Camera Modes – 31 Days To Better Photography

Yesterday’s Topic: Metering Modes

When I speak of camera modes I speak of those little letters and pictures typically atop a dial on the top of your camera. P, A, S, M and then a bunch of pictures. Or, if you have a Canon, it gets goofy with AV and TV. No, you don’t have TV on your camera (yet). It stands for Time Value and is silly for Canon to still be using.

Standing down from my soapbox, I will list out what the modes do and how best to use them. If you think I’ll be referencing back to previous posts and starting to tie more things together, you’re right. Oh, and a slight rant; before you get too caught up in which mode to use, it doesn’t matter as long as you are getting the shots you want. Being proficient in modes other than your favorite will give you more latitude to experiment and try new things, though.

Auto Mode

Auto mode is the mode I use when I hand the camera to someone to take my picture. It’s the green box mode. It’s the mode I’m trying to get you out of by doing all this typing. It handles practically all aspects of photo taking: shutter speed, aperture, ISO, flash use and in some cameras, it will even have a baby for you. It’s that automatic. It’s handy, but not so useful for learning.

Use This Mode When You

  • Hand a camera to someone who has never used your camera
  • Just don’t care (and also throw your hands in the air and wave them)
  • Are too tired to think and your photo instincts are shot
  • Don’t want to shoot in RAW

Program Mode

P Mode. Program Mode is like Auto but now you can change things. It is the mode I use most often and people often gasp in horror when I tell them, at least those who are just getting into photography. They tend to think Manual is the only way to go to have complete control over everything. I thought that too at one time, especially the time when my camera didn’t have a Program Mode and all I had was Manual.

Yet most modern DSLRs have quality Program Modes which handle most functions but leave many to be adjusted. For instance, the camera will pick a shutter speed, ISO and aperture setting for you. But if you like, you can manually set the ISO. Likewise, turning a dial will adjust the shutter speed and aperture settings while keeping the overall exposure the same based on your selected metering mode. You can also pick focus points and choose to over or under expose the scene by a set number of stops and change the white balance.

I use it all the time and typically I will use the front dial on my camera to make a quick change to the chosen settings to adjust to my liking, such as adding in just a bit of depth of field with an increase in aperture or quickly underexposing by a stop when I know the camera will meter higher than I desire.

Use This Mode When You

  • Want to start taking control of your camera
  • Have a name that starts with P (that’s my secret reason for using it; ego)
  • Are happy with the camera’s metering and know what to expect

Aperture Mode

A Mode (or Av mode on Canon and Pentax because they like to annoy me). As you hopefully guessed, aperture mode allows you to control just the aperture, not shutter speed or ISO (the camera handles those). It also allows control over the items mentioned in Program Mode. Depending on how your camera is set up, the main dial, or rear dial, will always be used to select the aperture and that aperture will not change unless you want it to. Adjustments are made in 1/2 stop or 1/3 stop increments.

This mode is best used to control what aperture controls, which is? Depth Of Field.

Use This Mode When You

  • Are shooting landscape
  • Want to control depth of field, like when shooting landscape
  • Are thinking of shooting landscape
  • Just got out of the car on your way to shoot landscape
  • Dream about shooting landscape tonight
  • Accidentally shoot a portrait or two between landscape shoots

Shutter Speed Mode

S Mode (or Tv in, again, Canon and Pentax because they are so advanced, it’s known as Time Value. I’m not sure why they departed from Shutter Speed Priority, but they are whacky.) As with Aperture Mode, Shutter Speed Mode (or Time Value on Canon) controls the shutter speed. No matter where you set it, there it is. The range is typically in 1/3 stop increments but can be switched to 1/2 stop. The range extends from 30 seconds to the fastest shutter speed your camera is capable of. It has all the same manual controls as Program Mode.

Important note: In both Aperture and Shutter Speed Modes, it is possible to over or under expose when selecting your setting, unlike in Program Mode. If the shutter speed is too fast for the aperture, for instance, the aperture setting may blink or list “LO”, indicating the amount of light is too low for a proper exposure. Likewise, if you set the aperture to f/45 and there is still too much light for your highest shutter speed to be used, your camera will still use that highest shutter speed but will blink to tell you things are going to come out all wrong.

Use This Mode When You

  • Are shooting action shots, like sports
  • Want to ensure no camera blur with a long lens (don’t shoot slower than 1/focal length, so 200mm lens means don’t shoot slower than 1/180th as a rule of thumb)
  • Want to control blur in general
  • Are taking night shots with flash and want more control than the ‘creative’ mode allows
  • Are taking a picture of a yeti

Manual Mode

M Mode. All you’re doing in this mode is combining the Shutter and Aperture modes and now you can adjust both of those values. Party. Your camera will still meter and list, via a scale, if you are under or over exposed as it sees things, but life is up to you now, big boy. This mode can be liberating and confusing for some and is best not used in fast moving situations where constant change is needed. It’s all about control.

Use This Mode When You

  • Want to brag about using it
  • Lust after total control
  • Are feeling creative and want to play
  • Shoot in a studio and know your lighting setup

Portrait Mode

Now we are getting into the ‘creative’ modes as some manufacturers call them. Portrait Mode will bring your aperture to a lower number (wider opening, less depth of field) to help isolate the model. It will also, if shooting in JPEG mode, add in a bit of warmth to skin tones and choose a decent ISO. It may also change in-camera sharpening, tone and contrast.

Action/Sports Mode

This is great for sports in a no thinking way. Shutter speed and ISO are jacked up to stop motion, aperture be damned. Frame rate is also increased to its highest, typically.

Landscape Mode

Aperture be praised in this mode. Saturation might also get a bump, especially in the greens and blues. Some cameras will also pick a slightly ‘off’ focus point in order to maximize depth of field.

Night Shot Mode

Night Shot Mode is a fun one. Your camera will meter for the entire scene and expose as such, but also fire the flash to light up foreground objects. And by objects I mean people. This mode is best used with a tripod as the metering for the scene, at night, means a longer shutter speed to bring in faint city lights. Handholding is ok, but will leave some streak or blur in the overall scene, even though the object will be stopped with the flash.


Some other modes of note:

  • Child Mode – Not what you think. Does not deliver children, nor make them eat healthy snacks. But helps with taking pictures of the fast moving buggers.
  • CA – This mode mystifies me. It uses sliders on the back of the camera to control things like Contrast while shooting. Might be useful to some, but kinda clunky in practice.
  • B – Bulb Mode. In this mode the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold the shutter release. Great for long star exposures when using a remote trigger which has a lock for the shutter release, leaving both hands free for beer.
  • C1, C2, C3 – Custom settings. Handy for certain set of situations, like maybe heading underwater or one set for studio use, etc… Records and uses any number of settings, like metering mode, white balance, etc…
  • Close Up/Macro – Usually a faster shutter speed and wider aperture for flower pictures as well as small things you want to sell on Etsy.
  • Pentax also have some Hype modes and a Sensitivity mode. Plus a TAv which allows for more creative use.

And there you have the basic rundown on Camera Modes. Any questions?

Next Up: White Balance

31 Days To Better Photography is a series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey on The Carey Adventures.Com. The series is designed to unravel the mysteries of photography so you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

8 Replies to “Camera Modes – 31 Days To Better Photography”

  1. Lanora

    Dear Peter,
    Bless you for admitting (er, revealing) that you shoot most often in Program mode. I had let myself be shamed out of *ever* relying on the camera’s more advanced brain. And yes, I have a bunch of shots that are, at this point, lost opportunities. When we used manual cameras, of course we always used manual settings. Who am I to second-guess Canon’s engineers?

  2. Peter West Carey Post author

    People’s egos and need to tell others what to do often gets in the way of sane advice. If it works for you and produces pictures you like, use whatever mode that is. If you’re worried about pleasing other people, use what mode they want you to use.

  3. Fotofanatix

    Oh what a fool i have been, using solely ‘M’ not for the Ego factor but just because i thought it gave me total control over the settings, the photo’s i didn’t like (quite a few of them) i just deleted, forever to be lost, but i will now be playing around with ‘P’ ‘A’ & ‘S’ modes too and hopefully will be keeping more than deleting??? Thank You Thank You Thank You … Once again Peter – obviously i’ll have to use ‘A’ mode most often, i mean hey, my name is Alan!!!

  4. Pingback: 31+ Days Of Photography Experiments – Slow Shutter Speed And Bracing Your Camera | The Carey Adventures

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