Camera companies are pushing their technology at a great clip. Sony’s sensor-stabilized mirrorless A7RII is a work of technological art, as is the brand-new A9. Nikon’s hulking new D5 can lock on to a subject and retain focus even as that subject moves through the frame toward or away from you. These are just a few of many companies that are pushing software, design and usability as best they can, given the huge variety of photographer preferences and general crabbiness about how things “should” be done.
But there is one feature that none of them have, and which I desperately want. It could make me a better, faster and smarter photographer. I want a button that, when held down, temporarily places the camera into full-auto mode. Everything: focus, ISO, shutter, aperture. When you release the button, it instantly hops back to your current configuration, whether that’s full manual or aperture- or shutter-priority mode.
There is one feature that none of them have, and which I desperately want.
A button like this would be a great emergency backup. I shoot primarily in manual mode, setting up my camera for each shot in order to achieve very specific results in color, brightness, depth of field, movement and so on. But I’m occasionally concerned that I’m neglecting one variable or another, or that I might have forgotten which lens I’m shooting through and what it can or can’t do, or that I inadvertently set the exposure way off — shooting a cat in broad daylight at 3,000 ISO, 1/5,000, f/18 because 15 seconds earlier I was shooting inside a barn in near-total darkness. It happens.
And of course, I might wonder if the camera could just do better than I could in my haste or in tricky conditions. That happens, too. Modern cameras have excellent auto modes. True, they rarely generate the specific effects I’m going for, and often wildly over/underexpose scenes with wide variances in shadow and brightness. But they can be suitable backstops — if you can access them quickly and then revert back in the space of a second.
This would be for the in-between conditions, the times when you’re firing on all cylinders, trying to capture a moment, yet still worry that you might not have it nailed.
Now, the obvious solution is to just put the camera into auto and shoot a few frames, then go back to manual, right? But doing that can waste precious time if there’s a scene unfolding before you, and there’s no way to turn the dial without backing your face up, looking at the top of the camera and seeing where it lands. My button wouldn’t be for studio work, or even action scenes in which auto is most likely to booger up your shot. This would be for the in-between conditions, the times when you’re firing on all cylinders, trying to capture a moment, yet still worry that you might not have it nailed. It’s very likely that the rare times you use it, this magic get-out-of-jail-free button won’t give you something better than what you’d get yourself. But for the one time in 100 that it does, you’ll be grateful.
I bounced this idea off photography expert Jared Polin, a.k.a. “Fro” of FroKnowsPhoto. While he liked the idea, he argued that both shooting in RAW mode (which captures unprocessed, uncompressed images that allow you to go back and fine-tune the results later) and using the electronic viewfinders in mirrorless cameras (which automatically preview the images based on your settings) are equally reliable backstops. Both are great points, but RAW mode is still only really as good as your basic settings, and the EVF shows you the result but doesn’t suggest fixes. It’s basically the same thing as seeing the frame a millisecond after you shoot it, and you may not be able to process its feedback fast enough. Finally, shooting in RAW presumes you’re willing to upload the image to your computer and mess with it in there for 20 minutes. Sometimes I just want to shoot something awesome, port a JPG over to my smartphone via wi-fi — I always shoot RAW+JPG — and post it on Instagram two minutes later, just for fun. So we’re not necessarily talking about shooting NatGeo covers, here. We’re just talking about the moments of uncertainty when you have precious little time to get a great shot.
Fro also argues that such a safety net would make shooters lazy and unable to learn how to nail the scenes better. I don’t disagree that using auto as a crutch can do that. But having quick access to it would make people better and more confident in learning manual shooting because they can always just grab a quick auto-mode shot in a pinch. Besides, if you’re committed to photography, you’ll migrate to manual anyway so you can get the specific results you want. But if the camera even has an auto mode — and shutter/aperture-priority modes are, in fact, semi-auto — you should be able to deploy it quickly and easily. Over time, you learn. Until then, you might still salvage a few great shots.
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