Is Program Mode For Idiots? | Light Stalking

Is Program Mode For Idiots?

By Kent DuFault / September 25, 2012

If you've been involved in photography for any length of time at all, you'll most likely recognize this scenario – You and a bunch of your photography friends are standing around the water cooler at work or the barbecue pit in your backyard, or the cookie table at the camera club meeting when the subject of shooting modes comes up.

Cuddled by Kent DuFault. Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires. Taken with a Fuji Finepix X100 in Program Mode.

(We photographers are an interesting lot aren't we?)
Inevitably, someone in the group will place their hands on their hips, stretch tall while looking particularly knowledgeable and make the pronouncement-
“I NEVER shoot in ANYTHING other than MANUAL mode!”
Everyone else in the group then hems and haws looking this way and that because they don't want to admit that (dare we say it) they use the often maligned “P mode” or perhaps your version is known as the “A mode”.

Walking Alone by Kent DuFault. Taken from the castle that overlooks Salzburg, Austria while on assignment. Nikon F4 in Program Mode. The Program Mode was perfect for this because of the flat even lighting and we had one a second to capture the man in just the right spot.

Well, we would like to make a case for our friend “the program mode” and so would camera manufacturers. Think about it. How many are cameras out there don't have a program mode? Even the professional models incorporate this technology.
So, why is it there?
We would like to start making our case by telling you a little story.
Years ago, we took a one week photography workshop from a famous New York photographer who specialized in corporate annual reports. This was an expensive little proposition and we're about to share with you the most important thing we learned. And believe it, or not, it relates to the use of the Program mode.
On the first day of the workshop about twenty of us were seated around a large table. The famous photographer walked in with a briefcase. He set it on the table, popped it open, and commenced to toss dozens of annual reports (from companies we've all heard of) around the table.
He told us to peruse them and make notes about his photographs.

Children Working by Kent DuFault. The less fortunate children of Argentina often work on the streets collecting cardboard and trash. Canon 20D in Program Mode. Program Mode is an excellent tool for capturing fleeting emotions.

The one that landed by us was from a very well-known hospital in New York City. We picked it up, looked at the full bleed cover photo, and became immediately horrified.
Oh, it was great moment that had been captured. A nurse was bent over an infant baby that had tubes running from its nose. The nurse's eyes were wide and filled with warmth. The infant, while obviously in intensive care, appeared to be smiling up at her. (Yes, we know infants can't smile. But that's what it looked like)
So, why were we horrified you ask?
The picture was soft! By that, we mean it wasn't crisply sharp. How could this soft picture be chosen for the cover of this major hospital? We thought.
And this is when we learned a valuable lesson that we hope you take with you today.
The famous photographer asked if there were any questions. We raised our hand and asked, “How could this picture have been chosen for the cover? It's soft.”
The famous photographer smiled and said (this is the epiphany); “Sometimes it's more important to get the shot. Then worry about the technical shit.”
Prior to this moment, we had been one of those photographers who worried about every technical aspect of our photographs. We were the guy who stretched and proclaimed that we only use manual mode. We made sure everything was perfect before snapping the shutter, which is why we would have missed the infant smiling.
That one statement from the famous photographer changed our photographic career. From that point on, we began every assignment in program mode and only switched to manual when necessary.

Lumberyard by Kent DuFault. Taken while on assignment in the Bronx, New York City, New York. Nikon F4 in Program Mode. Program Mode allows you to capture split second moments. Workers such as this man aren't going to stop what they're doing, or do something over for you. You need to be ready.

So, what is the real benefit of Program mode? Is it so that you don't have to think about your camera's settings?
It keeps you ready – Ready for that split second when fate opens its arms to you- and you see “the moment”- and you have barely enough time to get the camera to your eye. Program mode relieves you of several choices you need to make in that split second.

Dangerous Work by Kent DuFault. Taken while on assignment in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Nikon F4 in Program Mode.

Is it foolproof? No. (Let it help you capture your moment. Then breathe. Check your settings. Make adjustments and shoot again.)
Is it only for idiots? No. Many professional photographers, including the famous photographer, use Program mode. Let it work for you.
Just remember, the computer inside your camera is not a brain.
Program Mode- Before you start your shoot decisions!

  • ISO set appropriately for the situation
  • Metering pattern is correct for the situation
  • Shutter speed / Aperture combination is approximate for your situation.

Once you get your “once in a lifetime” shot. Look at your subject carefully. Is it a light subject against a dark background, or dark subject against a light background? Is your shutter speed high enough to eliminate camera shake or is it too high, eliminating blur that you want? Is your aperture too high or too low to give you the depth of field you desire? These are all after “the moment” decisions.
Program Mode – Check Your Settings- After you capture your “MOMENT.”

  • Shutter speed at appropriate setting for subject
  • Aperture set for desired depth-of-field
  • Remember! You can quickly change your shutter speed / aperture combinations using the command dial on most cameras.


Italian School Girl by Kent DuFault. Taken in Rome, Italy. Nikon F4 in Program Mode.

Oh yeah, we hear you saying. That's great for photojournalism but I shoot landscapes.
Well consider this. You've got your camera set-up on a tripod. It's pointed at the majestic Rocky Mountains. The sun is setting. Dense clouds that are filled with rich colors are moving in and out of your frame. The exposure isn't changing by the minute but more like by the second. You're hovering over your camera waiting for the sun to break through the clouds and send a stream of golden rays down onto your scene.
And when it does… it's only for a second.
Were you ready?
Did you capture your baby smiling?

Lucy Claire by Kent DuFault. Fuji Finepix X100 in Program Mode.

Kent DuFault is a writer and photographer who is currently living in Argentina. He often writes under the pen name, Bellakentuky. You can find out more about him here;

About the author

Kent DuFault

Kent is an occasional writer at our place, and also handles the weekly “Picture of the Week” contest. He has been involved with photography since 1974 and you can get to know him better here


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