Learn to Make the Most of a Camera's Automatic Mode

automatic mode
Getty Images / Kniel Synnatzschke

Automatic mode is a mode in a digital camera where the camera's software fully controls all aspects of the photograph, from the shutter speed to the aperture setting to the focus. The photographer has no specific control over the settings for a particular photograph.

Contrast this with manual control camera modes, such as Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program modes, where the photographer can set certain aspects of the camera's settings manually.

While it might seem like using automatic mode with your camera is not going to be challenging enough to stimulate your photographic skills, there are some situations where making use of automatic mode is a smart choice.

Finding Automatic Modes

With the earliest digital cameras, automatic mode was your only option. Then, as camera makers began the full shift from film to digital, they created DSLR cameras, which were the closest matches of digital cameras to the 35mm film cameras that were extremely popular and made use of interchangeable lens cameras. These DSLR cameras provided a host of manual control options, but many of the earliest DSLRs had no automatic mode.

As digital cameras have evolved over the years to today's collection of wide-ranging models, nearly all cameras now contain both automatic modes and at least some form of manual control modes.

Automatic modes on your camera come in a variety of options.

The most basic automatic mode usually is indicated by a camera icon on the mode dial. You also will be shooting in automatic mode when you're using special effect modes, such as black and white or a fish-eye effect. 

When to Use Automatic Modes

While older cameras may have made quite a few errors in determining the camera's settings when using automatic mode, today's cameras do a very good job creating high-quality photos when shooting in automatic modes.

Certainly, an experienced photographer making use of a manual control mode can make great adjustments to the camera's settings to improve the overall photo quality versus automatic mode, but automatic mode does a decent job in many circumstances.

The best time to use automatic mode for a photographer is when the lighting is really good in the scene, such as for an outdoor photo in sunlight or when making use of the flash indoors. The camera's automatic modes have a better chance of success when the lighting is good, as it'll be easier for the camera to measure the light in the scene and create the proper settings based on those measurements.

It's also a good idea to use automatic mode with your camera when you're simply in a hurry. Rather than fiddling with settings, just set the camera on automatic mode and start firing. The results may not be perfect, but with modern digital cameras, automatic mode does an adequate job the majority of the time.