P for Professional: What I Learned From Shooting in Program Auto

P for Professional: that’s the mantra that has been preached by photographer after photographer simply to make fun of the idea. It’s been taken so seriously that the Home Shopping Network has said it at times with complete seriousness. Though amongst the millions of us, we tend to know better. This saying is often connotated with the idea that a person shooting in P mode can’t shoot in manual mode. But looking at loads of photographers out there, a whole lot of them shoot in aperture priority or shutter priority which more or less also automates the process. The idea of shooting in P, or Program Auto, is blasphemy to so many photographers out there as a result of the photography industry’s years of marketing and ideals.

So at a certain point in time while reviewing the Canon 77D, I thought to myself that maybe I should give it a shot. In 11 years of shooting photos, I’ve honestly never used the P mode until very recently.

Let’s first analyze something though. There is absolutely nothing wrong with shooting in P mode. If you’re going to shoot in manual mode just to move the little ticker for the exposure meter straight to the center to begin with, you’re wasting your time. If you’re shooting in aperture priority because you want control over the depth of field and want to let the other parameters go where they go, then fine. If you’re shooting in shutter priority because you want to stop fast motion, then cool. But with all that said, this doesn’t mean that P mode will give you a bad image.

More importantly, no one will honestly care, except photographers. No bride ever cancelled her order of wedding photos and albums because a photographer shot in P mode. “Well they’re not shooting in P Mode,” is what you’re going to say. Probably not, but they’re totally using aperture priority at least at one point.

No photographer absolutely needs to only shoot in manual mode. If you’re the type of photographer I like to call a documenter, who simply captures scenes as they go, who cares what mode you shoot in as long as you get the scene you originally envisioned? But if you’re actually trying to work with a scene and genuinely create something, then manual is typically the way to go. Why? Machines (and my programmers here in the audience will surely be able to back me up on this) only do what you tell them to do. Nothing else. So, if you set something to Auto mode, it’s going to do what it’s programmed to do: give you a photo. It won’t know that the flash you’ve attached to the hot shoe won’t sync beyond 1/250th unless you’ve told it to not go beyond that shutter speed.

While testing the Canon 77D I decided that I’d ease my way into Program Auto. The closest experience that I’ve ever had was with the Lomography LCA+, LC-Wide and the LCA 120. But even those cameras let you control the focusing and the ISO setting. Walking around Downtown Brooklyn proved to me that Program Auto did a good job for most people and that a lot of folks would be pretty OK with the photos I produced. But I wasn’t. I locked the ISO to 400 during the daytime so that I could consistently get an image that didn’t go below a certain shutter speed most of the time. This made me realize a lot of folks are probably getting camera shake and blur because they’re just not changing a setting like this but instead simply relying on the camera to do it. But as I continued to look at the images, I realized that I didn’t really like the colors I was getting.

Why? Well, for starters I’m a stickler for color and I almost never shoot in Auto white balance. So during the day and depending on my lighting situation I was setting the camera to Daylight white balance. At night and in the NYC subway system, the camera was set to Tungsten.

So those two parameters were set manually. As time went on, I set the ISO back to auto because at night there just wasn’t a whole lot of light. Since the 77D was being used with the kit lens, I knew the camera would just raise the ISO. That’s not a big problem at all. Lots of folks buy DSLRs just to shoot in Auto mode. Most of the time, the cameras produce images that are more than good enough for lots of folks simply because their only standard is to just have a bigger sensor. They understand nothing about color, blur, apertures, etc. They like the blurry backgrounds. They like the pro feel of a DSLR.

It absolutely sickens someone who knows better.

Again though, most people would be okay with a camera that has a Program auto setting and using it. They’d be alright using exposure compensation but they wouldn’t have direct access to tell a camera they want a shallow depth of field and then to let the shutter speed goes where it goes. They also don’t have the ability to spot meter a subject to ensure they’re perfectly exposed and they don’t majorly care about the rest of the scene. For those moments, you genuinely need something more.

Shooting film has also really taught me this as well: that I sometimes genuinely care about every single little aspect of a photo and so I’ll work extra hard on each moment. Eight images on a 120 roll when shooting 6×9 means you can’t screw up. Other times I genuinely don’t care, though Iappreciate  at least certain parameters to be set a certain way.

This isn’t to completely degrade the P mode at all. There are loads of situations where P does a great job; and indeed I got a lot of photos I’m very okay with that were shot in P mode.

But in the end, who cares? Do what works for you to get the image you want. If shooting in Program Auto mode gives you what you want, use it. But if the camera isn’t giving you what you want, switch to manual.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.