Photo Tips: Pros Don’t Use Program Mode

Posted on 2 Mar, 2015 by Scott Jones
Valentino Rossi pit lane Valencia test 2014 Yamaha

Please click on the above image to view it larger.

Today’s Photo Tips post is about shooting modes on your DSLR. You probably have a choice between Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual. Which are best for motor sports photography?

Let’s start with the one you shouldn’t use. I never use Program mode for one simple reason. As sophisticated as our modern DSLRs are, they can’t read my mind. When you switch the Mode selector to P, you’re trusting your camera to know what you want your photograph to look like.

For folks who just want a well-exposed image, Program mode will usually provide that. That’s why it’s there, to do most of the work so you don’t have to.

But if you want to make a photograph, rather than take a photograph (to borrow a phrase from Ansel Adams), you are better off using a processor that’s much more sophisticated than the one in your DSLR: Your brain, when in possession of a basic understanding of photography, is much more powerful.

YOU know what type of image you want, or at least, I hope you do, because this is the first step to success with photography. You have little chance to hit a target unless you know what you’re aiming at. So starting off with a clear idea of what type of image you want is a great idea.

Though I do sometimes enjoy happy accidents, I always try to have a specific idea of what type of image I’m after, a mental picture of what I want the finished picture to look like. I then use whatever camera mode and settings will best help me hit that target.

Take control

Whenever possible I shoot in Manual mode. I do this for several reasons. One is that it helps me keep my target image in mind. Sometimes I fall into the trap of letting the camera software do too much of the work for me. My mind wanders, I lose track of my target image, and then next thing I know I’ve wasted several minutes shooting images I’m just going to throw away.

Another reason is that my experience and what I see through the viewfinder allow me to make better decisions about exposure than the camera can. I may want the camera to use settings that its software would interpret as over-exposing or under-exposing because of how it’s programmed to see the world. But of course the camera doesn’t really see the world, it’s just doing math based on brightness values it detects through the lens. Yes, it’s quite clever about doing that math, but its equations aren’t always going to deliver the results I want when translated from math into an image.

I also like Manual mode because it forces me constantly to think about the light. I almost always work outside, and if there are clouds in the sky then the light is probably changing from moment to moment. Shutter, aperture and ISO settings that might give me the image I want one minute can be significantly too dark or too light the next. When I’m in Manual mode I really have to pay attention to this, which, again, helps me concentrate on my target image and just what the heck I’m supposed to be doing out there.

Lighten the burden

Another benefit of Manual mode happens at track side when my subject is moving very quickly, as MotoGP bikes often do. I try to ask the camera and lens combo to do as little work as possible, because I’ve found that the less extra stuff they have to do, the better they will accomplish the necessary things.

The top item on the Necessary List is focus. When a MotoGP bike is accelerating toward me, the auto-focus system has to work really quickly to track the changes in the subject’s distance from the camera. If I have it set to Shutter Priority mode, the camera’s computer is calculating exposure and sending commands to the lens for the aperture setting, and the lens is making changes to the aperture on the fly, more work the system has to do for each exposure. If I have the lens’ Vibration Reduction (VR, aka IS on Canon lenses) turned on, that’s more work the system has to do for each exposure.
So I never use VR at trackside. (In fact I hardly ever use it at all, on any lens, and I wish Nikon offered versions of certain lenses without this feature at lower prices as Canon does, or used to anyway.)

I prefer to use Manual mode because now the only thing the camera and lens have to do is focus on the moving subject, dial in the aperture I’ve ordered, lift the shutter, and write the data. Even though exposure can vary, especially on a day with uneven cloud cover, the focus results are better when I’m in Manual mode.

“Never tell me the odds!” – Han Solo

Then there are situations where only taking complete control of the camera settings will give you a good result. Consider the image at the top of this page. Pit lane, Valencia, around 4:30PM. Not just a backlit subject, but shooting directly into the sun. Imagine what the camera’s computer thought of this! On any automatic mode, it would’ve been blown away by the direct sunlight and shut everything down: smallest aperture, fastest shutter speed, etc.

In this situation, I wanted an image just like this, and made sure I was on Manual in order to get enough exposure so that the front of Rossi is visible. That meant that the sunlight produces pixels completely blown out, but that’s ok. I’m shooting directly into the sun, after all.

Continues on the next page with Shutter and Aperture Priority examples:

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