Master your camera’s shooting modes

Nikon shooting mode dial
Almost all digital cameras today have a dial on top of the camera which turns, selecting the shooting mode. All the icons and letters can seem intimidating at first, but it’s rather straight forward once you understand how they work. By the time you finish reading this article you should understand what they are, how they work and which is most suitable for your next photography project.

The exposure mode dial on all digital cameras usually have roughly the same set of modes. The icons or letters representing the mode may vary slightly between manufacturers, and I will try to point out where they differ as we go.

In order to make things simpler we are going to break the shooting modes into three categories: fully-automatic modes, semi-automatic modes, and full-manual mode.

Nikon and Canon exposure dials


Fully-automatic modes

The first group are the fully-automatic modes. These modes are represented on the dial by icons not letters and for this reason are often called icon or scene modes. In any of these modes the camera has full control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Each of these modes is specific to a certain shooting situation except for the Auto Mode.

Auto mode

The automatic exposure mode, also known as the green mode, is the camera’s completely automatic mode. The camera sets the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and whether or not to use the flash. This is the most basic mode on your camera in which the camera takes care of all the decisions for you. The only control that is available to you in the automatic mode is exposure compensation settings.

Program exposure mode (P)

In the Program mode, the camera sets the shutter speed and aperture for you like in auto mode. It does not, however, set the ISO or fire the flash automatically for you. This mode also lets you make changes to the white balance and exposure compensation. This mode is great for indoor places where you are not allowed to use a flash or for someone who is not comfortable using the full manual mode, but wants to retain at least some creative input on their images.

Portrait Mode portrait mode icon

Portrait mode is best used with photographing a single person. The camera will select a very wide aperture (small f-stop number) in order to blur the background and make the subject stand out. The camera will also adjust the image different during processing in order to make skin appear softer and smoother.

Landscape Mode landscape mode icon

Landscape Example Photograph

When shooting landscapes a big obstacle is often how to keep everything in the frame in focus. Landscape mode, therefore, sets the aperture very small in order to give a large depth-of-field. It also boosts colors and contrast and sharpens the image to bring out detail. In order to compensate for the lack of light due to the small aperture, the shutter speed will be much slower. It is a good idea to use a tripod whenever shooting in landscape mode to reduce blur and softness that might result from hand holding the camera.

Sports Mode sports mode icon

The main purpose of sports mode is to freeze action. In truth, you can use this mode for any subject that is moving quickly or erratically. The camera selects a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and will usually switch the focusing to a continuous mode to keep the subject in constant sharp focus.

Night Portrait Mode night portrait mode icon

Night mode can be used in any low light scene. The camera uses the flash and a slower than normal shutter speed to expose both the subject and the background simultaneously. The long shutter speed lets more light in allowing more detail in the background of the image while the flash burst lights your subject. In order to get a sharp image with the slow shutter speed, a tripod or support of some kind will be necessary. On a side note, it can be fun to play around with night mode and purposely blur the background of the image. Because the flash is freezing your subject, moving the camera just slightly while exposing will only blur the background and can create some interesting composures.

Macro mode macro mode icon

The macro mode will not zoom in closer than with any other mode. For that you will need an actual macro lens. It works by setting the camera to spot metering and focusing while using a shallow depth-of-field to focus on the subject. Macro mode works best in bright light and with a tripod.


Semi-automatic or creative modes

The second group is the semi-automatic exposure modes. In these modes the camera still maintains control over the final exposure, but gives you control over one aspect of the exposure (aperture or shutter speed). Having control over these allows you to control depth-of-field and motion in your photography while still getting some help from the camera. This is why these modes are often referred to as the creative modes.

Aperture Priority (A or TV)

Aperture is the first thing that most photographers decide on when taking a shot. Since aperture controls depth-of-field it has a very big effect on the look and feel of your image. In aperture priority mode you set the aperture and the camera calculates the exposure value by setting the shutter speed.

Shutter Priority (S or TV)

Shutter speed is used when motion within the scene is an issue. Long shutter speeds will not only let more light into the sensor, but will show or blur motion. Conversely, fast shutter speeds let much less light in, but freeze motion in place. Shutter priority mode is basically the opposite of aperture priority mode. When you choose a shutter speed the camera then evaluates the scene and chooses an aperture to give correct exposure.


Fully-manual mode

To anyone who is just starting out in photography, manual mode can seem incredibly intimidating. In reality, it isn’t that difficult to master. With a little bit of practice and patience you will wonder how you got by without it. In manual mode you have the most amount of creative control over your images and the least assistance from the camera. While you do set the aperture and shutter speed manually, the camera doesn’t totally abandon you. It will still give you exposure recommendations it just won’t change the settings for you.

The best way to get more comfortable calculating exposure is to practice, practice, practice! Even something as simple as photographing ordinary objects around the house can give you some great experience. Below is a simple workflow for shooting images in manual exposure mode. You’re welcome to save or print it, but I recommend printing it so you can use it as a reference in your camera bag.

Manual mode workflow cheat sheet