you want to ensure that there is a large depth of field, for example, in an exposure of the countryside, you can do this with the recording mode Av. Select the smallest aperture (i.e. f8, f11 or f16). Then the camera will calculate the appropriate shutter speed and display it on the LCD screen. If the shutter speed is too long, the camera will warn you that this could give shaky images. You can accept the settings and take the image or you can easily change them.

    Here is a description of a typical exposure taken with one of these semi-automatic modes:

    1.    I want to avoid shaky images so I select mode S (shutter speed priority).

    2.    Shutter speed is set to 1/500 second. This is displayed on the LCD screen.

    3.    I choose my subject and press the release half way down.

    4.    The camera’s light meter is activated and diaphragm step 2.8 is displayed on the LCD screen with numbers that are red or flashing.

    5.    This tells me that there isn’t enough light for an exposure with 1/500 second. The nearest diaphragm is the camera’s biggest – here 2.0 – but this isn’t big enough.

    6.    I take the image and the result is an underexposed picture, which I can immediately see displayed on the LCD screen.

    7.    I use the tilt button instead and select a shutter speed of 1/250 second (displayed on the LCD screen).

    8.    I press the release half way down again; 2.8 is now displayed with white figures on the screen. This means that the lighting is all right and I can take the image.

    These two semi-automatic programs are probably not those that are used the most often. Which is a shame because they give a really good chance of prioritizing either the setting of the shutter speed (i.e. to avoid shaking) or the diaphragm (to ensure or maybe avoid depth of field), because at the same time the camera uses a light meter and automatics.

    Shooting at night with Bulb

    If you want to take photographs at nighttime, long exposure times will be required. The camera has to catch the light from the moon, star paths, buildings, etc., and this can give some very interesting images.

    Some cameras can be programmed to take exposures for a certain number of seconds or even minutes. Others keep the shutter open as long as the release is held down (this is a bad system, as you can easily get to shake the camera). And finally there are cameras, which open for light with the first press on the release and shut again with the next press. This is probably the best system, as long as the photograph has a stop watch. But in any case the manual mode is used for these sorts of exposures, which usually are found under the name Bulb or B. The biggest problem being digital noise. This increases the longer the exposure time you use.

    Figur 87. Night exposure, where the town’s lights are, in fact, the source of light. Exposure time is 15 whole seconds, which is why the trees are shaken.

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