Shooting the Streets in Auto Mode

Introduction

There’s a huge population of street photographers who mostly shoot with their camera in full manual. I'm one of those guys. And I have to be honest, for a frequent film shooter like me, it’s extremely fun to take photographs where you personally wind the shutter, adjust the aperture or shutter and manually focus on your subject. That moment you hear that shutter go off as right after you press the button is a complete and total bliss. It’s like a drug.

Ok, before I go on, I want to establish that before I encourage you to try and shoot in auto mode, I first want you to fully understand how a photograph works. The basics of the exposure triangle, and how to optimize that in street photography. I want you to also know what hyperfocal scales are and how this will greatly increase your speed shooting in the streets. These, for me, are two of the best foundations of becoming a better street photographer. After having a good understanding of it and actually applying it, then I can encourage you to set your camera to auto mode (or P mode).

You can enjoy taking photographs in full manual mode but time will come you will realize you are missing a lot of shots.

 My Leica M6 which is a pleasure to use manually and my Fuji X100T which I recently prefer to set on aperture priority.

My Leica M6 which is a pleasure to use manually and my Fuji X100T which I recently prefer to set on aperture priority.

Manual Vs Auto

When you shoot manually, you are given the freedom to control the output of your photograph. You basically set your camera’s shutter speed,  aperture, focus (sometimes even iso) based on how you want your photograph should look like. All work is done by you and your camera serves only as a tool.

It’s pretty challenging to shoot in this kind of setup but it’s super rewarding every time you nail a shot. Plus if you are one, like me, who enjoys winding the shutter, turning the aperture etc. then the experience is always a bliss.

Moving on to auto modes such as P mode or Program mode, Aperture priority and Shutter priority. P mode lets the camera automatically decide on everything when you take a photo. Aperture priority allows you to be semi in control of the camera. You set the aperture and the camera does the rest. It’s the same with the shutter priority except you set the shutter speed manually.

If you’re a person who just wants to capture the scene and not really particular with the technical details of the image, then this mode is for you. Not only amateurs shoot in this way, Magnum photographer Martin Parr shoots in P mode. Check out this video interview around the 5:04 minute mark.

 This photo was taken with a Leica M4, a fully manual camera. Took me a while to set my exposure since I came from outdoors before I went inside to eat. Lucky this man wasn’t doing so much.

This photo was taken with a Leica M4, a fully manual camera. Took me a while to set my exposure since I came from outdoors before I went inside to eat. Lucky this man wasn’t doing so much.

Which is faster?

Technically, Shooting manually is faster. In a perfect world, given that you have everything pre-set already including the focusing dial, you just fire away.  The deal is, there's no perfect world. if you are going to take time setting your focus, or your exposure triangle then there is a great chance you are going to miss a shot. In situations where light changes quickly, people change direction fast, shooting manually is really quite a challenge.

Here’s a tip so you don’t lose time focusing on your subject.  I normally set my ISO to 800 to 1600 so I can turn my aperture dial F8 to F16. Using small apertures allows your lens to have a deeper Depth of Field. Then I would either just pre-focus on a distance I want or use Hyperfocal distance scale. If the light is cooperating, then your camera can basically be a super fast point and shoot.

Now, a camera set to auto will generally be faster. Because you do not need to set your camera in every situation. It automatically adjusts itself which gives you the upper hand. You don’t have to worry about the changing of light when you go from indoors to outdoors. Just point and shoot.

Autofocus nowadays is also blazing fast. You do not need to worry at all, really.  The only downside with setting your camera to auto is that your camera adjust itself accordingly to what it sees and not what you see. So you lose a little bit of the creative edge with this one.

 Shot with Fuji X100T set in aperture priority and auto focus mode. I was from the outdoors and saw these two having conversations.  So I immediately went in and took their photograph.

Shot with Fuji X100T set in aperture priority and auto focus mode. I was from the outdoors and saw these two having conversations.  So I immediately went in and took their photograph.

Why shoot in auto mode

If you are completely comfortable with shooting fully manual and you are quick enough not to miss important or potentially good photos, then that’s fantastic. But if you are those guys who miss the moments because of situations you were caught off guard, then I’d rather have the camera set in auto. I know how fun it is to manually set your camera to take the image you want but I've seen the downside of it.

Shoot in fully manual when you are trying to achieve a certain look or when you are just waiting for someone to enter the frame.  Use manual if the scene doesn’t change fast.

Now, If you just want to capture the scene that is quickly unfolding in front of you, then P mode is the way to go. Sometimes we forget to tell ourselves that as street photographers, the most important thing is taking the photo no matter what. It’s your loss if you miss the shot because you were taking too long to set your settings or focus on your subject.

 An example of a missed shot.  I was shooting on a well-lit scene just in front of this shop and when I turned around, I saw this old man watching. I thought it was interesting so I hastily focused on him and fired the shutter. Then I realized I got the exposure all wrong.

An example of a missed shot.  I was shooting on a well-lit scene just in front of this shop and when I turned around, I saw this old man watching. I thought it was interesting so I hastily focused on him and fired the shutter. Then I realized I got the exposure all wrong.

 He’s my tattoo artist. I was supposed to make a sort of portrait of him while he was working. I thought I had the exposure right in this picture. Problem was, I was taking too long to focus until he moved. I fired the shutter in panic. Yikes!

He’s my tattoo artist. I was supposed to make a sort of portrait of him while he was working. I thought I had the exposure right in this picture. Problem was, I was taking too long to focus until he moved. I fired the shutter in panic. Yikes!

My point

Shooting manually can be gratifying when you make the shot and I’m not stopping you from shooting manually. I myself have been shooting fully manual since I started using film cameras, and I still do until now.  The problem was when I realize that I am missing shots in some situations. I regret it every single time. So I tried experimenting, keeping in mind that I should never miss the shot again or at least minimize it. I went on and started shooting in aperture priority or P mode. Slowly, I can see myself starting to embrace it because I know that I have minimized the missed shots.

My point is, if you’re going to call yourself as a street photographer above any other things then making the shot is your top priority. You miss it you lose it. It's not worth taking the risk.

Take this as a friendly advice. I'm not trying to push this on you and you don’t really have to follow what I have said and change your preference towards shooting. Just keep it mind and let yourself ponder on it for a while. In the end, choose what’s comfortable for you and what makes you happy. Do what works for you and what will help you improve more.

I hope I am able to give you something to chew on! Let me know what you think about this blog post!