How To Graduate From Fully Auto In 2 Easy Steps

It has come as quite a surprise to me to find that many of my friends who have DSLRs are still only using their camera in Fully Automatic mode. Although this will indeed still take good photos, and is fine for ‘starting out’, I would really recommend that if you’ve spent £500 / $1000 + on a camera, then why not learn how to use at least some of its many features, rather than sticking with fully auto all the time  – it really is simple, and you’ll be reaping the benefits in no time.

Investing in a more-expensive camera does not mean that you’ll automatically (pun-intended) get better photos, but, if you take a little time to learn some fundamentals, then I guarantee that your photos will improve, and you’ll also enjoy the whole photographic process more as well. And the good news is that graduating from Fully Auto is easy!

1. Try Shooting In Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture priority mode - 'AV' on Canon cameras

Shooting in Aperture Priority mode  – which is ‘AV’ on Canon cameras, ‘A’ on Nikon – may sound a little daunting at first, but, trust me here, it is absolutely dead simple. And the beauty of shooting in this mode is that you can control how blurred the background (and foreground) of your photos are – something which you can’t decide upon when shooting in Fully Auto. Cool, huh?

I did a whole post on how to blur the background, which you may want to look at sometime, but, basically, the thing that is probably most under your control in how to get those pro-looking shots where the subject of your photo is nice and sharp against a really blurred background, is to shoot in Aperture Priority mode, and simply dial in a low f-number.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what f-nunbers are, or even what aperture really means, as this is just a quick guide – you can learn more about that stuff later. For now, just know that if you put in a low f-number (using a finger-dial on most DSLRs) such as f/5.6 or f/3.5 or smaller, and then take your shot as normal, you’ll get a lovely blurred background. How easy is that?

Using Aperture Priority mode, I chose f/5 to get a nice blurry background


Shooting in Aperture Priority is classed as a semi-automatic shooting mode, as you are deciding the aperture value, and the camera then works out how fast the shutter speed should be in order to get the correct exposure. You can also shoot in Shutter speed priority, with you now controlling the shutter speed value, and the camera choosing the aperture – but I shoot in Aperture priority probably 90% of the time, as I like to control how blurry the background of my photos will be. Try it, it’s so simple!

2. Choose Your Focus Point

One of the most annoying things about shooting in Fully Auto – in my opinion, anyway – is that you can’t choose exactly what you want the camera to focus on. Now, I do admit that sometimes the camera is clever enough to know what part of the scene you are wanting to focus on, but a lot of the time it just doesn’t have a clue (like, for instance, when you want to take a shot of two people standing side-by-side – a lot of the time, when in fully auto, the camera will focus on the background between the people – annoying!).

And why should the camera know what to focus on anyway? It should be us – the photographers – choosing what we want to focus on, as focus is a huge part of the creative process of photography anyway.

So, to take control of this fundamental aspect, and forever make sure you’ll be focusing on the part of the scene you actually want to focus on, find the focus point selection button on your camera, which looks like this on a lot of Canon cameras:

(For Nikon cameras it seems it is a little more complicated, and involves using the menu system – there is a good guide on how to set it here.)

Once you’ve found out how to change your focus point, change it from ‘automatic’ to the centre-point (using the finger-dial on Canon cameras). Now, when you come to take your photos and you’re looking through the viewfinder, you’ll notice that the centre-point will highlight when you press the shutter button halfway, and – hey presto – your camera will now always focus on exactly where you put that point.

By enabling my centre-focus point, I made sure the focus was on the people in the foreground - if I'd had the camera in fully auto, there was a good chance it would have focused on the people in the background instead.

Centre-focusing doesn’t always produce the best looking shots, though, so make sure to hover the focus-point over what you want to focus on, press the shutter button down halfway, recompose your shot, and then fully depress the shutter – suing this technique means the camera will focus on your chosen subject, but that the subject itself needn’t be in the centre of the frame.

Another benefit of choosing the centre focus-point is that this is the most sensitive point, meaning more accurate and faster focus. Bonus!

There are, of course, loads more things that you can control, but following these 2 easy steps is enough to have you graduating from Fully Auto in 2 minutes. Honestly, it’s just so simple – have a go, take some shots, and you’ll see how easy it is.

If you liked this little guide, you may want to follow me on twitter. Of course, you may not want to, either, but at least I tried!


  1. Love your blog! Very easy to understand or a beginner like myself. Thanks again….great work!!

  2. Thanks a lot, thanks for reading, and leaving a comment!

  3. Mika /

    I’m about to purchase my first DSLR and your website has been the most helpful to me! I have looked over other web pages, but you break the information down so well that it is very easy to grasp the information. Thank you so much!

  4. Hi Mika, thanks a lot for your lovely comment about the site, that’s really nice of you to say! I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun with your first DSLR – if there’s ever anything I can help you out with, don’t hesitate to post another comment, or question on our facebook page.

  5. Graham Hatton /

    Grea site! I’m relatively new to photography. This site and your experience (as well as your willingness to share your experience) are exactly what I was looking for. Thank you so much for being a true mentor – they are hard to find now-a-days! Keep up the great work!

  6. Thanks a lot, Graham, really nice of you! :)

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