Photography Basics #2: How to Master Camera Shooting Modes

Michael Sand
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The Five Basic Shooting Modes

When you first started shooting pictures with your digital camera, you might have taken all your pictures in the automatic (P) mode. Like film cameras, digital cameras have several shooting modes that allow you to control various features and settings.

All digital cameras have a P (auto) mode, which lets the camera control both the shutter speed and the aperture. While P mode is fine for quick snapshots in good light, you may want more control over your pictures.

Auto Mode

Auto mode is the easiest mode to use. Despite its ease of use, it can shoot excellent photos and lets you concentrate on your subject instead of getting lost in a flurry of controls.

It is a good mode to use if you are new to photography and if you are not sure of the kind of result you want to get.

If need you to snap a photo, all you need to do is to point the camera and hold the shutter down.

In Auto, the camera will decide what it has to do, from pressing the shutter down to choosing one of the various settings that you may not be familiar with.

Manual mode is an advanced mode that offers plenty of possibilities.

For instance, in manual, you can choose the shutter speed and the aperture to perfectly capture the moment.

If you’re not a photography expert, you will find this mode confusing to use though. And should probably stick to the Auto mode.

In Aperture Priority mode, you decide the aperture while the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed.

Aperture Priority is a widely used mode that is easy to understand and to use.

All you need to do is to turn the zoom ring on the lens until you reach the minimum or maximum aperture that you want. The camera will then automatically select the appropriate shutter speed.

Program Mode (P)

The program mode is usually represented by a P on the mode dial. This mode is the best choice for beginners, and it is the easiest photo mode with which you will be able to shoot great pictures.

The Program mode’s name may be misleading, as it doesn’t mean that you’re choosing a program. Instead, this simply means that the camera automatically selects the correct settings for shooting a scene using the information coded in the camera’s internal database.

You have the option to easily modify these settings by moving the control wheel from left to right.

The camera will choose a faster shutter speed when it judges that shooting a picture in low light is important. In the picture above, our model has tilted her head towards the sun to capture sunlight in her eye, creating a nice catchlight. Some cameras even have the ability to tilt their aperture in low light.

Aperture Priority Mode (A or AV)

Lets your camera choose the shutter speed while you pick the aperture. It’s like having a digital version of a pro’s camera.

This is great if you want to shoot fast-moving objects while still maintaining a well-blurred background.This feature is suitable for shooting anything that contains moving objects such as sports or wildlife. You pick the aperture you want and the camera automatically selects the correct shutter speed.

This mode is useful for creative shallow depth of field shots, which is best for portraits and landscape photos.

Point and shoot is a great way of making a portrait with your lens set to around f/2.8 or f/4 and the focus is on your subject.

This mode is great for shooting landscapes. You let the camera determine the depth of field as well as the exposure.

Manual is the opposite of automatic. It gives you full control of every aspect of a shot. Manual mode also prevents you from under- or overexposing your shot.

This is the best mode for shooting difficult lighting, such as evening and sunrise, when you’re far from home.

Shutter Priority Mode (S or TV)

When you switch to Shutter Priority, the camera automatically adjusts the aperture to achieve a correct exposure.

The advantage of this mode is that you can choose the speed of your camera's shutter. This means you can capture fast action shots, even when you're not in full control of the lighting.

However, you don't have direct control over the aperture and therefore you can't manage depth of field in this mode. This fact means that your scenic shots will have a larger depth of field, no matter what the conditions are.

On the upside, you do have the leeway to experiment with shutter speed. This way you can create interesting effects with your scene. For instance, a slow shutter speed will produce a blurred effect, which is quite useful in some circumstances.

A fast shutter speed can freeze the action and create a very dramatic shot.

My advice would be to stick to who you really are. If you're a photographer who enjoys taking action shots, I suggest you use this mode more often. When you shoot moving objects, pay close attention to your shutter speed. A moving object will look its sharpest when you shoot it at a shutter speed of 1/500 sec or faster. You can also play with this option if you want to introduce a blur to your shot.

Manual Mode (M)

Use this for taking photos when you want complete control of the camera settings. For example, if you want to shoot high-speed photography or you want to change the depth of field.

Special and Scene Modes

While shooting modes are available on almost all DSLR cameras, entry-level ones rely heavily on scene modes, which adjust both shutter speed and aperture for you. As these modes are pre-set, however, you may be missing great shots by relying too heavily on them.

Here’s the list of auto modes and some of the options they set:

  • Portrait mode blurs the background; use it for static shots of people/animals.
  • Landscape mode sets the aperture in order to ensure everything in the photograph is in focus.
  • Sports mode freezes the action.
  • Night mode will use a longer shutter speed to ensure you don’t completely lose the image.
  • There are more specific modes if you shoot a lot in bright sunlight, dark spaces, or if you shoot video, so explore those options, too.

Flash Off / Auto Flash Off Mode

In the flash off mode, the flash is not going to fire regardless of the lighting situation. The camera settings, on the other hand, will be determined by your normal shooting mode. In this mode, you will have a number of camera settings to play with, the ones that are available in your normal shooting mode.

Better still, auto flash off mode gives you fine control of exposure, far greater than using your camera’s automatic exposure metering mode. Even on your point and shoot, this mode could come in handy.

The reason is simple: it puts you in control.

If you want to get the background properly exposed, but something in the foreground is causing problems, you can set a lower ISO, and set a longer shutter speed, to get the background properly exposed. If you’re photographing people, a slow shutter speed can be used to add a blur, which would be an ideal way to get a cool effect.

Similarly, you can use your camera’s normal exposure compensation options to fine tune your photographs, get the exposure you want and add some drama to your photographs.

Portrait Mode

Portrait mode has a greater depth of field, compared to photo mode, which isolates the subject and blurs the background creating a shallow depth of field. Besides the depth of field, portrait mode also softens the background and makes your subject pop out of the image, making it easier to attract the eye.

It is therefore the best shooting mode for portraits of people especially those who are focal points of your image and even more so when you include a blurred background. However, it’s not always suitable for portraits, and it is also less suitable for photographing motion.

The depth of field is usually larger in portrait mode, compared to photo mode, which means that more of the picture will be sharp. In portrait mode, you are also more likely to have a pleasing background blur, which minimises distractions. A shallow depth of field helps a subject stand out by isolating it from its surroundings. This makes subjects appear sharper, more in focus.

Night Portrait Mode

Shooting in the Portrait (P) mode is typically for people shots.

The Scene Intelligent Auto (iA) mode typically takes care of most of the tweaking needed to get a nice portrait shot.

However, if you want to capture a shot in low-light or with a lot of light, you’ll need to use the Night Portrait (N) mode.

This mode is similar to the Portrait mode but instead of using the slowest shutter speed available in the Portrait mode, it uses a faster shutter speed. The speed is usually one-quarter or one-half of the normal shutter speed in a Night Portrait view.

When set on the Auto (A) mode, the Night Portrait (N) mode automatically switches to the correct shutter speed for nightlights.

Landscape Mode

Landscape mode was designed for capturing beautiful landscape photos. The camera settings are based on the consideration of the distance between the photographer and the subject being photographed.

This shooting mode is primarily used for capturing distant landscapes.

Be careful not to over-process your landscape shots.

People usually overdo it when it comes to processing landscape photos, making the shot look processed to look unnatural.

Just a little bit of tint, contrast, and saturation can make your photo look aesthetically pleasing.

In most standard cases, it’s good to stick with the default picture scene and capture your shots using the default setting on your camera.

Sports Mode

In this mode your camera starts shooting as soon as you push the shutter release button and keeps shooting until you release it.

The shutter speeds are predetermined by your camera. The settings vary from camera to camera.

It is used for all types of photography where a fast shutter speed is most critical.

Examples: Used for sports and action photography, where you need to freeze the same. You can use it for street photography to freeze the movement of a car or other objects. Or, use the Sports Mode while playing or watching sports like cricket, tennis, football or other games to freeze the plays.

Beware that in Sports Mode, some digital cameras can be prone to blurred images if the moving objects are moving too fast.

Macro Mode

And Macro Zoom: Tips, Tricks, and Requirements

If you are looking to do more close-up or macro photography, then you will need to invest in lenses that can focus closer to the subject.

There are macro accessories that you can buy: Macro Lens and Actinic Illumining Macro Lens, which attach to your camera body and flash ports.

The closest you can get to a subject using a zoom lens is when you are using the macro mode. This is when the maximum magnification or biggest possible focal length is used.

Most macro lenses and accessories have built-in optics to take the subject from the closest possible distance. The ingenuity of getting close to the subject differs depending on the device you are using.

For example, if you have a makeshift macro lens setup, you will need a tripod and flash source. This is needed because you have to keep your camera as steady as possible for the best possible macro photos.

Once you have the tripod and flash in place, you will need to determine the correct distance and set your auto-focus to manual to lock on to a specific object at a specific distance.

Using these tools to create a makeshift macro lens device, you will have to experiment and learn. Keeping your camera steady and your subject within the frame is guaranteed to improve your photos.

Now back to the macro mode of your imaging device.

Custom Modes

Camera manufacturers offer different kinds of shooting modes. Almost all camera phones come with multiple shooting modes you can choose from while your SLR camera offers many more advanced shooting modes. But are these modes just for show or are they really useful?

Most of these custom modes have a specific function hence why one shooting mode is better than the other in certain situations.

For example, in the portrait mode, the camera will focus on the subject and create a shallow depth of field, which blurs out the area around the subject. The sunset mode will reduce exposure and adjust for the bright and dark lighting caused by the sunset. The sports mode is ideal for shooting fast moving subjects.

These custom modes are beneficial for beginners to shoot in a certain situation without having to use manual mode.

However, if you’re an experienced photographer you should practice using the manual mode as it will give you ultimate control over your camera.

For example, in the portrait mode, your camera will select an appropriate aperture for focusing on the subject and creating a shallow depth of field. But since you are restricted to using only a few of the possible f-stops, you are not able to change the size of the aperture to capture the perfect shot.

On the other hand, if you are using manual mode, you can adjust the f-stop while taking a picture to achieve the perfect exposure.

Choosing the Right Mode

The first immediate decision you need to make when starting out is selecting the right shooting mode for the available shooting conditions at hand.

If you shoot a lot in low light conditions or need quicker focusing, manual mode is just for you. If you’re a beginner, stick to automatic modes.

You should also be aware of other important factors such as the focus mode and shutter speed when setting your camera to a certain mode.

Follow the tips in the article if you’d like to learn more about these two critical settings. Once you get the hang of it, you’re ready to start making your own choices regarding these two modes.