Beyond Automatic

This past weekend I was in Dallas teaching Nikon School. One of my resolutions for the new year was to try to get out and shoot in as many cities I visit as possible. Heading into Dallas I knew the weather would be good, and we’d be in a location not far from downtown. I thought it would be fun to try to find a spot where we could shoot the downtown skyline and tie in one of the expressways. So Bob (Pearson, my teaching partner) and I reached out to some friends in the area and asked for suggestions. We scouted a couple of them the afternoon we arrived and then decided to try another after dark. It turned out well, but not by shooting in Automatic mode.

Automatic mode is great for normal, everyday shooting situations. The

The first photo, on Automatic, is next to useless. This one, in Night Landscape Scene mode, turns off the flash and lets the shutter speed drop so you get a more interesting picture.

camera evaluates the amount of light, sets the ISO based on that, then picks a shutter speed and aperture combination with a priority on shutter speed. In daylight that works well most of the time. And if there’s not much light, the flash fires to help light up the foreground (and the shutter speed is set at a minimum of 1/60). In this case, that’s a recipe for a bad picture. When shooting a night landscape, the shutter speed will be too high and the flash won’t carry far enough to help. Simply switching to a Night Landscape scene mode leaves the flash off and lets the shutter speed go as low as it needs to for the existing light. In this case that means an exposure that now shows the highway and downtown Dallas behind it. But to take advantage of the traffic on the highway, I need a slower shutter speed.

To get that classic shot of headlight and taillight trails at night, you need to keep the shutter open for at least several seconds. And that’s easy to do with Program mode. In Program mode the camera “suggests” a shutter and aperture combination, but you can choose to “shift” that. With my Nikon D5000 that’s called “Flexible program.” By turning the command dial I can maintain the same amount of light let into the camera, but get there with a different shutter speed and aperture. And that’s just what I did. Turning that dial let me drop the shutter speed to 8 seconds and an aperture of f/14. With the camera mounted on a tripod, I used the self-timer to fire the camera so I wouldn’t cause blur when pushing the shutter button.

I always tell people that the first step to getting away from shooting everything on

Changing to Program exposure mode let me get the shutter down to 8 seconds, so the headlights blurred nicely.

Automatic is to move to scene modes, then Program mode. In Program the camera still makes the decision on exposure, but you have control over the combination it picks, and whether or not to add flash. Doing that can help you get the picture you want, hopefully something beyond the ordinary.