In a previous life I spent several years doing technical support. For me job-one was convincing people that, despite all error messages to the contrary, they are in fact smarter than their computers. Most errors occur because the computer just didn’t understand: If I misspell a wurd, you still know what I mean (rite?); not so with a computer. A computer can’t anticipate, reason, or create; it will blithely continue repeating a mistake, no matter how egregious, until it is instructed otherwise or it destroys itself. All this applies equally to cameras–no matter how advanced its technology, a camera just can’t compete with your brain. Really.
If I’d have allowed my camera to decide the exposure for this crescent moon rising above Yosemite Valley, I’d have ended up with a useless mess: The camera would have decided that the foreground trees and rocks were important and allowed enough light to reveal them, completely washing out the color in the sky in the process. But I thought the contents of the foreground shadows were a distraction and wanted to simplify the scene to include only the moon’s delicate shape and the silhouette of Half Dome and Sentinel Dome etched against the rich blue of the pre-dawn sky.
It’s scenes like this that cause me to never trust my camera’s decision making. In my thirty-five or so years of serious photography, I’ve never used anything but manual exposure. And since I try to have elements at different depths throughout my frame, focus is usually my decision and not my camera’s.
Today’s cameras are more technologically advanced than ever; the auto modes are quite good, good enough that nobody should feel they must switch to manual if they fear it will rob the pleasure they get from photography. But if you define photographic pleasure as getting the best possible results, try spending a little time mastering manual metering and exposure. In my workshops, where I teach (but never require) manual metering to anyone who’s interested, people frequently marvel at how easy it is to take control of their camera. Give yourself some credit and give it a try. And don’t let your camera intimidate you.