All About Scene Modes

Your camera’s Scene modes are for amateurs, right? Not really. Scene modes can be great shortcuts that allow even professionals to make some powerful changes with the flip of a single switch. Here’s what happens behind the scenes of each mode, and how you can put them to use in your own pictures.



When you set your camera to Portrait mode, it automatically chooses a wide aperture (like ƒ/2 or ƒ/2.8) to create a shallow depth of field. This helps to isolate your subject, visually separating him or her from the background. The closer you get to your subject, the more noticeable the effect will be, so stand just a few feet from your subject and fill the frame with his or her head and shoulders.

To strengthen the effect, set your lens to a longer telephoto setting and keep an eye on the background, choosing something simple as a backdrop to minimize distractions. Some cameras also utilize face-detection focusing in Portrait mode, and enable red-eye-reducing fill-flash and a subtle softening effect for pleasing skin tones.



Sports mode is built for capturing fast action. To that end, the camera will select its fastest available shutter speed and may increase the ISO to accomplish this. The aperture is likely to open up and create a shallower depth of field, which could become an issue with a fast-moving subject.

Because of the high shutter speed, the camera won’t use a flash, and if it has the capability, it will utilize continuous focus-tracking and high-speed shooting so you can fire off several frames in a row.

The best way to photograph a fast-moving subject (like a runner or a cyclist) is to pan the camera with the motion as the subject crosses the frame. If you’d like to minimize the speed of that movement, position yourself so the action is moving toward the camera or away from it, rather than laterally across the scene.


Use Macro mode for shooting small subjects (like insects and flowers) or for close-up details. On some point-and-shoot cameras with motorized zooms, this mode will spur the camera to automatically choose the focal length at which it can focus closest. Handholding for macro shots can be tricky, as the slightest movement can mean the difference between a subject in totally sharp focus and one that’s blurry. Try to use your camera on a tripod, or at the very least position yourself so you can brace the handheld camera against another object. Depth of field can be microscopic in macro, so maintaining a steady composition is crucial. Flash is usually set to automatic, so it will fire if needed and compensate for being so close to the subject.



Landscape mode is the polar opposite of Portrait mode. With the lens focused at infinity, instead of choosing a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field, Landscape mode prompts the camera to choose a small aperture (such as ƒ/16 or ƒ/22) to increase depth of field so that all elements of a landscape, from foreground to background, will be in focus.

To accomplish this, the camera is likely going to have to use a slower shutter speed, especially if you’re working in low light. To prevent blur, a tripod is an ideal accessory for Landscape mode.

The flash is also disabled because the camera assumes you’re photographing something at a distance. In some cases, saturation is boosted subtly for more vibrant foliage, although this can be separated out into its own mode.



If there’s one Scene mode that should be on everyone’s radar, it’s Night Portrait. This mode uses a combination of a long shutter speed and fill-flash, sometimes referred to as "dragging the shutter."

The premise is simple: If you’re photographing a portrait in low light, the long ambient exposure will allow the background to register on the sensor, while the fill-flash will illuminate the subject. That combination is a real showstopper, as it prevents the dreaded "brightly lit subject standing in front of a pure black background," just as it avoids a blurry foreground subject that would result from a long exposure for the background.

Ever notice at a sporting event or concert all those flashes in the stands? If those photographers were making portraits with Night Portrait mode, they’d have nicely lit foreground subjects and a brightly illuminated playing field or stage in the background.


Use a tripod to get a background in sharp focus. For a bit of artistic blur, handhold and move the camera. If your camera has face-detection technology, enable it in order to focus on the subject rather than the background.


The five Scene modes listed here are by far the most common, and they’re likely to be found on most cameras. But your camera also may include additional Scene modes to tackle even trickier situations.

SNOW/BEACH MODE enables exposure compensation (usually +1 stop) to prevent the underexposure that frequently occurs in these extra-bright outdoor environments.

PARTY MODE is subtly different than Night Portrait in that it won’t use such a slow shutter speed and it doesn’t utilize face-detection focusing (if available). Instead, it defaults to automatic flash instead of slow-speed synch.

FIREWORKS MODE works similar to Landscape mode, but it defaults to a long shutter speed, usually a couple of seconds, in order to allow the bursts of light to register as beautiful streaks on the sensor.

NIGHT LANDSCAPE MODE is a whole lot like Fireworks mode in that the camera defaults to long shutter speeds and no flash, both necessary for low-light imagery. Both also require a tripod.


Just because a mode is intended for one thing doesn’t mean you can’t use it for another.

If you want to photograph sports, you might consider choosing Portrait mode. Because of its wide aperture, the camera will be forced to use a fast shutter speed, which happens to be perfect for freezing fast-moving action.

You can harness the power of Night Portrait mode even in brighter light or when shooting indoors. It’s a great way to treat the flash as a fill with plenty of ambient light creating the bulk of the exposure.

Food mode is a shortcut to macro shooting without a flash, which makes it perfect for situations in which you want close-ups comprised solely of ambient light—even if it isn’t edible.

A great way to make beautiful portraits in soft ambient light is to go high-key. This eliminates blemishes and other skin details. Snow/Beach mode is a great way to ensure a high-key portrait.

en if it’s nowhere near the Fourth of July, you can use Fireworks mode to create gorgeous long exposures where motion blur would be beneficial—such as when water or wildlife is moving in a landscape.

If you’d care to create artistic blurs for creative effect, consider many of the long exposure modes—Fireworks, Landscape, Night Landscape or even Night Portrait—to employ a longer shutter speed that, when combined with a moving camera, can create some pretty cool motion-blur effects.

PANORAMA/STITCHING MODE is unique in that it doesn’t use special settings (with the exception of turning off the flash), but it will provide alignment guides or an overlay to assist in alignment of subsequent exposures to stitch together a panorama.

FOOD MODE is a lot like Macro mode, but with the flash disabled so food looks appetizing lit strictly by ambient light.

PETS/KIDS MODE defaults to a fast shutter speed (much like Sports mode) to keep those fast-moving children and pets in sharp focus, but with a camera with face-detecting autofocus, this mode also will fire off a couple of quick shots as soon as it detects focus on a child’s or pet’s face.


They say everybody wants to direct. Maybe that’s why almost every digital camera also features a Movie mode for capturing video. Here are a few tips for getting started with your camera’s Movie mode.

1. Depending on the camera, your high-definition resolution options may be limited to 720p, or they also may include the higher-resolution 1080 option. If you’re really trying to maximize quality, choose 1080. But if you just want to be sure you have a nice video to share on Facebook or YouTube, 720 is more than enough. (Either way, you probably want to step up from standard def or VGA.)

2. Frame rates—which represent how frequently the image in a video is refreshed— likely aren’t going to make or break the average user’s video, but your choices are usually 24 or 30, or maybe even 48 or 60. The higher the better, theoretically, as a 60 fps rate creates a video with twice as many frames as one with 30 frames per second. If your camera allows you to choose from "p" or "i", as in 1080p or 1080i, you’ll probably want to choose "p". It stands for progressive, rather than interlaced, and is generally deemed to create a higher-quality, more seamless finished video, especially with fast-moving subjects.

3. Your camera may give you some autofocus options as well, since focusing video can be kind of tricky. The single-focus approach will focus once at the beginning of a recording and that’s it, while continuous autofocus will keep refocusing the scene throughout recording.

If you have the camera locked down to a tripod and your subject is sitting or standing still, you should be happy with single focus. This way, your camera won’t be trying to refocus unnecessarily throughout the recording. But if your subject is a tricky one, moving throughout the composition during filming, you may be better off choosing continuous AF.

4. With your camera in manual exposure mode, you’d better make sure you have your exposure correct before you start shooting video. Alternately, you can select an auto-exposure mode so the camera will adjust the exposure appropriately throughout recording. This is helpful if you’ll be encountering changing lighting scenarios throughout the shot, but it also could be distracting if the camera compensates for subtle lighting changes that cause the iris to open and close.

An alternative, on some cameras, is to use the exposure-lock button to gain the benefit of an initial auto exposure, but then the stability of a constant exposure during recording.

5. If you’ll be handholding your camera while shooting video, consider keeping your zoom lens at its widest position to help mask any of the normal vibrations from handholding. Locking the camera to a tripod for stability will make telephoto shooting much more feasible—and will help keep viewers of the finished product from suffering the effects of motion sickness.

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