Many of us started photography quite innocently— with small compact point-and-shoots, a smartphone, or a disposable film camera. The main advantage was that we didn’t need to think about all the technical settings when we made images— rather, we focused on capturing the “decisive moment”, the framing and composition as well as the emotional content within the frame.
However the more “experienced” we become in photography, we focus less on the emotional and creative elements, and more on the technical and gear-related parts of photography.
I know when I started with my point-and-shoot camera, I loved how I could keep my camera in my front pocket and take it with me everywhere I went. I remember when I first discovered the “rule of thirds” grid overlay on my point-and-shoot Canon SD600, and how I experimented with framing, composition, and making images that I felt were interesting and personally-meaningful. But after discovering these more “professional” photos online with higher-resolution, sharpness, and “bokeh”, my interest to the technical side of photography increased, as well as my interest and obsession about gear.
Not only that, but I felt that I needed to learn all the technical underpinnings of photography. When I first got my Canon Rebel XT (350D) DSLR, I wanted to learn how to shoot with it fully-manually. I wanted to learn all about aperture, shutter-speed, ISO, focal lengths, depth-of-field, focusing, as well as “bokeh.”
However the more I got involved with the technical aspects of photography— I started to forget exactly why I was making images. I was focused more on the how to make photos.
After many years, I have (more or less) mastered the technical aspects of photography (I have no issue using a fully-manual film camera without a light meter), and I can easily juggle many photographic concepts in my mind. However when I shoot digitally, I just shoot in “P” (program mode), which automatically chooses my aperture and shutter-speed.
But why? Don’t only “noobs” or amateurs use “P” mode?
In praise of “P” mode
For me, I think the main passion I have for photography is creating art, creating personal memories, and for capturing “the moment.” Nothing else really matters to me— the lens, the camera, the sensor— none of that is important.
By setting the camera to “P” mode, I am able to have the camera do all the technical thinking for me. The cameras sees the scene, and chooses the “optimal” aperture and shutter-speed (it generally gives me a relatively high f-stop and deep depth-of-field, and a fast-enough shutter speed not having lag). I keep my ISO relatively high (ISO 800 in the day, and 3200 at night) and just use center-point autofocus, point-and-click.
The less I need to think about my camera settings, the more I can think about composition, framing, and making a personally-meaningful image.
What is really important to you in photography?
If we have technology that makes our lives more simple and convenient— why not use it?
I know a lot of photographers who pride themselves (and brag unnecessarily) that all of their photos are shot fully-manually, on film, and processed in the darkroom. While I do appreciate the artistry and difficulty— I think the flaw is focusing more of the process and technical aspects of photography, instead of the emotion and soul of photography.
I also do believe that it is beneficial for a lot of photographers to learn some of the basics and fundamentals of the technical stuff behind photography. A basic understanding of the “exposure triangle” (aperture, shutter-speed, ISO), will help you create the images you want to create. However over-obsession with the technical side of photography leads a lot of photographers astray— worrying more about how sharp your images are, how many megapixels your camera has, instead of how memorable or gripping an image may be.
But if you shoot your camera in “P” mode, and you are satisfied with the types of images that come out of your camera, why do you need to shoot fully-manually?
Romanticism of the fully-manual
The first car I learned how to drive was my 1991 Sentra 4-door XE; a spartan car with a 5-speed manual transmission. It was a great pleasure learning how to drive a manual— I felt more connected with the car, I saved gas, and I appreciated the control of the transmission (instead of using an automatic).
However now with technology marching forward— you have hybrid and fully-electric cars which don’t even allow for a manual option. If you drive a Tesla, it is all just one-gear; there is no option for a manual transmission. And using a manual transmission is unnecessary— the one-gear transmission of an electric car is more efficient, faster-to-accelerate, and less likely to break down.
Similarly in smartphones, most cameras are fully-automatic, with a few options on changing exposure. But options like aperture, shutter-speed, and ISO are either hidden (or unavailable, if you shoot with the iPhone default camera). And I think that is a good thing— the fewer technical distractions you have, the more artistic you can be in capturing your artistic vision.
Don’t listen to me
Of course there are a lot of caveats to my argument— if you want a highly-stylized image, or a very specific image with slow-shutter speed or whatnot, shooting fully-manually is advisable.
But for the 99% of us who are more interested in capturing the “moment” — why would we ever need or even want to shoot in fully-manual. Why make life more difficult than it needs to be?
I drink espresso everyday at my apartment. I have an automatic espresso grinder. I have tried using hand-grinders, and while I appreciate the meditative zen-like process, the purpose of a coffee grinder is to grind coffee. And why not use the automatic technology of coffee grinders to make our lives more pleasant?
Do what works for you
What you need to do in your photography is think: “Why do I make images? What purpose does my photography have? What kind of photos do I want to make? How important are the technical details of a photograph? Do I value the process or the final outcome of photography?”
Ultimately whether you decide to shoot fully-automatic, in P mode, aperture-priority, or fully-manual is a personal decision. Every genre of photography is different.
But my statement is don’t blindly listen to people who tell you that you “need” to shoot fully-manual to be a “legit” photographer. After all, who ever goes to a photography exhibition and ask the artist, “What aperture and shutter speed did you shoot this photograph?”