Auto Mode for Street Photography?

Sticking your camera into auto mode is by far the simplest way to help capture an image. But should you do it? The simple answer is generally NO, but as always, there are caveats. There are pros and cons to using the auto mode, for me the largest negative aspect of this mode is that it strips away my creative options. However, sometimes you want to focus on the moment, your mind may be elsewhere, or you are engaged with family and friends. Adding thoughts of shutter speed and ISO can sometimes take your multi-tasking abilities too far!

For this image I wanted to ‘freeze’ the splashing of the waves. Full auto mode would not have allowed this creative freedom.

Limitations of Auto Mode

If you do decide to flick your camera into ‘A’, it should be a choice and not a default option. For that reason I will follow this article with some ‘get out of auto’ advice.


Cameras will often default to a high ISO level, and this introduces digital noise which degrades the quality of the final image. However, the latest cameras are improving on high ISO images, and this issue may be become less of a problem. One work around is to play with your camera and work out what levels you find acceptable. Most cameras will allow you to set an upper limit to what ISO your camera selects, your manual should tell you how to do this.

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A young girl selling trinkets in Hoi An. This photo required a high ISO setting, but the level of noise is still acceptable. Noise reduction was applied in Lightroom.


I enjoy the freedom to choose my ISO, aperture and shutter speed. This does not mean clicking into full manual mode, and my camera is generally set to aperture priority. One work around is to make sure you are shooting RAW when using auto. The photo below was taken when I had visited a friend in hospital. I just wanted a walk and I had my camera on me. The camera took my mind off what was happening but I had no focus for thinking about camera settings. Later down the line, when I was in a brighter frame of mind, I looked at the photos and was pleasantly surprised. As I had shot RAW, there was a degree of creative freedom to how I edited the image.

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Smoke Break – Shot in Auto and edited in Lightroom. I had a lot on my mind at the time I took this image. Shutter speed was the least of my worries!

It Just Works…

Truth be told, the auto mode works very well and there is no shame in using it. It allows you to focus on framing the image, to look for distracting elements and making sure that the light is hitting the subject in a pleasing way. Further more, auto is quick, and it is always better to capture an image in auto than to miss it in manual.

Auto can also be a great teacher. Sometimes I have found a situation that looks great to the eye, but fails as a photo. When this happens it can be worth seeing what the camera chooses for this situation. You can always mimic the cameras settings and then experiment, adjusting the parameters until you are happy with a result.

Shooting at night, with bright neon lights and dark shadows can create some difficult creative decisions. There would have been no shame in flicking to auto mode for this image.

Get Out of Auto

While ‘Auto’ settings are useful, you should certainly not be stuck in this mode all the time. Learning how your camera works and gaining greater familiarity with the exposure triangle will certainly make you a better photographer. Remember, even the top pros are not above selecting the magic green setting once in a while. An image is judged on it’s final appearance and not the mode used when captured!

Take care folks. Keep clicking, Chris

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