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Cameras have a multitude of camera shooting modes and settings which can be confusing at first. Once you know what they mean they are very easy to use and this guide shows you how.
Introduction to Photography Series
  1. Introduction to Photography
  2. Understanding Shutter Speeds
  3. Understanding Aperture and Depth of Field
  4. Exposure Triangle: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO
  5. How to Understand Focal Length and Lenses
  6. Composition Rules That Will Improve Your Photos
  7. Metering Modes and Exposure Settings Demystified
  8. Understanding Camera Shooting and Exposure Modes
  9. Flash Photography
  10. Why You Need A Tripod for Photography
  11. White Balance Explained
  12. Understanding Histograms
  13. Master These 10 Camera Settings For Your Best Photos
  14. A Beginners Guide to Start Shooting in RAW

Choosing a camera shooting mode gives you the freedom to start concentrating on taking great shots. Your camera will offer a number of automatic settings, including modes that help you shoot action, closeup and portraits, which offer a compromise between full auto and full manual.

Get to grips with your cameras semi-automatic and manual settings and you'll soon see an improvement in the results.

Camera Settings Dial

Camera Settings Dial

The camera shooting modes pretty much the same across all camera types and makes and are generally accessed using the mode wheel. Some of the common modes are explained below.

Common Camera Shooting Modes

These are the common camera shooting modes found on most Canon cameras. Other manufacturers may use slightly different symbols or abbreviations, so check your manual if you can't locate a mode listed below.

A-DEP

Canons A-DEP mode is an automatic depth of field calculation. To use the function simply pick a point in the foreground, then pick a point in the background, then refocus one more time and take the picture. The camera will work out exactly what aperture setting you need to use to get everything in between those two points in focus.

M

(Manual) - In this mode you have complete control over all settings. You must work out the balance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Av

(Aperture Priority) - In this setting you control the aperture and the camera will work out the shutter speed and ISO to get the correct exposure. This is useful for controlling depth of field and not worry about shutter speed.

Tv

(Shutter Priority) - In this mode you control the shutter speed and the camera will calculate the aperture and ISO to get the correct exposure. This mode is useful for controlling the shutter speed for example capturing motion or freezing motion.

[A]

(Auto) - In Automatic mode the camera will make a best guess at what you are photographing and adjusts the settings accordingly. You have no control over the settings. Your DSLR is effectively a point and shoot camera, with all the settings taken care of.

P

(Program Shift) - Similar to automatic mode, but allows you to change some of the parameters. As you adjust shutter speed the camera adjusts the others, and vice versa. Automatic mode does not allow this.

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(Portrait) - The camera increases aperture to blur out the background and balances ISO and shutter speed to give a effective portrait image.

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(Landscape) - In landscape mode the camera will select a narrow aperture to maximise depth of field increasing sharpness of the landscape around.

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(Macro) - Similar to portrait mode, macro mode opens up the aperture and allows close focusing. By controlling the shutter speed and ISO, the camera will try and calculate the best exposure.

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(Action) - In action mode the camera will try and work out what settings give the fastest possible shutter speed to capture action shots.

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(Night) - Night shot mode the camera will increase the ISO and open the aperture as wide as possible and decrease the shutter speed to try and capture night or low light portraits without the use of flash.

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(No Flash) - No flash mode functions like automatic mode, except that at no point will it attempt to use flash. This is particularly useful in situations where flash is not permitted such as museums or galleries.

Let's have a more detailed look at the four most useful camera shooting modes - auto, program, shutter priority and aperture priority.

Auto Exposure Mode

This is the mode that most people use and is the default mode for all cameras regardless of whether it is a smartphone or DSLR. In this mode, the camera's software fully controls all aspects of the photograph, from the shutter speed to the aperture setting to the focus. If you are starting out in photography there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the automatic mode, despite what other people may say.

While it is true you may not have the same creative control over shutter speed or aperture automatic mode does a very good job of guessing what you are photographing and adjusts the settings itself to suit the scenario. This allows you to concentrate on more important things, like composition.

A step up from automatic mode, if your camera supports it, are the scene selection modes. These are typically preset modes for landscape, portrait and macro. These are automatic modes, however, when you select landscape the camera will be trying to reduce the aperture to maximise the depth of field. In portrait and macro, the camera will try to make the aperture as wide as possible to create a nice background blur or bokeh.

Shutter Priority (S or Tv)

Shutter priority is the first of the semi-automatic modes we are looking at. In this mode the camera allows you to select a shutter speed and it will adjust all the other settings accordingly to get the best exposure.

You can use this mode to control shutter speed, from long exposures where you capture the motion of your subject through to very fast, freezing the subject's motion.

Shutter priority is especially useful for subjects like sports and moving animals as it gives you sharp images freezing the action. On the other end of the scale, you can set long shutter speed to blur the motion of waterfalls or create a timelapse.

Shutter Priority is commonly abbreviated to Tv on camera settings. Tv stands for Time Value and is the old name for shutter speed dating back to film cameras.

Aperture Priority (A or Av)

Aperture priority is similar to shutter priority, however, in this mode the camera allows you to control the aperture. You can open the aperture to create pleasing background blurs or set a narrow aperture for landscapes. The camera will automatically adjust the other settings to get the best possible photographic exposure.

When the light is good, you don't need to worry about motion blurring in your photos. The shutter speed is always going to be fast enough to eliminate camera shake and motion blur. You are then free to play with the aperture settings to control your depth of field and make your photos as sharp as possible.

If you are shooting portraits, aperture priority will allow you to open up the aperture to create a more pleasing blur in the background whilst the subject is in sharp focus.

You shouldn't use aperture priority in low light scenarios, where you may think you'd need to make the aperture as wide as possible. This is because the camera may still set a shutter speed too slow to eliminate camera shake. Instead, select shutter priority yourself and the camera will automatically adjust the aperture and ISO to compensate.

Program Mode (P)

Automatic Program Mode is partway between full auto and priority modes. The camera still retains some control of the settings, however, you get more control than in full auto. The camera lets you set the ISO then works out the shutter speed and aperture. It then lets you change these two settings to get the results you want.

Normally this is done with the control dial. Rotate it one way and the shutter speed increases whilst the aperture decreases. Turn it the other way and the shutter speed decreases and the aperture increases.

As an example, you may be shooting outdoors. You select an ISO of 100 to keep noise to an absolute minimum. The camera will select the best settings it thinks are appropriate, but you may want to photograph your subject with a background blur. You can use the control dial to widen the aperture a bit and the camera will adjust the shutter speed accordingly.

Alternatively, you may wish to adjust the shutter speed to freeze motion or blur a waterfall. By using the control dial you can adjust the shutter speed and the camera will adjust the aperture.

These two settings are linked, so as you turn the wheel one goes up and the other goes down. Simply keep an eye on the one you wish to change.

In Program mode you can also set parameters within Program like white balance, metering mode (full/centre/spot), select which focus point to use, and even tell your camera to use the flash or not. We'll see these settings in a future tutorial.

Manual Mode

Manual mode is often touted as the king of shooting modes, something to aim for, like achieving ultimate enlightenment, and that you are not a proper photographer unless you have mastered manual mode.

Rubbish I say.

Manual mode is just another tool at your disposal. The secret to mastering manual mode is to know when to use it, and when not to.

In manual mode, you take full control of every setting. The camera will not try and adjust or compensate for anything. It is all up to you.

This can seem intimidating to new photographers, but by keeping a few simple rules in mind you can master manual mode.

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO still function in the same way to control the exposure so as long as you understand the relationship between them the rest is easy.

When to use Manual mode

Manual mode is most useful for when you cannot use any other mode or the camera finds it too difficult to work out the settings. These are typically for long exposures or very short, such as astrophotography or night time photography. The camera does not have enough light to evaluate the scene so it cannot give you any settings to use.

Manual mode is also essential for when you want to achieve a specific creative effect, such as the light trails from cars over a long exposure, or the motion of the sea in rock pools. While you can use the shutter priority for these, the camera will not set the best settings for these specific scenes. The camera can only take the best guess at what you are trying to achieve, only YOU know what that is.

If you are photographing sports in an indoor arena then the manual mode is very useful as it allows you to set the shutter speed to freeze the motion, the aperture to blur the background and the ISO to reduce the noise. In this scenario the lighting is not going to change so you can be confident of getting a consistent exposure each time.

If you're shooting in a studio with strobes and flashes manual mode is the only one you can even use. We'll cover studio work in a later tutorial.

When NOT to use Manual mode

Using manual mode takes time. You must set each setting correctly and unless you can accurately calculate the required exposures and adjust the settings each shot in a fraction of a second, you risk losing an opportunity. For landscapes, this isn't too much of an issue as the hills are not going anywhere, but for wildlife, action, candid or any other subject that can possibly move it's best to switch to a semi-automatic mode.

Manual mode is also affected by changes in lighting, meaning you have to compensate manually for each change or you risk over, or under, exposing. Imagine you are outside and get the exposure setup for a sunny day. As you take photos a cloud goes past the sun. All of a sudden you're massively underexposing because you forgot to increase the shutter speed.

Tutorial Series

This post is part of the series Introduction to Photography. Use the links below to advance to the next tutorial in the couse, or go back and see the previous in the tutorial series.

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