Photography 101: When to Use Manual Mode With Auto ISO

Stephen F. Dennsted

Some so-called photography Purists insist that you should NEVER use any of your camera’s automatic features. I for one don’t find the self-ascribed label Purist particularly helpful—in fact the label is ostentatious and reeks of snobbism. Many Purists hold Ansel Adams up as their poster child for purism—but he was, in point of fact, anything but a Purist.

I find two automatic settings very useful: Auto White Balance and Auto ISO. Canon cameras do a very good job of determining the proper White Balance (or Kelvin temperature setting) of an image and both of my cameras are in Auto White Balance mode 100% of the time. I shoot CameraRAW files so any minor tweaks to White Balance can easily be done in post-processing.

Female Cinereous Harrier

ISO (International Standards Office) is basically the same thing as the old film speed designation ASA (American Standards Association). ISO refers to a camera’s sensor sensitivity to light and ASA referred to a particular film’s sensitivity to light. I know all of you Old Hands with film know that but some of the Noobs coming of age with digital technology might not. My new Canon cameras (EOS 5D Mark IV & EOS 7D Mark II) both allow me to shoot in Manual Mode with the full range of ISOs within the Auto ISO setting (my 5D Mark II would only allow up to ISO 400 in auto).

Long-tailed Meadowlark

They also allow me to program definite ISO limits within the Auto ISO setting. For instance I have set a maximum Auto ISO limit of 12,800 when using my 5D Mark IV and a limit of 6400 when using my 7D Mark II. I am primarily a wildlife, landscape and travel photographer. When shooting landscapes and travel subjects I often have time  for deliberation but with wildlife I usually don’t. Whenever possible, when shooting wildlife, I like to set up my camera before I go out (I can refine those settings in the field if I need to).

Male Cinereous Harrier

My dedicated C1 & C2 user-defined modes are programmed for static and dynamic wildlife photography (C3 is not programmed at this time). C1 & C2 were both programmed using M-Mode (Manual Mode) and then registered to the C1 & C2 modes (making them appear in my viewfinder as C1m and C2m). You can also program C1, C2 and C3 using AV-Mode (Aperture Priority Mode) or TV-Mode (Shutter Priority Mode). Why did I choose Manual Mode with Auto ISO? Simple really.

Female Cinereous Harrier

After shooting for many (many) years (63 years to be exact) I have a pretty good idea of what I want my shutter speed and aperture (f/stop) settings to be: in the case of static wildlife it’s 1/800s @ f/5.6 and for dynamic wildlife it’s 1/2000s @ f/5.6 (again these basic settings can be further refined in the field if time and circumstances permit). I use Auto White Balance and Auto ISO in my C1m and C2m shooting modes—just two fewer things to worry about. With these programmed settings I can confidently concentrate on the subject before me and let my camera do its thing.

Brown-faced Capuchin Monkey

Photographer’s Field Note: When I use Auto ISO I usually have quick access to my Exposure Compensation setting. When I’m “Chimping”  (looking at my LCD screen) I can quickly see if I have to increase or decrease my exposure—using Exposure Compensation is MUCH faster than resetting my ISO. I couldn’t do this on my 5D Mark II but I can with both the 5D Mark IV and 7D Mark II. Improved technology continues to make my life as a photographer easier. SFD

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot

This is just one time when I use the Auto ISO feature on my camera. I will often use it with my camera’s AV and TV programmable modes too. When shooting landscapes, however, I normally try to shoot at ISO 100 and lower my shutter speed as needed. IS-Image Stabilization or a sturdy tripod really comes in handy here. As a general rule the lower your ISO the better your image resolution but with new digital technology the boundaries are being pushed everyday. I can get really good images up to ISO 3200 (and even ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800 in a pinch).

Northern-crested Caracara

I must confess that it amazes me when I hear (some) photographers say: I would never do this or I would never do that—I am a Purist. To each his own I guess but it makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. To have a modern feature-rich digital camera at your disposal and then to not use its features seems ridiculous to me. I think Ansel Adams would have laughed those guys off the stage and punched them in the nose for calling him a Purist. He was, in fact, kind of a cranky old bastard (kind of like me I guess). Hope I didn’t offend anyone out there in my reading audience.



5 responses to “Photography 101: When to Use Manual Mode With Auto ISO

    • Tim, is that the same thing as Rear Button AF? I know a lot of photographers are doing that these days. I guess I’m still old fashioned because I use the half-click, recompose method on the front shutter. Hard to teach an old dog new tricks (though I try). 🙂

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