Shut Up and Shoot! Manual vs Auto Functions: What’s So Bad About Auto?

Use Manual Controls

A primary difference between pro and amateur shooters is that the pros know how to manually control their camera image and many amateurs simply let the camera decide how the shot should look and sound by relying heavily on the camera’s auto controls. The hectic and unpredictable nature of documentary shooting makes it tempting to just shoot everything in full auto mode.

The problem is that many of the auto functions on video cameras are unreliable. Think of it as driving a long road trip with your car’s cruise control turned on . . . it’s great until you zip past a police car above the speed limit. The cruise control doesn’t know (or care) that you’re going to get a speeding ticket. It only works well in the most ideal setting—open road with no traffic lights or change in traffic or speed limit. The same is true with most camera auto functions. As soon as anything outside of the ideal recording conditions happens, they become much less reliable.

Your camera isn’t nearly as competent as you are. (Or will become by the end of this book.) Don’t get punked by blindly relying on autofocus, auto-sound levels, or auto-iris. Take the time to learn and understand how to manually control the most important aspects of your video. The buttons and features will vary from camera to camera, but the principles of focus, exposure, and sound will always operate the same.

Auto Zoom vs. Manual Zoom

One thing I particularly like about shooting with fixed lens cameras is that they all have servo (motorized) zoom lens. This is the one auto-function that I think is generally better than manual. This is practical for docs, because it allows you to smoothly zoom and manually adjust your focus at the same time, so you don’t miss any of the action while readjusting your shot. I’m also a fan of using servo if you’ve got it, because it allows you to get a variety of shots aka “good coverage” in a shorter amount of time.

Surprises and Panics

At some point in production a fleeting moment may come that you need to capture right that second. A protester in the crowd behind you may unfurl a controversial banner. The elusive and rare white leopard is about to pounce on his prey from a tree . . . whatever. Do whatever you gotta do to grab that image. Don’t waste time screwing around with menu screens and white-balancing. Just get the #%*& shot, man! Your sharp manual focus and perfect white balance mean nothing if the protester has already been dragged away by police or the white leopard has already killed the antelope and made off with the carcass. (In that case, you may as well be the protester or the antelope because you blew it!)

If you totally panic or have a brain fart in the moment, it’s okay. Just quickly switch the camera into auto-lock or full auto mode. (That’s auto-everything.) You will most likely still get a pretty decent image and sound. It will be just like using a consumer camcorder. Better to go full auto and sacrifice some image and sound control than to have unusable footage because you forgot to adjust the sound level or re-white-balance the camera in the chaos of the moment. Don’t sweat it. Using manual controls will become second nature with practice. Just remember, after safety— getting the shot is always numero uno.

Photo: In Country.

Run-and-Gun Shooting

Run-and-gun shooting is when you are on the go and things are happening so quickly or under such confusion that there isn’t ample time or calm to concentrate on all the technical details you need to consider. This includes situations such as shooting in the crowd of a loud rowdy nightclub or a political protest that turns into a riot. Similarly, it may be wise to go with auto functions when covering a short or sudden event where a lot of action is happening all at once and you need to get full coverage before it all ends. Lastly, anytime you are shooting with unfamiliar equipment, pulling off a tricky camera move, or all by yourself as director, cameraperson, sound recordist, and/or interviewer is also an acceptable time to farm out some of those duties to the auto functions.

Rely on auto-functions when executing tricky camera moves.

Excerpt from The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production, 2nd Edition by Anthony Q. Artis © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.


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