Point And Shoot Like A Pro
Why à la modes?
Macro/Close-Up. In close-up work, depth of field is extremely limited, and camera and subject movement are magnified along with the subject's image. So macro mode attempts the impossible: providing good depth of field and a handholdable shutter speed. Serious macro photographers can choose a small aperture to provide great depth of field to try to get a whole subject sharp or a large aperture to minimize depth of field and thus direct the viewer's attention to a specific part of the subject. But for those who just want to shoot hassle-free close-ups, macro mode is the ticket.
TIP: To get really close, use a macro lens. Try to find an angle that shows the subject in a flattering way and minimizes background distractions. While the limited depth of field at close shooting distances throws the background well out of focus, bright spots or clashing colors in the background still can be distracting. Because close-up shooting magnifies camera shake as well as the subject's image, use a tripod. Electronic flash minimizes camera and subject—movement problems (due to the brief flash duration) and also allows shooting at a small aperture to maximize depth of field (due to the flash intensity at close range).
Night Portrait. Night portrait mode uses flash to illuminate a nearby subject and a slow shutter speed to properly expose the dark background for a nicely balanced image.
TIP: Use a tripod so that the ambient-lit background is recorded sharply. If you're shooting a night portrait, ask your subject to stay as still as possible during the entire exposure, or a ghost image might appear around his or her edges in the photo.
Flash-Off. Sometimes, use of flash isn't allowed or you may wish to retain the feel of the ambient lighting. Flash-off mode deactivates the flash, allowing you to record the scene by existing light only.
TIP: It's a good idea to mount the camera on a tripod when using flash-off mode because handheld shooting at long exposure times can cause image blur due to camera shake.
The Digital Advantage
Subject modes were introduced in film SLRs. With film cameras, subject modes control the shutter speed and aperture, and often the AF mode, drive mode and flash operation. Digital cameras can also set the ideal ISO, white balance, sharpness, contrast, saturation and more for each type of shot. Some of what the subject modes do in digital cameras is proprietary, but you can learn a lot about what your camera does to many settings in each subject mode by referring to the EXIF metadata recorded with each image using the software provided with the camera.
The metadata can include camera model, shooting date and time, shutter speed, aperture, metering mode, exposure compensation, ISO speed, lens, focal length, image size, image-quality setting, flash use, white-balance setting, AF mode, color space, drive mode, file size, custom functions and more. Many of these functions are likely to be adjusted by subject modes.
With most browser software, going to View > Properties brings up the metadata. If you're using Photoshop, go to File > File Info..., then click on Camera Data 1 (for a plain-language abbreviated readout) or Advanced > EXIF Properties (for a more complete but harder-to-decipher readout). The information provided varies from camera manufacturer to camera manufacturer, from software program to software program and from original to edited image. It's best to read metadata from original (unedited) images using the camera manufacturer's software—if you use other software or a modified image file, some metadata might be missing or coded in an undecipherable way.
Some cameras also let you view directly on the LCD monitor's information screen what the various settings are in the active mode. For example, with the Olympus EVOLT E-510 D-SLR, pressing the INFO button twice brings up the "detailed control panel" screen, which displays shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, picture mode, flash mode, drive mode, metering mode, AF mode, sharpness, contrast, saturation, gradation (normal, high-key, low-key) and more. Rotate the control dial to the various subject modes with this screen activated, and you can see just what each mode does to these items.
There are a couple of drawbacks to subject modes. First, most cameras don't allow you to use exposure compensation in the subject modes. Second, some cameras can't shoot RAW images in the subject modes. On the other hand, with one D-SLR I tested a few years ago, action mode was the only way to get continuous AF; fortunately, that camera did allow exposure compensation to be used in the subject modes.