Your Guide To Camera Modes

Your Guide To Camera Modes

Who needs all these modes?

You might ask yourself this question when you pick up a digital camera loaded with custom exposure settings.

Program, Aperture priority and Shutter priority modes have been around for a long time on film cameras, but many new modes have been added on the latest digital models, each finely tuned for specific shooting situations. Some cameras have more than a dozen of these specialized scene modes.

The point of these automated modes is not to dumb down the camera. Like Aperture and Shutter priority settings, the goal is to create quick shortcuts to correct exposures.

These modes help make photography more enjoyable and successful, bypassing the guesswork, particularly when you need to act quickly in order to catch the shot. They also make your camera more family-friendly so that anyone in the clan can get better results.

One important thing to note about these modes is that while they practically guarantee a good exposure, you’re usually restricted in your ability to override certain aspects of exposure, such as white balance, flash, ISO and the like. Manual and semi-manual modes, like Aperture priority and Shutter priority, will allow these sorts of changes, but the modes dedicated to specific conditions generally will not. If you’re wondering why you can’t change your white-balance setting, check your mode.

 


We won’t cover every special mode you may have on your camera, as they vary from model to model. Here are several of the most common modes and what they do for your photography.

Manual. The shooting mode that started it all. You set the shutter speed and aperture, with options to change white balance, ISO, flash and even focus on some cameras. Choose this mode if you’re sure of your exposure or want maximum latitude for experimentation.

Aperture Priority. In this mode, you select the aperture, thereby determining your depth of field, and the camera automatically sets the best shutter speed to match the conditions. This is a terrific mode to use with a stationary subject when you want to control your depth of field and aren’t concerned about shutter speed. It’s also a good choice when you want the camera to automatically select the fastest possible shutter speed (just set the camera to its widest aperture).

Many professionals choose Aperture priority as their default setting. With the traditional SLR, this allowed them to quickly change the exposure without taking their eye off the subject or their finger off the shutter, by spinning the aperture ring with their left (lens-holding) hand.

Shutter Priority. This mode helps you control motion, both as it relates to the subject and the camera. You select the shutter speed and the camera chooses the best aperture. The obvious example for stopping action is sports photography, where you’ll need a high shutter speed.

Photographing a walking person might require a shutter speed of 1/125 sec., and a golf swing might take 1/500 sec. Conversely, there will be times when you want a slow shutter speed, such as for blurring moving water in a stream-try a speed between 1/15 and 1/60 sec.

For controlling camera movement and to improve your handheld exposures, use a shutter speed that’s the reciprocal of your lens focal length (i.e., 1/300 sec. for a 300mm telephoto lens).

 


Program. This all-purpose, mostly automatic exposure mode can be used for general photography. In this mode, the camera selects a median shutter speed and aperture based on the meter reading. Usually some fine-tuning of features like flash and white balance is possible. You can manually shift your aperture or shutter-speed setting in this mode after locking exposure (or while holding down the shutter release halfway on some models).

Most Program modes try to give some blend of shutter speed and aperture setting that will allow for handholding and be fast enough to freeze action, and still provide satisfactory depth of field. However, not all manufacturers design their Program modes in the same way. Learn how you camera’s Program mode responds. As you become more experienced, you’ll be better at guessing the combination of shutter speed and aperture that will produce the results you want. You then can set the Program mode more accurately using the program shift feature to favor a faster shutter speed or slower aperture as you may prefer.

Auto. Of all the modes on your digital camera, this one probably requires no introduction. If you just want to point and shoot, or hand the camera off to someone else and need a foolproof setting, this is it. When set to Auto, the camera does everything and locks out any adjustments to the exposure. Features like exposure compensation, white balance selection and ISO usually will be disabled. Note that if you find you’re unable to make these adjustments when photographing, make sure your camera is not set to Auto.

Landscape. In Landscape mode, your camera will select the smallest aperture possible under the conditions to maximize depth of field in the image. Some cameras also will apply effects such as sharpening and color saturation when set to this mode.

While Landscape mode will attempt to deliver sharpness from the foreground to the background, this isn’t always possible, and depends on the light and the capabilities of your lens and camera. For this reason, it’s best to set focus on the most important areas that need to be sharp.

Portrait. Flattering portraits emphasize the subject by de-emphasizing the background. When you choose Portrait mode, the camera will select a wide aperture setting, minimizing your depth of field for a soft background effect, and also may adjust your zoom. The flash will usually switch to red-eye reduction when shooting in Portrait mode. More advanced cameras might even alter the in-camera processing of the image to accentuate skin tones.

 

 


Here, accurate focus is important because with less depth of field, your margin for error is reduced. Make sure that the eyes of your subject are in sharp focus. Also, if you’re shooting a group of people, Portrait mode may not be the best choice if the subjects are standing at varying distances from the camera. In this situation, you’ll need more depth of field to ensure that everyone is sharp. Choose Aperture priority mode instead to select the smallest aperture possible for the exposure conditions.

Sports. Sports and action photography demand a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of your subject. Switch to Sports mode, and your camera will automatically choose the fastest shutter speed possible so you can concentrate on the action.

Depending on the capabilities of your camera, this mode also will activate continuous shooting (as opposed to single frame) to help you capture the decisive moment in a series of shots. If your camera has an advanced evaluative metering mode, this likely will be employed rather than center-weighted or spot metering. Flash is usually disabled.

Macro. Close-ups usually make for interesting images, provided that they’re sharp. The Macro or Close-Up mode in digital cameras allows you to focus on objects at amazingly small distances-sometimes just a few centimeters from the lens. Use the Macro mode when the little details really count. Depending on your camera, your zoom range may be restricted, and you also may be required to manuall
y set your focus. The flash will likely be disabled as well.

To get the best results, a tripod is recommended. Macro photography also is one of those applications where a flip-out, swiveling LCD is a huge benefit, as you can adjust the angle of the LCD to give you a clear view of the image even in tight quarters.

Night. Night scene photography turns out best when you make the most of your ambient or existing light, which requires a slow shutter speed for a long exposure without flash. A tripod is absolutely necessary for best results.

 

 


A long exposure of several seconds or more is often required for night shots. This raises quality issues of which you should be aware. Digital camera sensors are particularly susceptible to noise problems during long exposures. The sensor must remain active for the duration of the exposure, which generates heat. This heat, in turn, can cause pixel errors that show up as grain-like irregularities in the image. Some of the more advanced cameras have technologies that help reduce noise in long exposures, but no camera is yet immune to this problem. So, if possible, try to include a lot of ambient light in your night photography, or choose to compose your shot with objects in the foreground that can be illuminated by flash to add light to the exposure.

Night Portrait. Some cameras offer a Night Portrait mode in addition to the standard Night mode. Night Portrait uses a long exposure to capture the ambient background light and a reduced-intensity, slow-sync flash with red-eye reduction to softly illuminate the subject in the foreground. This gives a pleasing balance between the flash and existing light. A tripod is important in this mode, as you want the ambient light to be as sharp as the subject illuminated by your flash.

Beach & Snow. The often bright, reflective and contrasty environment at the beach or in snowy landscapes provides an exposure challenge for even the most sophisticated metering system. It’s easy for the meter to be fooled into “thinking” that the scene is much brighter than it really is, which in turn causes the camera to underexpose the image. This mode will compensate for the abundant ambient and reflected light by slightly overexposing based on the meter reading.

 

 


Aperture Priority. This is a terrific mode to use with a stationary subject when you want to control your depth of field and aren’t concerned about shutter speed. In this mode, you choose the aperture setting and the camera automatically sets the best shutter speed to match the conditions.

Shutter Priority. You’ll usually want to choose shutter priority when you need to capture a moving subject. In this mode, you select the shutter speed and the camera chooses the best aperture for a proper exposure.
Program. This all-purpose automatic exposure mode can be used for general photography. In this mode, the camera selects a median shutter speed and aperture based on the meter reading.
Landscape. In Landscape mode, your camera will select the smallest aperture to maximize depth of field in the image. Your image will be as sharp as possible under the conditions in both the foreground and background. Some cameras also will apply enhanced color saturation to the image.
Portrait. This mode emphasizes the subject by de-emphasizing the background. The camera selects the widest possible aperture setting to minimize depth of field for a softened background. The flash usually will switch to its red-eye reduction setting when shooting in this mode. Remember to focus on your subject’s eyes.
Sports. Speed is the name of the game in Sports mode. Your camera will automatically choose the fastest shutter speed possible, and also will enable continuous high-speed shooting if available. Evaluative metering is usually the default for this mode, helping to ensure a decent exposure even in contrasty light.
Macro. Macro shots can be an interesting window into a smaller world that we don’t usually notice. One of our favorite features of compact digital cameras is the ability to shoot close-ups without a special lens. Macro mode allows you to focus on objects extremely close up, though your zoom range may be restricted.
Night. Successful night photography requires a slow shutter speed for a long exposure without flash. The exposure may last several seconds, so use a tripod when shooting in this mode or place your camera on a solid platform. Also, be aware that most digital sensors generate image noise during exposures of more than a few seconds.
Night Portrait. For flattering portraits in dark conditions, you want a combination of flash with a long exposure to pick up ambient background lights. In this mode, the flash fires to freeze the action of your subject amid the lengthened exposure. Whenever possible, use a tripod with this mode for best results.
Beach & Snow. The bright reflections and high contrast of sand and snow often will trick your camera’s meter into underexposing the scene. This mode will ensure a proper exposure by slightly overexposing based on the meter reading.

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