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Understanding Camera Shooting/Exposure Modes

One of the wonderful things that modern electronic digital and film cameras give you is many high-tech options for your image making. One of the horrible things that modern electronic digital and film cameras give you is many high-tech options for your image making.

Sometimes, confusion ensues. And, very often, confusion starts with the camera’s modes. Adding to the confusion, a little bit, is the fact that not all camera manufacturers agree on how to label similar modes. [Hi, Canon! Hi, Pentax!] Adding even more confusion, when some manufacturers say, “shooting modes,” they are referring to whether the camera is going to take one shot, multiple shots, or shoot continuously, instead of how the camera is exposing the image. Other manufacturers refer to these modes as “exposure modes,” a term also used for different “metering modes.”. Confused now? Do you see why I had to write a confusing headline for this article? Can we not all get along and standardise this?

If you haven’t done so already, I recommend reading my articles on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. They should give you comprehensive background information on these functions and how a camera adjusts for exposure, and will help you understand why these camera modes work the way they do.

A final note: If you have ever watched any of my videos, you already know my thoughts on “proper, balanced, best,” or “correct” exposure. If you have not heard my soap box rant, here is my £0.02: The end goal of most of the camera modes (aside from Manual mode) is to create what camera companies refer to as a “proper” exposure. The computer inside your camera will strive to expose for the best balance between the dark and light areas of the photograph. However, photography is art and art is subjective. If you, the photographer, wish to produce a bright(er) or dark(er) image than what the camera wants to produce, in order to capture a specific mood or effect, then that is great by me. So, when you read below and see references to a camera-determined “correct” exposure, please know that the best exposure rests in the eye of the photographer taking the photograph.


Luckily for you, the photographer and me, the writer, the modes are basically all the same, no matter what you choose to call them or how they are labelled on your camera.

The basic modes are: Programmed Automatic, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority, and Manual. They are usually abbreviated P, A, S, and M. Canon user? Try P, Av, Tv, and M on for size. These modes are generally selected on one dial, or cycled through using a “mode” button and a separate dial. In general, these modes control how the camera automatically sets the aperture or shutter speed, or allows the user to manually select aperture and shutter speed.

Many of today’s cameras have additional options on that dial, including Full Auto Mode, Landscape Mode, Sports Mode, Close-Up Mode, Portrait Mode, Night Portrait Mode, and more. Like the basic modes, selecting one of these options tells the camera how to set shutter speed and aperture, but it also may adjust ISO, set your white balance, pop your built-in flash, or change other picture settings internal to the camera. Some cameras also feature Custom Modes that allow you to specify any number of variables for different photographic situations that you may want to access on the fly.

We will discuss these speciality modes after we get the basic modes crystal clear. It is also worth noting that, in the modern camera, the engines driving these simple modes are extremely powerful and complex. Many of these camera modes have been around for decades, but the inner workings of the camera are much faster and more sophisticated now than ever before.

Programmed Auto / Program Mode (P)

When this mode is selected, the camera automatically sets the shutter speed and aperture to achieve what it believes is the best possible exposure for the metering information of whatever scene the photographer has framed. This is almost like using a simple point-and-shoot camera in that almost every setting on the camera is controlled by the camera itself. I say “almost” because this mode will not automatically deploy your built-in flash, nor will it change your ISO or colour space or other more specific settings. Later we will discuss an even more comprehensive automatic mode that many cameras offer.

Also, many manufacturers offer a Program Flexible/Shift (P* or Ps) mode where the photographer can manually select a combination of shutter-speed and aperture options. You can use this shifted mode to tweak your aperture or shutter speed a predetermined amount while remaining in the Program mode. How you shift the aperture or shutter speed settings, or if you can shift them while in Program mode, is camera make/model specific.

Aperture Priority Mode (A / Av)

The Aperture Priority mode allows the photographer to set a specific aperture while allowing the camera to calculate the proper exposure and assign an appropriate shutter speed. This allows the photographer to change aperture, and therefore change the depth of field of the image, while the camera does the necessary calculations to automatically set your shutter speed. As you increase the opening of the aperture (lower f/stop numbers), you will get a higher shutter speed to compensate for the increase of light coming through the lens. Make the aperture smaller, the camera will give you a longer-duration shutter speed.

This is the preferred mode for a lot of photographers who want to not only maintain consistent depth of field, but who also might want the camera to shoot through their lens’s best-performing aperture(s).

Just like the Program Shift mode, the way you change your aperture is accomplished differently on cameras from different manufacturers. On some cameras, the aperture is selected through a dial on the camera. Some have you select the aperture by turning a ring on the lens. Grab your manual to find out how to make these adjustments on your camera, if you haven’t done so already.

Shutter Priority Mode (S / Tv)

This is the opposite of the Aperture Priority mode. When you select this mode, you control the shutter speed and the camera controls the aperture. Again, the end result is that the camera is looking for a balanced exposure by assigning an aperture to your chosen shutter speed.

This allows the photographer to reduce the duration that the shutter is open, to freeze fast-moving action, or conversely, leave the shutter open longer to allow blur and movement to appear in the frame. Sports photographers will often use Shutter Priority mode to let the camera know they are looking to freeze action.

Shutter speed is likely adjusted by a rotary dial on the camera, or via a dedicated shutter speed selector dial, depending on the type of camera you are using.

Manual Mode (M)

The camera’s manual mode takes you back to the early days of photography, before computer intervention, when the photographer selected a combination of shutter speed and aperture to get the desired exposure.

This is likely the most intimidating mode of the group and, therefore, likely used less than its sister modes. However, there are scenarios where having full control is necessary to get the image that you desire. When doing night photography, I am often shooting in Manual mode as the camera’s meter cannot always handle extreme darkness. And, yes, there are photographers who use this mode exclusively.

Mode Limits

One thing to note is that these modes have limitations. On a very bright day, you might want to make a photograph with shallow depth of field. You just finished the first half of this article and you select Aperture Priority mode because you want to open the aperture up to its maximum to get the shallowest depth of field possible. However, it is bright out and your camera’s shutter cannot open and close fast enough to produce a balanced exposure. You may get a flashing aperture value or blinking “Hi” warning that indicates that your image will be overexposed.

Contrarily, you want to freeze the action of a child blowing out the candles of a birthday cake. However, someone turned off the lights for the hearty rendition of “Happy Birthday” and you have dialled in 1/4000 of a second as your shutter speed on Shutter Priority mode. The camera reacts by opening the aperture to its maximum size, but it cannot simply let in sufficient light to get a proper exposure, leaving you with a “Lo” or “Low” warning, or flashing shutter speed value indicating a possible underexposure of the frame.

Again, refer to your owner’s manual to see how your camera indicates a possible over - or underexposure situation.

Special Modes

Depending on the make and model of your camera, there may be a host of additional modes from which you may choose. I will discuss them briefly here, but intentionally not get too far into the weeds, as these modes vary depending on the make and model of your camera. Some of these modes will change colour settings, sharpness, noise reduction, image quality and more. Check your manual to see what is happening inside your particular camera if you are using these modes.

Full Automatic Mode (Green Rectangle / Camera Silhouette / AUTO/ iAUTO)

Do not be confused, but this mode differs greatly from the Program Auto mode described above. This is the mode that does everything automatically for you, aside from aiming the camera. You get all the computer power behind the Program Auto mode with automatic aperture and shutter speed selection, but you will also, depending on the make and model, get automatic pop-up flash (if the camera has a flash), automatic selection of the ISO setting, automatic white balance, and more. If you do not want to think of anything beyond where you are pointing your camera and your composition, this is the mode for you.

Flash Off / Auto Flash Off Mode

This is the same as the Full Automatic Mode, but the flash is disabled so that it will not fire in an environment where you would not want to pop off a flash bulb, such as a museum or other light-sensitive setting. Also, depending on the image, you simply might not want to have the stark lighting effect that a flash may produce.

Portrait Mode

This is similar to selecting Aperture Priority and opening your aperture to get shallower depth of field. However, depending on the camera, it may also enhance skin tones and soften skin texture automatically.

Night Portrait Mode

This mode should fire off the flash while keeping a slower shutter speed that allows background lighting to remain in the scene.

Landscape Mode

This mode generally maximises your depth of field and it may even make the scene’s colours more vibrant.

Sports Mode

Sports mode cranks up your shutter speed in an attempt to freeze action. Usually, it will disable the flash as well.

Macro Mode

For close-up photography, the camera will either open the aperture to give the image very shallow depth of field or narrow the aperture for the opposite effect. Check your manual to see exactly what your camera does when you select this mode.

Custom Modes

Several manufacturers and cameras offer custom modes that allow you to pre-assign different shooting options to a custom mode setting. What is customisation varies widely between manufacturers, so, if interested in setting up a Custom Mode, break out your manual and see what variables your particular camera allows you to set.

Final Thoughts

Are you now asking, “What mode should I use?”

Well, that is entirely up to you. Some tutorials may give you specific instructions on when and how to use these camera modes. My thought is that you are the photographer and you can choose when to use these modes. Hopefully, this article helps you make a more informed decision as to what mode to select. Also, in my opinion, there is zero shame in using these modes while taking photos. Many “purists” and “pros” frown on using automatic modes, but if you and your camera are combining to get you the images you love, then keep shooting whatever mode works for you. Do not be afraid to change modes while shooting to see if one works better for you than another. This is a great area in which to experiment. No single mode will work for every photographic situation, so do not be afraid to change modes when you need to.

And, lastly, do not forget to double-check your mode selection before you go out shooting. You might not want to shoot the Grand Canyon while the camera is set to Night Portrait mode!.

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