How to Use Auto Exposure Modes Creatively


To be a real photographer you can only shoot in manual modes. It is of course a daft statement, a good photographer will use whatever modes he can use to get the shot efficiently and creatively. However, the original comment is often bandied around to suggest it is not possible to do creative photography in auto exposure modes, today we are going to debunk that myth.

Program Mode

Let’s kick off with the most automated mode – the Program mode. Program mode uses the camera’s built in computer to analyse the exposure data and make an intelligent decision on both aperture and shutter speed. If you are using auto ISO, it will also take this into consideration. Now you might think that this is entirely limiting, but most modern DSLR’s and indeed serious compacts have a number of features built in to help you be creative with your exposure in Program mode.

One of these is Program Shift. This works by allowing you to shift the reciprocal exposure up or down. For example, if you are shooting at 1/125th second at f5.6 and want to have a higher shutter speed in order to freeze a moving subject, you can “shift” the exposure to 1/250th at f4, exactly the same exposure value but with a faster shutter speed and wider aperture. Going the opposite way you would shift your shutter speed down to 1/60th of a second and the aperture would close down to f8. Different cameras have different ways to achieve this, but most often, you hold down a dedicated button and rotate on of the exposure dials.


Need a slower shutter speed? Try Program Shift. Photo By The Levels are High on Flickr

Exposure Compensation Mode

As you can see, this is a great way to select the right shutter speed and aperture, but it does not allow you to change the exposure in any way. However, this is catered for using the exposure compensation mode. This mode allows you to change the actual exposure value within any of the auto modes, be it program, shutter priority or aperture priority. It works in a similar way to program shift, usually by pressing a button and turning a dial, however, rather than moving both the shutter speed and aperture, it will move one or the other. For example, if we return to our previous shot where we were shooting 1/125th at f5.6, if we use exposure compensation, we can maintain the shutter speed at 1/125th but change the aperture in increments of either thirds of a stop or half a stop. So instead of 1/125th at f5.6, we can change the exposure to 1/125th at f6.7. This would represent a half stop of under exposure and would be displayed in our viewfinder as a one point towards the minus side on the exposure scale. The exposure compensation mode allows us to finely control our exposure to suit our creative requirements whilst in program mode. Combined with program shift, we have virtually as much control as using manual exposure. The exposure compensation mode also works in shutter and aperture priority modes. In shutter priority mode, it will increase or decrease the aperture around the correct exposure point. In aperture priority mode, it will do the same with the shutter speed.


Punch out skies by underexposing with exposure compensation. Photo by Cowboy Dave on Flickr

Exposure Bracketing

The last mode that we can use to get creative in program modes is exposure bracketing. Exposure bracketing stems from the days of film, where a photographer would shoot a range of different exposures around the correct exposure, to ensure he got exactly the look he wanted in the shot. This was gradually automated and in todays modern digital cameras is a sophisticated and very useful mode. As with the other exposure correction modes, it works differently according to which shooting mode you are in. In program mode it bases its exposure changes on the scene it is looking at; in shutter priority mode, it changes the aperture; and in aperture priority mode, it changes the shutter speed. In essence exposure bracketing takes a range of exposures around the correct exposure value. Generally you can choose to take three, five, seven or nine shots, the middle shot being the correct exposure the ones either side being, one third, or half or one full stop under or over exposed. This mode works well when shooting in continuous mode as the camera will fire all the required shots within the bracket in one burst, then stop until you press the shutter button again. Exposure bracketing is ideal when shooting in difficult lighting conditions in auto modes and of course, when shooting HDR images.


Make stunning HDR shots with exposure bracketing. Photo by Paulo Lins on Flickr

Putting your camera in program mode does not mean you cannot be creative with your exposure. By using all or any of the modes mentioned above, you can have manual like control over your exposure whilst in a fully automatic mode.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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