The modern-day camera is such a powerful tool that gives you many high-tech options for your image making. This can be quite confusing and quite often, the confusion starts with the camera modes or exposure modes to clarify things.
So what camera shooting modes are there and what are the differences between them, when to use which mode and when not to use which mode? These questions and many more would have been answered by the time you are done reading this article.
Basically, the shooting modes available on your camera are: Programmed Automatic, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority, and Manual and are usually abbreviated P, S, A and M.
For a Canon user, they are abbreviated as P, Tv, Av, and M. You can easily select these modes in one dial, or cycled through using a “mode” button and a separate dial. These modes generally control how the camera automatically sets the aperture or shutter speed or allows the user to manually select aperture and shutter speed.
Apart from these four modes, there are additional modes that are available on most modern cameras including Full Auto Mode, Landscape Mode, Sports Mode, Close-Up Mode, Portrait Mode, Night Portrait Mode, and more.
Just like the four basic modes mentioned earlier, selecting one of these mode options tells the camera how to set shutter speed and aperture, but it also may adjust ISO, set white balance, pop built-in flash, or change other picture settings internal to the camera.
Also, some cameras come with Custom Modes that allow you to specify any number of variables for different photographic situations that need quickly. Let’s start with the four basic modes.
Programmed Auto / Program Mode (P)
When you select this mode, it tells the camera to automatically set 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.
It is almost like using a simple point-and-shoot camera in the sense that almost every setting on the camera is controlled by the camera itself. However, this mode will not automatically deploy your built-in flash, neither will it change your ISO or color space or other more specific settings.
Many camera manufacturers also offer a Program Flexible/Shift (P* or Ps) mode that allows the photographer to manually select a combination of shutter speed and aperture options.
You can make use of this shifted mode to tweak your aperture or shutter speed a predetermined amount while remaining in the Program mode. Note that 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)
This mode allows a photographer to set a specific aperture while allowing the camera to calculate the proper exposure and assign an appropriate shutter speed.
This allows you to change aperture, and therefore change the depth of field of the image, while the camera handles all the necessary calculations to automatically set your shutter speed. Increasing the opening of the aperture (lower f/stop numbers) will give a higher shutter speed so as to compensate for the increase of light coming through the lens.
If you make the aperture smaller, the camera will increase the duration of the shutter speed. Lots of photographers who want to maintain a consistent depth of field and also want their camera to shoot through the lens’s best performing aperture(s) prefer this mode.
The way you change your aperture differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some cameras allow you to select the aperture through a dial on the camera while some others allow you to select the aperture by turning a ring on the lens. You can find out how to select aperture on your camera by reading the manual.
Shutter Priority Mode (S/Tv)
Shutter priority mode is exactly the opposite of Aperture priority mode. When in this mode, you get to control the shutter speed while the camera controls the aperture. The end result is that the camera is looking for a balanced exposure by assigning an aperture corresponding to your chosen shutter speed.
This mode allows you to reduce the duration that the shutter is open, to freeze fast-moving action, or conversely, leave the shutter open for a longer period of time so as to allow blur and movement to appear in the frame.
Shutter Priority mode is often used by sports photographers to let the camera know they are looking to freeze action. Depending on your camera type, you can adjust shutter speed using a rotary dial on the camera or via a dedicated shutter speed selector dial.
Manual Mode (M)
The manual mode gives the photographer total control of the camera settings. It is just like the old times, before the intervention of computer when the photographer selected a combination of shutter speed and aperture to get the exposure desired.
This mode may seem to be the most difficult of all and is likely less used than the previous modes but then, there are scenarios that require a photographer to have full control of the camera settings so as to get the image desired.
Such a scenario is night photography where you may need to go into manual mode due to the inability of the camera’s meter to always handle extreme darkness. There are some photographers who still use Manual Mode exclusively.
You should know that all these modes have limits. Refer to the manual of your camera to see how your camera indicates a possible over- or underexposure situation.
There are what is called special modes, we will discuss them below.
There may be a host of additional modes to choose from on your camera depending on the make and model. These special modes vary depending on the manufacturer as well as the model of your camera.
It is best to refer to your manual to see what’s happening inside a particular camera when using these modes. Some of these modes are set to change color settings, sharpness, noise reduction, image quality and more.
Full Automatic Mode
This mode is quite different from the Program Auto mode earlier discussed. In this mode, the camera handles everything automatically for you, aside from aiming the camera.
In this mode, you get all the computer power behind the Program Auto mode with automatic aperture and shutter speed selection, and you will also, depending on the make and model of the camera, get automatic pop-up flash (if the camera has a flash), automatic selection of the ISO setting, automatic white balance, and more.
Basically, all you have to do in this mode is point the camera and compose your image. The camera does it all.
Flash Off / Auto Flash Off Mode
This mode is the same as the Full Automatic Mode, the only difference is that the flash is disabled so that it will not fire in an environment where you would not want the camera flash to go off such as a museum or other light-sensitive setting.
Also, depending on the image, you may not want to have the stark lighting effect that a flash may produce.
Portrait Mode is similar to selecting Aperture Priority and opening your aperture to get a shallower depth of field. Depending on the camera, however, it may also enhance skin tones and soften skin texture automatically.
Night Portrait Mode
The Night Mode will fire off the flash while keeping a slower shutter speed that will allow background lighting to remain in the scene.
Landscape Mode is set to maximize your depth of field. It may be able to make the scene’s colors more vibrant.
Sports mode increases your shutter speed so as to freeze action. Usually, it will also disable the flash.
This mode is for close-up photography. In this mode, the camera either opens the aperture to give the image very shallow depth of field or narrows the aperture for the opposite effect. Refer to your manual to see exactly what your camera does when you select this mode.
So many manufacturers and cameras offer custom modes that allow you to pre-assign different shooting options to custom mode settings. What you can customize varies widely between manufacturers so your manual should guide you.
Now you know about camera shooting modes and what each mode does. It is however advised that you read the manual of your camera for proper guidance on shooting modes.