All cameras have the basic set of shooting modes – program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual. These are indicated by the letters P, S, A, M.
Some cameras, particularly entry level cameras, have additional shooting modes. These are depicted by icons and include portrait, landscape, sports and many more.
What are shooting modes?
Shooting modes help you to expose an image based on the circumstances, subject matter and type of photograph you want to create.
Once you’ve decided what’s the most important factor in the creation of a photograph, you choose a shooting mode to capture the image.
Ultimately, shooting modes help you to control how the image turns out.
How do you select a shooting mode?
Just turn the the mode dial to select the various shooting modes, specifically:
- Auto mode (Auto) – don’t use this one
- Program (P or Ps) mode
- Shutter priority (S or Tv) mode
- Aperture priority (A or Av) mode
- Manual (M) mode
With some cameras you can also select video recording with the mode dial.
On entry level cameras there are also other shooting modes to select from. These are scene modes, and with these the camera selects the best shutter speed and aperture. Sometimes it automatically activates the flash as well. They’re presets for certain types of photographs, so are a shortcut when you’re first starting out.
The scene modes are:
- Portrait mode
- Landscape mode
- Sports mode
- Macro mode
- Night portrait mode
- Flash off mode
- Beach or Snow mode
- Child mode
We’ll get into how and when to use each of the scene modes in more detail below.
Why are there so many shooting modes to choose from?
The scene modes are ideal for when you first pick up a camera and you don’t know how the exposure settings works. It’s a way to just get started rather than being stuck in overwhelm.
The more advanced modes, such as program mode, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode each have a purpose and an ideal time to use them. We’ll look at these after scene modes.
Auto mode is exactly that – it does everything, just like a compact camera. But it’s not reliable for getting the results you want, so rather use any other shooting mode and leave auto alone.
Scene modes in detail
As I said, scene modes are programmed settings designed to use the best exposure settings for the type of scene you want to photograph. All you have to do is tell the camera what it is that you’re photographing by selecting the relevant icon.
Here’s a quick run down of each scene mode:
1. Portrait mode
Sets a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field so that you can have the person in sharp focus with a blurry background.
Your camera assumes you’re photographing one or two people, not a group. It also assumes that you’re taking a head and shoulders shot, rather than a full length photo from further away.
Sometimes, when the camera feels that it’s dark, the flash will automatically be activated to fill in the shadows.
Use for portraits with soft, natural-looking skin tones. If the subject is far from the background or a telephoto lens is used, background details will be softened to lend the composition a sense of depth.
2. Landscape mode
Sets a small aperture for deep depth of field and ensures flash and AF-assist illuminator is off.
Landscape mode is good in daylight. If the light is low or it is dark, use a tripod as the shutter speed will be too slow to hand hold the camera, and camera shake will blur your photo.
In landscape mode the aperture will be small (high f-number) for a deep depth of field (front to back sharpness). This means that both the foreground and the background will be in focus.
Because of this it’s also useful for photographing groups of people.
3. Sports mode
Sets a fast shutter speed to freeze action.
The built-in flash and AF-assist illuminator turn off.
In sports mode your camera will automatically use a high shutter speed of at least 1/500 – 1/1000 of a second to freeze movement so that the subject isn’t blurred.
When using sports mode, it is also a good idea to shoot in continuous shooting mode.
Further reading: Nail your autofocus, get the shot
4. Macro mode
Sets a wide aperture for shallow depth of field to blur the background.
Macro mode is great for close-up shots of subjects smaller than your hand, such as flowers and insects. You need to get really close to your subject, so you’ll need a macro lens that can focus at really short distances. If your lens is not a macro lens and it’s struggling to focus, it’s because you’re too close.
It’s when using macro mode to photograph in good light.
Also, remember that, because you’re photographing up close, you have to pay careful attention to your focusing. The advantage of photographing just inches from your subject is that you can capture all the tiny details that you wouldn’t see from a few feet away. You will also see focusing errors more easily, which is the downside.
5. Night portrait mode
Sets a slow shutter speed so that lights in the background is visible in shot, but also fires the flash so the subject is clearly exposed.
Night portrait mode tries to strike a balance between exposing for the dark background as well as the main subject.
In this mode the shutter stays open a little longer than usual before the flash fires. This is how it’s possible to capture some of the background as well, because the longer the shutter is open, the more light can be recorded.
It might be necessary to use a tripod, depending on how dark it is.
6. Flash off mode
This is the same as auto mode, but with the flash disabled.
7. Beach Mode and Snow Mode
Camera sets a brighter exposure knowing you want a bright scene.
Some cameras also have beach and snow modes, but not all. A beach scene and a snow scene are similar as far as the camera is concerned, because they are both very bright white scenes.
A snowy environment and a sandy beach can confuse the camera’s metering system and result in under exposed images. This happens, because the camera thinks the very bright tones should be less bright.
In beach or snow mode, you’re telling the camera that the very bright areas are actually bright and that it’s okay to capture it like that.
8. Child mode
Sets a fast shutter speed to freeze action and a wider aperture for blurry background.
Again, not all cameras have child mode.
Child mode is useful for snapshots of busy children. Clothing and background details are vividly rendered, while skin tones remain soft and natural.
Focus and scene modes – an important note
Many beginner photographers get confused by metering and focus functions on the camera. It’s important to remember that scene modes don’t automatically focus your camera as well.
Regardless of what shooting mode you use – a scene mode, auto mode, one of the semi- automatic modes or manual mode – you still need to focus on your subject to take the shot.
In P, S, A and M modes you can choose the type of autofocusing you want to use. In the other modes the camera has more control of the focus behaviour. You nevertheless still have to focus separately from metering the exposure.
Further reading: Clearing up the confusion between spot metering and autofocus
What shooting modes should you use?
I haven’t included auto mode, as it’s the least useful shooting mode to use for a DSLR. Using auto mode works the same as a simple point and shoot camera – it does everything, including deciding on whether to use flash or not.
You’d think that would be a great way of getting sharp, well exposed photos, but you’d be wrong. The camera doesn’t know what it is photographing. It only thinks in terms of accurate exposure and sometimes even that gets confused.
Although the functions are the same across all brands, the shooting mode labels vary according to camera make. Nikon’s shooting modes are P, A, S and M. Canon’s shooting modes are Ps, Av, Tv, and M.
To understand when and how to use what shooting mode, we must first understand the advantages of each.
Shooting modes – the more advanced ones
1. Program (P or Ps) mode
In program mode the camera will decide on your aperture and shutter speed settings.
Although it’s an improvement on auto mode in that it doesn’t automatically use flash or change ISO, I would not advise using it. When you rely on your camera to decide on the exposure, you’ll never learn how to photograph in difficult light conditions, or how to create a particular effect.
In addition, sometimes you might need a fast shutter speed, but the camera doesn’t know that, it only knows how to create an accurate exposure, so it might use a shutter speed that is too slow for your needs.
In program mode the camera decides on both the aperture and the shutter speed. It goes for the best handheld option for the lighting conditions, so ensures that the shutter speed isn’t too low.
If you want to know how to consistently take great photographs, you have to take control of your camera.
However, if you’re not comfortable with taking control, choose program rather than auto.
2. Aperture priority (A or Av) mode
Aperture priority is the next most popular shooting mode after program mode for beginners. It is also the most popular choice for portrait photographers who don’t want to shoot in manual mode.
With aperture priority you prioritise aperture as being the most important factor in the exposure triangle. You set the aperture of the lens and the camera will select the correct shutter speed for an accurate exposure.
Aperture priority gives you creative control over the depth of field of your image when you change the f-stops up or down, whilst most of the time (I’ll get back to this in a moment) ensuring a correctly exposed image.
An aperture of f2.8 will have a shallow depth of field and a blurred background, while f22 will have a deep depth of field with more front to back sharpness.
Just remember to keep an eye on the shutter speed that has been selected to make sure that it isn’t too slow for your needs. Because the camera doesn’t know if you’re handholding it, or have it fixed to a tripod, it could set a shutter speed that is too slow to handhold without camera shake appearing in your image.
Alternatively, you might be photographing fast moving subjects, but the camera doesn’t know that, and the shutter speed might be too slow to freeze their movement. In both instances you’ll end up with a blurry image.
Camera settings: aperture f2.8, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 200
4. Shutter priority (S or Tv) mode
Why use shutter priority mode?
To freeze the action with a fast shutter speed, show movement blur with a slow shutter speed, or use a slow shutter speed for a long exposure to capture a very dark scene.
You set the shutter speed and the camera will select the aperture for a correct exposure.
If you’re shooting in shutter priority, however, be aware that the camera doesn’t take into account the maximum f-stop of your lens. So, if you’re not aware of what is happening with the change in aperture, you could end up with an underexposed image.
This would happen if you set the shutter speed too fast for the maximum aperture to allow enough light in for a correctly exposed image. The camera can only go to the maximum (or minimum) f-stop of your lens and if you select a shutter speed beyond that requires an aperture this, it will over or under expose your photo.
Camera settings: aperture f5.6, shutter speed 1/1000 , ISO 200
5. Manual (M) mode
Manual mode beats everything for putting you in creative control of your camera and the end result of the shot.
You may wish to slow down the shutter speed or widen the depth of field from one shot to the next to get variety from the scene in the shortest amount of time. If you’re shooting in manual mode, this is easily done.
By looking at the exposure indicator (you’ll learn about this in the next chapter) you can read the correct exposure determined by the camera’s exposure metering system. It is then up to you to adjust the shutter speed and aperture according to your desired outcome.
Why use manual mode?
Creativity and complete control over your camera and the outcome of your image.
Sometimes the situation determines the best shooting mode to use
I’m going to contradict myself about manual mode, because sometimes ease of use and the ability to get the shot done quickly, with the correct exposure, is the most important factor.
In a fast moving situation, such as the confetti toss at a wedding, where you don’t have the time to keep an eye on the exposure indicator, as well as adjust the aperture or shutter speed accordingly, aperture priority mode can be helpful.
If you’re photographing cyclists for example, and the light keeps changing, because of clouds passing in front of the lens, it could be better to use shutter priority.
As long as you know that the aperture will change within acceptable limits for your needs, you can then concentrate on the action. By not having to constantly adjust your aperture and shutter speed for the changing light conditions you won’t miss a shot.
Photography is all about options
That’s the great thing about modern cameras is that we have options. Lots of options! So put yourself in a position to be able to use all those options and learn how to use them all.
Once you’ve tried program mode and scene modes and you’ve got a bit more comfortable with your photography, I strongly recommend moving on to either shutter priority or aperture priority. Or jump in at the deep end and give manual mode a go.
If you rely on the automated settings you’ll never learn how to control your camera. It’s tempting at first to take the easy route, but it’s so much better to persevere and learn your exposure settings. In the end you will be thankful that you did.
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