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Photography Tips: Camera Modes

All digital cameras I have used have several modes they can operate in. The traditional modes have been fully automatic, program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual. Most cameras now add other, specialised modes for specific situations such as portrait, low light, snow, landscape, etc. Many people permanently operate their camera in the fully automatic mode but by doing this they are both getting inferior photos and excluding the possibility of getting more creative with their photography.


Let's start with the fully automatic mode (the one that I often call "peasant" mode because it is used by people who aren't very sophisticated users). This will set all of the settings on the camera for you using a method determined by the camera and which you have no control over. It will set the sensitivity (iso setting), shutter speed, aperture, and decide whether to fire the flash or not. It will also often set the focussing and metering modes to optimise those factors.

This might sound great, and it usually is, but there are a number of problems. Only the photographer knows what the picture should look like and the camera often doesn't translate that well into the end photo, especially in unusual conditions (low light, high contrast, fast moving objects, etc). If you always use fully automatic mode just try switching into the next easiest mode, program, which I will describe next.


Program mode is usually indicated with a "P" on the program dial (or other control). Don't confuse program with "peasant" mode! In program mode the camera sets the aperture and shutter for you but you have control over other settings such as whether the flash is used or not, the sensitivity (iso speed), and which metering and focussing mode is used. On some cameras (especially dSLRs) you can usually rotate another dial to "bias" the program towards fast shutter and wide aperture or towards slow shutter and narrow aperture to get different effects.

Aperture and Shutter Priority

The next modes are aperture priority (indicated with "AV") and shutter (or time) priority (indicated with "TV"). In aperture priority mode the photographer selects the aperture required and the camera sets the shutter. In shutter priority mode the opposite happens: the photographer selects a shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture to get a correct exposure. Other options are also controlled by the photographer. An example of aperture priority would be when a wide depth of field is required (in other words very close and very distant objects both need to be in focus). The photographer would choose a narrow aperture such as f/22 and the camera would set the shutter to something relatively slow to compensate.


The final "classic" mode is manual (indicated with"M"). In this mode the photographer does everything. Most importantly the shutter and aperture must be set manually. There is usually a meter in the viewfinder to show whether the camera thinks the photo will be correctly, over- or under-exposed. Without the meter the photographer uses just experience and guess work. Obviously this mode is not for the faint hearted because there is no assurance the photo will be correctly exposed. A classic situation where this mode would be useful would be to photograph stars. The camera would be set to its maximum aperture (say f/3.5) and the shutter set to a long time (say 10 seconds). That way the maximum light will be captured. A high sensitivity (iso speed) and a tripod are also usually used.


This might sound confusing but I will now explain how I use these modes on my dSLR to show that its really not that complicated. I usually operate the camera in program mode and commonly change two settings depending on the subject of the photo. First I turn the flash on and off depending on the light, and second I change the sensitivity depending on the lighting. I try to use iso 100 if there is enough light to get lower noise, but switch to 200 or 400 (or even 800 or 1600) in low light situations.

I set the aperture in aperture priority mode to something to give a lot of field depth because that's the reason I usually use that mode. I usually choose about f/13. I set the shutter to something fast in shutter priority mode because I usually use that to photograph fast moving objects. When I switch to those modes the last settings are remembered, so I don't usually have to do anything more.

So for normal photography I switch to P and set the iso speed depending on the light (and sometimes turn on the flash). When I need a lot of field depth I just switch to aperture priority mode and when I need fast shutter speed I switch to shutter priority mode. Its actually quite simple in the vast majority of cases and I only occasionally need to change the other settings.

Related Subjects

- Frames Using field depth to change the appearance of framing objects.

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