Hack Your Camera

How good photographs get made is a mystery to most people—including photographers. There are two general camps which attempt to explain the magic:
1) it's the camera and the lenses that are making the image, and you'll get better pictures with better kit; or
2) it's not the camera that matters, it's the photographer.
The purpose of this blog and our courses is to support the second explanation: an artist is an artist whatever the tool, and understanding the creative process is the answer to making better art.

Nevertheless, it might be instructive to reflect on why so many people have a misconception of the camera's power, and whether there's anything to it. 

It's easy to criticize all the whizbang functions of modern digital cameras and just dismiss them as so much marketing fluff. But the truth is, the major players in the camera market have been around a pretty long time. It's difficult to question their commitment to photography, and it would be an error to dismiss their contributions. Camera manufacturers spend a lot of money developing the firmware and software to drive their products, and the settings which get programmed in address the common expectations people have about what kind of image will be made. Misunderstandings about the effect of those functions, or the potential uses of them, doesn't rest with the camera manufacturer, but—as always—with the photographer. It's always the photographer as artist who makes the image, and good photographers maximize the tools they're using.

Breaking down the common automated functions into their underlying purposes is instructive to understanding different ways of capturing an image. As with any tool, the default use is usually not the interesting one. Learning ways to maximize the tool, however, is the key to improving the works of art which you create. With this approach in mind, let's take a look at some common automated functions. (Your camera may vary, and different manufacturers approach their settings differently. The point here is just to consider those settings in a general way.)

Aperture priority

Aperture priority is just what it says: the photographer sets the aperture and the software on the camera chooses a shutter speed and ISO combination which will result in an acceptable exposure. Sophisticated cameras take into consideration the focal length of the lens and select a shutter speed which will prevent camera shake. 

Setting the shutter dial to "A" is aperture priority.
This option is used when the photographer's primary concern is depth of field. It presumes that the photographer understands the effect of aperture on depth of field.

Shutter priority

Shutter priority is another one that's just like it says: the photographer selects the shutter speed and the camera software selects a combination of ISO and aperture to give an acceptable exposure. The photographer would select this setting when the motion of the subject is the primary concern. The presumption with this setting is that the photographer understands the effect of shutter speed on motion blur.

Setting the lens to "A" is shutter priority.
Aperture priority and shutter priority are common on almost every camera and lens you will encounter. Some camera makers go further, however by providing more subtle combinations.


The action setting emphasizes freezing motion. In order to capture fast-moving action in focus, the camera will select a high shutter speed and the smallest aperture it can. ISO will make up the difference for an acceptable exposure. 

The assumption of the camera maker is that a sports image should freeze the action. By using a high shutter speed and a small aperture, the odds are increased that the action will be both frozen and in focus. 


The portrait setting emphasizes aperture and ISO. The camera will select a wide aperture and a low ISO to provide a blurred background and high resolution. 

The manufacturer's assumption here is that when people look at an image of another person, the focus of attention should be on the face. A blurred background removes distractions from the subject, and provides a sense of depth to the image. There's nothing wrong with these assumptions, so long as you're aiming for a passport photo. 


The landscape setting is the inverse of portrait: the camera will try to use a low ISO, but it will seek a small aperture to provide a lot of depth of field. The assumption here is that a landscape image will have a lot of subtle detail and tonal gradations, and that the entirety of the image should be in focus. 

How does knowing any of this help to take better pictures?

Being creative requires putting your ideas into a shareable form. This is especially difficult for photographers because we are dependent on nature to provide us material to photograph. Positioning ourselves in space and timing a moment takes a lot of brain power. Add in the issues of composition, framing, and the effect of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO on the image we are making, and you have a very full mind. 

Sadly, our brains are limited in how much information we can juggle at one time. Texting and driving, chopping an onion while cooking something on the stove, typing and talking on the phone—every day you experience the frustrations and dangers of the limits of what's known as "working memory."

Our memory system is comprised of two main parts: long term and short term. As we take in new information, or are deciding what to do with information we have recalled, it is held in our "working memory." Working memory is great for things on which we need to concentrate and make sense out of, but it is very limited. The limitations of how many chunks of information we can juggle at the same time will vary depending upon the nature of the information, as well as our interest, emotions, energy level, and the number of distractions in the environment. But the number is finite. Regardless of how well-rested, energetic, and interested you are, photography is mentally exhausting, and whatever we can do to avoid overloading working memory will help us in observing and being quick to react when the moment comes together and we need to take a photograph.

Moreover, our conscious thinking dominates when we are actively making decisions and choices, but the best images get made when we are using the surreal, unconscious parts of our mind. Being surreal means reducing the number of things in working memory so that we are reacting to unfolding situations instead of thinking about them.

More automatic options than a drive-thru car wash.
That's where leaning on the tool can help. As my grandfather (and father) always advised: let the saw do the cutting. Adding pressure doesn't make the process go faster, but it certainly makes your arm hurt more. Likewise, you will free your mind from a few conscious considerations and worries—letting the more surreal, subconscious parts work—by making a decision about what aspects of the image you need to emphasize (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) and then being able to forget about it and rely on the tool. If you're having to check and recheck those settings, you won't be reacting to the scene and your timing will suffer. You will get nicely exposed images with little interesting action. That's not what we want.

Instead, we want to overcoming the technical demands of the tool which are taking up our working memory and interfering with "seeing." The trick is to take advantage of the tool we have by translating the camera's automatic functions in an artistic way. We are always juggling a handful of options, but each has a very important impact on the final image. Used with intention and mindfulness, there's nothing wrong with using the automated settings on your camera to take some of the load off your mind. Be purposeful in selecting the appropriate one based on how it balances the variables of exposure, rather than letting the name or symbol on the camera dial dictate how your image should look.

For example, consider recasting the automatic settings in light of what they do:
  • If you need depth of field and low ISO for, say, street photography, then try the Landscape setting.
  • If it's a really bright day and you want a bit of grain in the images, the Sports setting is the choice.
  • If the light is low and you want to maximize the ISO you have, use the Portrait setting.
By hacking the automatic settings and translating their functions to achieve the type of images we want to make, we can offload some of the conscious noise that's taking up our working memory and open up our perception to better moments. 

So take a fresh look at all those automatic modes and translate them into ways to save your time and attention. It still won't be the camera that's doing the magic, but it will certainly be the camera freeing your mind to do what it's best at: seeing the moment.