Camera Modes 101: Understanding the Different Modes on Your Digital Camera

By Luke Montgomery in Art Tutorials > Photography Tips

If you’ve just been using the automatic mode on your digital camera, you’re probably becoming curious as to what the other modes on your camera dial are for.

In today’s article I’ll explain what those modes are, and in what circumstances to use each one. I realize that for the most part this information is pretty basic. . . but for anyone who needs a quick refresher, or an introduction, read on:

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Automatic Mode

Automatic mode is the mode to select when you want your camera to make its own decisions about how to take the photo. Your camera will pick the best aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focus and flash to get the best picture that it can.

Automatic mode will usually give you good results, but keep in mind that your camera isn’t human so it won’t always know what you want (and you may get some bad photos because of it). It’s the easiest choice if you just want to click the button and take a picture, however.

Portrait Mode (the face)

When you select portrait mode your camera will automatically assume that you are taking a photograph of a single person.

The camera will select a large aperture (such as f/2.8) to help give the photo a blurry background. Ideally your subject will be in focus while everything in the background is out of focus.

Macro Mode (the flower)

Use the macro mode when you want to move in close to your subject to take a photo. This mode is perfect for pictures of flowers, insects and other small objects.

Landscape Mode (the mountain)

When you shoot in landscape mode your camera uses a small aperture (f/18) because it assumes that you will want the entire scene to be in focus, giving you the largest depth of field possible.

Landscape mode is the perfect choice when you want to capture wide scenes which have various points of interest at different distances.

As a rule, when shooting in low light with landscape mode, consider using a tripod. Because you are using a small aperture your camera will need to open the shutter for longer periods of time to compensate for the small aperture. Using a tripod will steady your camera and eliminate the blurry effect that many photos get from low lighting.

Sports Mode/Action Mode (the running figure)

Action mode is intended to be used when you are photographing moving subjects. Your camera will select a high shutter speed in an attempt to freeze your subject in place while it moves.

Night Mode (the moon and star)

In night mode your camera assumes that you will be photographing in the dark with some low lighting. It will choose a long exposure time to expose the background, and will use the flash to illuminate your foreground subjects.

Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av)

Aperture priority mode is my personal favorite. This mode allows you to select the aperture value of your choice while your camera selects a proper shutter speed to properly expose the scene.

Most of the time I stick with aperture priority when shooting, except in tricky lighting conditions or in situations where movement is a concern.

Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv)

Shutter priority mode is similar to aperture priority, just flip-flopped. When using shutter priority you will select the shutter speed that you want the camera to use and your camera will select the best aperture to give you the correct exposure.

Shutter priority is a good choice when photographing moving subjects, since you can set a fast shutter speed to freeze the subject in place. You can also set a long shutter speed and give your subject a blur or the feeling of movement.

Program Mode (P)

The program mode is very similar to the automatic mode except with program mode you have the option to control some features—such as flash, white balance, and ISO.

Different camera models will have different options, and some cameras wont even have this mode. Check your camera’s manual to learn more about the differences between program mode and full automatic mode.

Manual Mode (M)

With this mode you will have full control over every aspect of your camera. You will need to think about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and flash.

For me manual mode is useful in tricky lighting situations when my camera is having trouble properly metering the scene. Most of the time I stick with one of the other camera modes, however, and switch to manual for tough lighting shots.

All in all, your digital camera comes with lots of different options for you to try, and my suggestion is to experiment with as many modes as you have available. You may be surprised at the variety of results you can get when you start taking more control of your shots!

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