Manual > Auto
Control, consistency, and predictability are important in production.
When you allow gear to act on its own it will often do the wrong thing at the wrong time.
While automatic features can make life easier, they can also do the opposite.
That's why, especially for live production, I recommend using manual instead of automatic for these things:
- Shutter Speed
- White Balance
- Preamp Gain
- Noise Reduction
Automatic Is Reactive
In a live situation, everything is real time.
There is no time to be proactive, so you rely on settings adjusting after the fact.
And once something adjusts incorrectly, it's usually too late to fix.
Automatic Can Be Inaccurate
Cameras overcompensate for dark backgrounds by making people too bright.
Focus inadvertently jumps to a person or object in the background or foreground.
Audio gain ducks just a little too late for loud sounds or ducks too much when a mic is accidentally bumped.
Auto settings can often be tuned to a "happy medium" or "one-size-fits-all" approach. It's difficult to cover every situation perfectly.
Automatic Lacks Context
We see a person - a camera just sees a bunch of math.
Autofocus choosing the wrong person in a frame is a good example of this.
While gear and features are constantly improving, they're still not nearly as observant as humans.
As with most rules, they can sometimes be broken.
Automatic settings can be a valuable tool when used properly in the right contexts:
- Auto mixing plugins for audio consoles and DAWs, such as Dugan Automixer
- Set-it-and-forget-it shots, like POV cameras that just need to get a shot without an operator
- High end automation and robotics that have granular controls and are designed with very specific tasks in mind
- Scheduling of repetitive tasks that don't require a production mindset
Turn off all automatic settings you can find. Look for clues like acronyms that start with "M" or "A".
Use aids like waveforms, zebras, and focus peaking to make sure your exposure and focus are correct.
Camera shutter speed should default to double the frame rate (1/60 shutter for 30 fps, for instance). And it should only be adjusted away from that for stylistic purposes or to get rid of flicker from lighting or displays. One exception is that 1/60 can also be acceptable for 60 fps if you need more exposure.
Learn how to set a manual white balance, or use a preset white balance closest to the color temperature you're using.
Set a manual gain for your audio levels. Doing a mic check with loud sounds can help you set it to prevent distortion and peaking.
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