The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Camera Modes

Camera modes provide the best way to customize your shooting style to your liking. As photographers, knowing the different modes and how to take advantage of them is vital for a smooth shooting experience. In this guide, I’ll help you understand what these camera modes do; after we finish, you’ll be switching between them in no time!

Introduction to Camera Modes

By now, you should’ve learned about the holy trinity of photography—shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These are the three settings you’ll spend the most time adjusting to get the right exposure and best image quality. Different camera modes make our lives easier by allowing us to set specific settings to automatic, manual, or a combination of auto and manual. You can prioritize what settings are more relevant and let the camera decide which to automate.

Camera-modes

Having camera modes is a relatively recent invention in the photography world. Film and vintage cameras needed the photographer’s full attention in getting the right settings. Lenses had aperture rings, camera bodies had shutter dials, and you had to select the film ISO and load it into the camera. You had to bring a separate light meter to measure the light from the scene and help you achieve the right exposure level. Or you could get a camera with a built-in light meter.

Trying those full manual film cameras made me a better photographer. Admittedly, there’s a certain appeal to the tactile experience of having actual dedicated rings and dials to change the settings. But eventually, I often wished that I could just automate individual settings during specific shooting conditions.

Thankfully, digital advancements have made camera smart enough. Using the information from the light meter, the camera’s digital processor can read the scene and calculate the necessary settings to get the correct exposure. Settings have become more and more automated, and now, digital cameras can decide everything for you—all you have to do is click the shutter button.

Aside from automating the holy trinity of settings, there are specialized camera modes tailored to shooting different scenarios—like sports or landscapes. These are useful for beginners or people who just want their camera to do all the heavy lifting.

Whether you’re using a point-and-shoot or professional-level camera, modern digital cameras offer all these camera modes for our convenience. It’d be a shame to let our camera smarts go to waste; learning what each camera mode does allows us to maximize our camera’s full potential.

Types of Camera Modes

There are four primary camera modes found in almost all modern digital cameras:

Manual

Manual mode or “M” does precisely what its name means—it gives you total control over the shutter speed and aperture (cameras allow you to select auto-ISO even in Manual mode). In this mode, you’re in charge of balancing both settings to achieve the desired exposure, which means that you need to understand how each setting affects your photo.

I shoot in Manual mode if I find the scene is too challenging for my camera to handle automatically or if I need to get the settings right. Scenes with uneven brightness or extreme lighting conditions can sometimes confuse our camera—this is when we need to give it a helping hand. For example, if I’m shooting a sunset landscape scene, the foreground might be shadowed while the background might be too bright from the sun. Depending on where I set my light metering point, my camera might decide to underexpose the image and make the shadows too black or overexpose the image and blow the highlights. Shooting in Manual mode allows me to find the perfect balance and decide how to expose all the different parts correctly.

If I plan on stitching multiple photographs together in post, I also shoot on Manual mode. Shooting with automatic settings will likely make the camera might use different settings for different photos, thereby creating inconsistent exposure levels. If that happens, my stitching plans can be more difficult or ruined completely. To avoid messing up the exposures, I’ll set the camera to Manual, so I’ll only use one consistent setting for all my photographs.

Shutter Priority

Shutter Priority (labelled as “Tv” or “S”) gives you full manual control of the shutter speed while automating the aperture and ISO. The camera uses the information detected by the light meter to calculate the correct aperture value based on the shutter speed you set and the exposure level you want to achieve. The shutter is primarily responsible for the amount of motion blur in your image.

I use this mode if I need to freeze the scene entirely or if I want to introduce motion blur from moving subjects deliberately. This mode is particularly useful for sports photography where the priority is to freeze your subjects during an intense moment. It’s convenient to just worry about eliminating or allowing some blur while letting the camera do the other legwork.

The downside to this is that you have no control over the depth of field and subject separation amount. If your only concern is motion blur, then Shutter Priority mode is perfect; however, if you’re also conscious about how much background and foreground blur your image needs, then it’s better to switch to Manual mode.

Aperture Priority

Aperture Priority (labelled as “Av” or “A”) gives you full manual control of the aperture while automating the shutter speed and ISO. Like Shutter Priority, this mode gives you the correct exposure level using the light meter by adjusting the shutter speed to compensate for your aperture setting. If your main concern is how much depth of field you want in the image, then switch over to Aperture Priority mode.

Aperture-priority-mode

I’m typically more of an Aperture Priority shooter. Why? I’m more conscious of how much of my image is in focus and blurred. When shooting portraits, I use a wide aperture to remove any distracting foreground and background elements for effective subject separation. In low-light scenes, I also use a wide aperture to capture as much as light as possible. For landscapes, I need a small aperture to make all the elements of my scene in focus. Ultimately, changing only the aperture provides me with the right amount of flexibility and convenience. The camera almost always chooses the right shutter speed to prevent motion blur in my scenes and achieve the correct exposure when I shoot in Aperture Priority. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself shooting in this mode often too.

Program

Program (P) mode makes the camera adjust both the shutter speed and aperture automatically to get the correct exposure level. Program is the most convenient mode if you don’t want to think about settings, and you just need to capture the moment. During this mode, the camera first tries to keep the shutter speed somewhere where the image will come out with no blur. It then works to see how wide the aperture needs to be to reach the desired exposure level while maintaining a sharp image. If the lens is wide open already but the light meter still hasn’t reached the needed exposure level, the camera will try to find a slower shutter speed until it reaches the right exposure. All of this happens in a fraction of a second, so when you half-press the shutter button to meter the scene, the setting adjustment will be instantaneous.

It’s your call if you want to rely on the camera’s smarts to calculate the scene for you. Sometimes, shooting in Program mode will do the trick. When I let someone inexperienced borrow my camera, I switch it to Program so they can just fire away without worrying about settings.

How is Program different from Auto mode? When you set your camera to Program, all it automates are the exposure settings; you can still manually adjust other settings like flash settings, white balance, or exposure compensation. In Auto mode, all settings, exposure and otherwise, are handled by the camera.  Program mode takes care of exposure while allowing for some flexibility, while the Auto mode is the complete fire-and-forget shooting experience.

Other Camera Modes

Other automatic camera modes are specific to shooting scenarios. They’re not as important as the main camera modes, but they can be useful in a pinch or to beginner photographers. The most common ones are the following:

  • Portrait - used to capture the portraits with as much background blur as possible
  • Sports - freezes the scene with a fast shutter speed
  • Night - uses a slow shutter speed and wide aperture to increase image exposure
  • Landscape - prioritizes a small aperture for deep depth of field
  • Macro - best used for close-up subjects

Setting Your Camera Mode

In most enthusiast/entry-level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, the mode dial is the first thing you’ll notice on top of your camera. They can be found on either the left or right side on top of your camera. Manufacturers design them this way for beginners and enthusiast photographers, who will most likely benefit from the dial. On the mode dial, you’ll find the markings for the different settings. Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual mode are labelled their shortened form. In contrast, other camera modes are denoted with a representation of that mode (e.g., Landscape mode is represented by a mountain).

However, some cameras won’t have a dedicated mode dial. Usually, these cameras are the professional cameras of Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, etc. Fujifilm cameras, due to their vintage aesthetic, typically omit these dials in favor of dedicated aperture, shutter, and exposure compensation dials. For professional-level cameras, there is instead a mode button you can press to switch between different camera modes quickly. Sometimes, those cameras have programmable buttons too, so you can customize which button changes the camera mode.

Another method of changing the camera mode is to simply go into the camera menu and navigate the mode settings. Doing so might also be more comfortable if the camera has a touch screen.

Don’t forget to check your current camera mode before taking your shots! I had some careless moments where I was taking shots or about to shoot when I found out that I was on the wrong camera mode. At best, all you have to do is set the right camera mode and retake the shot; at worst, you ruin your settings and end up with a bad photo, or you missed the shot due to the time spent changing the mode. Make it a habit, and you’ll eventually be doing it unconsciously, like me.

Conclusion

Now that you understand the functions of camera modes, don’t be afraid to switch around. After all, they’re here to help and make our lives easier! Find the mode that works best for your shooting style and different shots. Know when to switch to the right camera mode, and your shooting process will be more straightforward.

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