Exposure Modes: Is Program OK?

A question recently came in asking if it is ok to use the camera’s program mode, as opposed to manual, aperture priority, or shutter priority. Other than being bound by the laws of physics, there is little or nothing in photography that requires orthodoxy, “right” or “wrong,” “ok” or “not ok.” Shooting in Program mode is fine if that’s how the photographer chooses to shoot and if it doesn’t get in the way of making the envisioned photograph. As with any photographic tool or technique, however, I’d always recommend that the photographer understand what the camera is doing and be able to express the reasons he or she is choosing to use that particular mode over another one.

I primarily do landscape work. Back in the days of shooting color transparency film, virtually all of my work was spot metered and shot in manual mode, because film was unforgiving and that level of careful precision was how I achieved the best possible results. Now, with digital, the way the medium responds to light is different, so calculating optimal exposure is different. The color Matrix meters these days are quite good at evaluating not only overall luminance, but also the tonal range of each color channel (red-green-blue), so they have certain advantages over traditional metering methods when it comes to exposing to match the performance of the sensor in the camera. We are also able to confirm the exposure we want with the histogram, so for many types of photography there is a good argument to be made that shooting in an automatic mode makes the most sense most of the time. It is always possible to bias the exposure one way or the other using exposure compensation, and to shift shutter speed and aperture as desired.

There are certainly exceptions, but since going [almost] all digital, I am mostly using aperture priority, auto white balance, and Matrix metering. I shoot RAW 100% of the time, expose for maximum data/minimum noise (biased toward overexposure without clipping color channels, otherwise known as exposing to the right), and set correct tonalities, color balance, black point, etc. in post processing. I could achieve the same results in Program mode, but it would require the extra step of shifting the exposure to the aperture or shutter speed I wish to use.

At the end of the day, it’s important to identify and understand a simple set of camera settings, tools, and techniques that are legitimately helpful in making the images you want to create, and then concentrate your attention on concepts, themes, light, composition, color, and gesture. As a photographer, one of your goals should be to get the camera out of the way of your vision and creativity.  –Justin Black