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Digital Camera Modes

Digital cameras offer various shooting modes with different camera settings for different shooting purposes. And that range from fully automatic to semi-auto to fully manual modes. Applying these modes in certain situations allow you to obtain the kind of pictures that you want. Well, I hope this information is sufficient to make you understand how all the modes work. camera modes

Automatic modes

 Auto  auto

Well, its auto, the most commonly used mode by a lot of camera’s owners. By setting the mode to auto, the camera makes its own judgement to choose the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, auto-focus mode, drive mode and flash (literally everything) to take the best shot it can.

Generally, this mode is good for normal shooting purposes and for those who don’t care how the camera does its work. However, the camera doesn’t really know what you want. So, sometimes you might get undesired photos.

As an example, you wish to take photos of your children running at the playground. Setting the mode to auto may give you slow shutter speed and the camera couldn’t keep up with your children’s movement. So, you’ll get blurry images because you couldn’t tell the camera “hey, I’m taking a picture of my kids running”. Another example, you don’t wish to use flash, but the camera keeps popping out its flash and it’s frustrating. So, using the following automatic modes is much better to meet your condition.

Portrait       portrait

In portrait mode, the camera will automatically use a big aperture (small f-number), means that the subject will appear in focus while the background will be blurred. If there are a lot of subjects involved, the one closest to the camera will appear in focus. So, using this mode is useful if you are photographing one subject within close range. In some dslr, the shooting mode will be set to continuous so you could take multiple shots with one click. The build-in flash will pop up when there is low amount of light, frequently when you shoot indoors.

Landscape   landscape

This mode is like the contrary of portrait mode. The camera will use a small aperture (big f-number), means that the camera tries to put everything it sees in focus. So, it is possible to take scenery shots with this mode. Other than that, taking pictures of multiple subjects is also viable with this mode. In dslr, the flash will not pop up so, in low light condition, you might get slow shutter speed to compensate for small aperture it uses. Therefore, it is better to put the camera on a steady surface preferably a tripod.

Macro/Close up macro

This mode enables you to get closer to the subject, allowing you to take close up photos. This is good for shooting small objects or zoom into the subjects like flowers. However, the working distance between you and the subject to get sharp images depends on the lens actually. To know how close you can get to the subject, you may check it at the focus ring on your lens.

focus ring

Do note that in this mode, flash will pop up when the lighting condition is low. When the flash is triggered, normally the subject will appear overexposed and this is an undesirable effect. So, closing the flash after it pops out might be a good idea.

Sports sports

In sports mode, the camera will use fast shutter speed, in an attempt to freeze the motion of the subjects. In addition, the camera will use continuous focus mode (AI servo).  The continuous focus means when the shutter is pressed half way, the camera tracks the subject and lock the focus on it, and when the subject is moving, the camera will follow it and keep it as the focus point. Flash will not pop up too in this mode.

This mode is useful to take photograph of moving subjects, like kids running in the playground or cars.  

Night Portrait night portrait

This mode is also known as ‘slow shutter sync’. That means the camera will use slow shutter speed and the flash will pop up. This will expose the background and the subject properly and make the image looks natural. So, this mode is actually nice to use if you wish to use flash to take photos.

Slow shutter speed will expose the background correctly while flash is used to illuminate the subjects. The closest subject is used as the focus point. Using a tripod is recommended because slow shutter speed may give you blurry images.

No flash no flash

This mode is similar to auto mode but the flash is disabled. The camera will use its best judgement to determine to correct exposure for the situation. The camera will use the closest subject as the focus point.

This mode is useful when shooting indoors to make the images look natural or when using flash is prohibited.

Child mode (Nikon)

This mode boosts sharpness and saturation for clothing and background details, but renders skin tones soft and natural-looking. The built-in flash will pop up and fire if the lighting is too dim.

Semi-auto modes

Aperture Priority (Av or A)

This mode lets you choose any specific aperture value while the camera decides the shutter speed itself.

So, when to use Aperture Value mode? You use this mode when aperture is your primary concern particularly in landscape photography where controlling depth of field is important. Big aperture (small f-number) gives you shallow depth of field while small aperture (big f-number) gives you deep depth of field. Do note that, you still need to adjust the exposure compensation to get the exposure correctly.

In addition, I find myself using this mode a lot when the lighting condition changes at different shots and I don’t have much time to set the shutter speed, particularly in street photography. That’s because if I change my shutter speed, the moment I am waiting for may fade away. So, I just choose the aperture that I want to use and set the exposure compensation accordingly then shoot, shoot and shoot. If the shutter speed is slow, I’ll just bump up the ISO and then continue shooting.

Well, if you are new to photography and you wish to know how aperture affects your images, using this mode is extremely useful. In addition,you may try the practice that I mention in the aperture at the experiment section

Shutter Priority (Tv or S)

This mode is the opposite of Aperture Priority where it lets you choose your desired shutter speed (from the fastest shutter speed to 30 sec) while the camera decides the aperture value itself.

When to use Shutter Priority mode? Well, this mode is useful when shutter speed is your primary concern and you don’t care what the aperture value is going to be. Fast shutter speed gives you frozen motion while slow shutter speed give you blurred motion. You also need to adjust the exposure compensation the get the exposure right.

To be honest, I don’t find myself using this mode frequently for normal shooting purposes in comparison to Av mode. However, I do use it sometimes when movement of the subject is what I am after and I am sure that any aperture that is given by the camera still gives me the desired depth of field.

As an example, if I am shooting a waterfall at a close range and I want to blur the motion of the waterfall, I have to use slow shutter speed. So, any aperture in the range f8-f22 still puts the waterfall in focus.

If you are new to photography and you are trying to figure out how shutter speed affects your images, this mode proves to be useful. In addition, you may try the practice that I mention in the shutter speed at the experiment section.

Program (P)

This mode actually lets the camera decides the aperture and shutter speed itself. It is like the combination of  of Av (A) and Tv (S) modes. However, you still have control over exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, focus point, flash and other settings.

When to use Program mode? Well, this mode is good for those who wants everything to be quick. The advantage of this mode is that you may select the best shutter speed/aperture combination according to your needs. So, when you half press the shutter, the camera shows predetermined shutter speed/aperture settings, then you may turn the dial to get fast shutter speed/big aperture or slow shutter speed/small aperture, depending on your needs.

In addition, this mode is useful to make you understand how shutter speed affects aperture and vice versa. Other than that, it is a great intermediate tool to get you ready for manual mode. Since you understand how aperture and shutter speed affect images, you may proceed to understand how other settings like white balance and ISO work.

Automatic Depth of Field A-DEP (Canon)

Some people might find this mode a bit confusing. So, what camera does in this setting is it decides the aperture and shutter speed itself. It is quite similar to program mode however, the camera takes control of the focus points to calculate the best aperture to put everything in focus. Then, shutter speed is adjusted according to the aperture value to get the correct exposure.

Therefore, you may not select the best shutter speed/aperture combination as offered by program mode. And the images will have deep depth of field. Since small aperture will be used, you may end up with slow shutter speed. Using a tripod might be a good idea.

Fully manual mode


Well, it’s manual! You have complete control over all settings in your camera including shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance etc. In addition, it has one advantage over any other settings; it gives you an access to bulb shutter setting. Bulb setting lets you use any shutter speed you wish, particularly longer than 30 seconds. It is extremely useful if you are doing night landscape photography.

Other than that, manual mode gives you the opportunity to explore the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO and how these settings give you the correct exposure. In other words, it makes you think how to properly expose an image, making learning photography much better. In the future, your adjustment on these settings might be faster than the other modes.

Bottom line

Choosing one mode over another actually depends on your needs and your shooting style. There is no mode that is simply the best, the camera only gives you option. If you have passion in photography, I reckon that you ignore the automatic modes and try to get familiar with the semi-auto and manual modes. Last but not least, do enjoy photography!



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