The one photo suggestion you should always ignore

"I only shoot in this mode"

Ed crouched near a bed of golden autumn leaves, squinted into his viewfinder, and paused -- clearly waiting for the right moment.

I glanced in front of him to see what he was shooting and noticed a small squirrel scampering his way. The shutter squeezed just as the animal paused and looked up. Friendly squirrels are a common site around the monuments where I teach my photo tours, but I'm always interested in what photographers are trying to capture.

"Did you get it?" I inquired.

"I think so," he said as he began to review his images.

"Great! What settings did you use?" 

"I shot in aperture priority, f/16."

"Why did you choose that combination? What were you trying to create?"

"I'm not sure. I once took a class from an instructor who said he only shoots in aperture priority mode, so I do, too."

While I hate to criticize other methods of teaching, here's my exception to that rule. If anyone begins a sentence with "I only shoot in ____ mode..." ignore everything else that follows.

The beauty of a camera that allows you to change your settings is in your ability to create so many different photo possibilities. As you change combinations of shutter speed and aperture, focal lengths, and camera position, you can create so many different images from a single scene. For instance:

  • Aperture allows you to control depth of field;
  • Shutter speed allows you to show motion or movement;
  • A higher ISO allows you to shoot in low light without always needing a tripod;
  • Large focal length allows you to bring your subjects closer and creates a flattening effect in the background; and
  • A wide angle lets you capture a wider field of view and also has an elongating effect on your background.

I like to think of it as the ultimate form of decisions and consequences. The better you understand your tools, the more decisions you can make to create different effects -- the consequences.

If you choose to only use one setting, you have limited the range of images you can create. At best, it's not very creative. At worst, it's lazy.

That sounds harsh doesn't it. Aren't there times when someone might legitimately only shoot in one mode?

Perhaps. Photographers will sometimes limit their options voluntarily as a personal statement or style. Some photographers only shoot in black and white. Some focus exclusively on a specific theme -- abandoned buildings, for instance. Some might limit themselves in lens choice. I use my 50 mm as my primary walk around lens.

Many of these are style choices. They can actually help you develop your creativity.

Shooting only in aperture priority mode at f/5/6 is less about style. It's more about routine. Sometimes it is about safety and security. 

What it seldom does is help you become more creative, grow or stretch. You often have to leave your comfort zone for that to happen. And besides, mimicking someone else's choice doesn't help you develop your own creative style.

Here's an alternative. Shoot only in [fill in the blank] mode for a day. Then shoot only in [fill in the blank with something different] for another day. Get comfortable with all your tools. Then you can choose the right one for the effect you want to create. You can shoot with greater confidence.

Best, you will ignore the people who want to limit your photo choices because of their lack of imagination.