Photography Basics: How to Master Camera Shooting Modes

Modern digital cameras can be Camera Shooting Modesamazingly intricate and sophisticated. The technology that drives them progresses from one generation to the next. DSLRs in particular can have an array of dials and settings that can be confusing for newcomers. One of the main dials or settings to get to grips with is the shooting modes. The shooting modes determine how much of the photography process the camera controls automatically, and is often represented by a dial marked with modes such as M, Av, Tv, and P.

Below We’ll take a look at the five basic shooting modes, some special modes, and determine which ones to use and when.

The Five Basic Shooting Modes


As we mentioned in the introduction, shooting modes are often found on a dial on top of your camera. It is has settings for P, A (or AV), S (or TV), M, and Auto. Let’s take a look at what each one means:

Auto Mode

You can probably guess from the title of this shooting mode, but in auto mode the camera does most of the work for you. All of the settings and variables, as well as the flash (if you have one), are set automatically. There are two benefits of using auto mode. First, it allows new users to get a feel for the camera. You don’t have to worry about any more complicated settings; you can just point and shoot to your heart’s content. It’s also useful for taking a photo in a hurry. If you suddenly see something worth photographing but you don’t have time to set up aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, the camera will do the hard work for you and you won’t miss the opportunity.

What the camera controls:

All of the major settings including:

  • Shutter Speed.
  • Aperture.
  • ISO.
  • White Balance.
  • Focus Mode.
  • Exposure Compensation.
  • Focus Points.
  • Metering Mode.
  • Flash Exposure Compensation.

What you control:

  • The file format, either JPEG or RAW.
  • Whether you shoot one photo or a burst.

When to use it:

  • If you’re new to photography.
  • If you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to change settings.

When not to use it:

  • If you’re familiar with photography basics and want greater control over your images.
  • If you have time to change settings to get the best possible picture.

Program Mode (P)

Program mode represents a step up from full auto. A good way of thinking about program mode is to consider it a ‘semi-automatic’ way of taking pictures. In this mode, the camera still takes care of most of the elements surrounding exposure, but allows the user to change some settings. The main alterations you can make are to ISO, white balance, and metering. It gives the user greater creative control over a composition, and is a good way of practicing photography. You can master some basics of photography using this mode, whilst still having some support from the camera.

What the camera controls:

The two main functions that the camera controls are:

  • Shutter Speed
  • Aperture

What you control:

You have slightly more freedom to choose settings:

  • ISO.
  • White Balance.
  • The Focus Mode.
  • Exposure Compensation Settings.
  • Focus Point(s).
  • Metering Mode.
  • Flash Exposure Compensation.
  • The file format, either JPEG or RAW.
  • Whether you shoot one photo or a burst.

When to use it:

  • If you’re new to photography but want to take the first steps towards full-control of your camera.

When not to use it:

  • If light conditions are less than optimal; sometimes the settings in Program mode react unusually in certain situations.

Aperture Priority Mode (A or AV)

Aperture Priority shooting mode allows the user to have full control over how wide or narrow the lens opens.  This will affect how much light enters through to the sensor and is measured in f/ stops. In terms of f/ stops, f/1.8 is wider than f/4 and thus allows more light in. It’s also useful for controlling the depth of field of the image, or how blurred the background is. It’s one of the most popular modes for photography, as it allows the user to control what’s in focus.

What the camera controls:

  • Shutter Speed

What you control:

Essentially you have full control over aperture and the rest of the camera settings, including:

  • ISO.
  • White Balance.
  • The Focus Mode.
  • Exposure Compensation Settings.
  • Focus Point(s).
  • Metering Mode.
  • Flash Exposure Compensation.
  • The file format, either JPEG or RAW.
  • Whether you shoot one photo or a burst.

When to use it:

  • When the lighting is good and you want to have control over depth of field. It’s also good if you want the maximum possible sharpness at around f/8.

When not to use it:

  • If the lighting is poor, using AV mode will mean your shutter speed will be a lot slower to compensate. If you’re holding the camera in your hand, or your subject is moving, your image will be blurry.

Shutter Priority Mode (S or TV)

In the same way that Aperture Priority mode gives you control over aperture but not shutter speed, Shutter Priority mode does the opposite. If you’re trying to capture a fast-moving subject, or need a long exposure, then this is the mode you should use. You can control how fast or slow the shutter is, whilst the camera will adjust the aperture automatically. It’s a particularly useful shooting mode for wildlife and sports photographers.

What the camera controls:

  • Aperture value

What you control:

Essentially you have full control over shutter speed and the rest of the camera settings, including:

  • ISO.
  • White Balance.
  • The Focus Mode.
  • Exposure Compensation Settings.
  • Focus Point(s).
  • Metering Mode.
  • Flash Exposure Compensation.
  • The file format, either JPEG or RAW.
  • Whether you shoot one photo or a burst.

When to use it:

  • If you’re undertaking sports of wildlife photography, focusing on a fast-moving subject.
  • If you need a long exposure, such as in astrophotography.

When not to use it:

  • If there’s plenty of light, or your subject isn’t moving very much, Aperture Priority is a better mode, as it allows you to control sharpness and depth of field.

Manual Mode (M)

Once you have a lot of experience as a photographer, you may well find that you’re confident taking full control over your camera. In Manual Mode, the various functions that affect your photos are alterable by you. In order to effectively make use of this mode, you need to understand the relationships between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Each one impacts the other, and all three affect exposure.

What the camera controls:

  • Exposure Compensation Settings.

What you control:

Essentially you have full control over all of the camera settings, including:

  • ISO
  • Shutter Speed.
  • Aperture.
  • White Balance.
  • The Focus Mode.
  • Focus Point(s).
  • Metering Mode.
  • Flash Exposure Compensation.
  • The file format, either JPEG or RAW.
  • Whether you shoot one photo or a burst.

When to use it:

  • If you’re an experienced photographer who wants to take full creative control over your compositions.

When not to use it:

  • If the lighting is perfect, Aperture Priority mode takes some of the manual work out of photography and serves just as well.

Special and Scene Modes

Alongside the standard shooting modes we’ve looked at already, it’s likely that your camera will also have some special or scene shooting modes that you can use. These are typically geared towards specific situations and lighting types.

1. Flash Off / Auto Flash Off Mode

We’ve explored the Auto mode already. It’s where you give over full control to your camera, essentially making it a point a shoot. Flash Off is basically the same mode, except it doesn’t pop the flash up. It’s useful in situations where you can’t use a flash or don’t want the light to reflect off the subject.

2. Portrait Mode

This is a similar mode to Aperture Priority, and gives a shallower depth of field with greater focus on the subject. On some cameras, this mode will also add effects to make the final product look more professional.

3. Night Portrait Mode

Whilst using Night Portrait mode, the shutter speed will be kept slow for a longer exposure, whilst the flash will fire to illuminate the foreground.

4. Landscape Mode

In order to capture a good landscape, you need a wider depth of field. This is exactly what Landscape mode creates, and it may also boost colors for an impressive effect.

5. Sports Mode

We mentioned already how fast-moving subjects call for a faster shutter speed. Sports mode gives you that fast shutter speed, and usually stops the flash firing too.

6. Macro Mode

In order to get as close as possible and pick out the finer details, Macro mode will choose the widest possible aperture and give a wider depth of field.

7. Custom Modes

Some cameras will offer you the chance to create your own custom settings. These can vary by manufacturer, but it’s a useful tool if you often find yourself in specific situations.


Choosing the Right Mode

Now that you know a bit about the various options, how do you go about choosing the right shooting mode? In reality, you’ll likely want to experiment with all of them. This will allow you to discover what each one does and how it impacts your photos. When you’re starting out, Auto modes can give some pleasing results. However you’ll soon find it has its limitations. Aperture and Shutter Priority shooting modes are useful in a wide variety of situations, and the more you use them, the more familiar with them you’ll become.

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