Understanding Digital Camera Modes

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night photo with light streaks for digital camera modes

With your first entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera in hand, you may be wondering what all the letters and symbols on the mode dial mean. These are settings for various ways you can control how your camera makes an exposure. They range from Program Mode (P mode) to Manual Mode (M mode). In Program Mode, the camera chooses the exposure settings. In Manual Mode, you are in control of the settings. A digital camera will also have semi-auto modes and scene modes that I’ll cover in this article.

There are three settings to control the exposure. These are the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You can manage each and any of these and also let the camera have some exposure control. Setting the exposure using manual mode, you can decide for yourself how your photographs will look.

In any of the auto exposure modes or semi-auto modes, your camera is in control of the exposure. This can be helpful for beginners who are still coming to grips with how to manage their camera settings.

But your camera is programmed to choose exposure settings based on mathematical calculations. It is very smart, but it is never creative. To make the most of digital cameras, a photographer needs to control the exposure and not rely on the camera to do so.

Camera Modes Explained

The number of different camera modes can seem overwhelming to beginner photographers. Camera companies like to give you plenty of options. Modern digital cameras often have auto exposure modes, often known as scene modes, that can include:

  • Portrait Mode
  • Night Portrait Mode
  • Landscape Mode
  • Macro Mode
  • Sports Mode
woman with a digital camera.

And many others. Higher-level cameras, the ones designed for professionals and serious amateurs, do not have scene modes. In this article, we will look in more detail at the main camera modes. These are Manual, Program, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority Modes.

Two of these modes are semi-auto exposure modes. These are Aperture Priority, the A setting on Nikon, Fuji, Sony, and Olympus digital cameras. It’s the Av setting on Canon cameras. The other semi-auto exposure mode is Shutter Priority, the S setting on Nikon, Fuji, Sony, and Olympus digital cameras. It’s the Tv setting on Canon cameras. 

These different camera shooting modes give you some manual control, but ultimately your camera sets the exposure. I’ll explain each in more detail further down in the article, so keep reading. Any camera mode you choose, except Manual Mode, your camera decides how your exposures will look. Even set to Manual Mode, if you are using auto ISO, your camera is still in control of the exposure.

If you are a photographer who does not often pick up your camera, using one of the auto modes is going to make obtaining a ‘proper exposure’ easier. You can concentrate more on your subject, composition, and timing and not be concerned about how to set the aperture and shutter speed. 

digital camera and laptop.

Key Point

Knowing when to use each of the many scenes or auto-modes well will take time to learn. And your camera will still be in control of your exposures. Committing to learning Manual Mode takes time too. But once you have, you’ll be able to set your exposures precisely how you want them to look. With practice, you can also be very fast at adjusting the settings.

How Do Camera Modes Work?

A camera is basically a box with a hole in it and a light-sensitive surface inside to capture an image. In digital cameras, an electronic sensor captures the image. The hole has a lens attached to it. With this you can focus on your subject and have some control, using the aperture over how much light enters the camera. There is also a shutter. This mechanism opens when triggered. It is timed to ideally let in the right amount of light for the sensor to capture an image. Combining the shutter speed and aperture settings with the ISO, you can manage your exposures.

Choosing the Best Digital Camera Modes

Photography is more enjoyable when you feel confident managing your camera. But always choosing the easiest camera mode will not often result in capturing the best photographs. 

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Starting out using full auto modes is fine, so long as you don’t get stuck there. If you do, your photos will look generic because the exposures will be ‘safe’ and uncreative.

In any auto or semi-auto camera mode, the settings are adjusted so the exposure is safe. The camera cannot provide you with a creative option. This is because engineers have not figured out how to program cameras with intuition and feeling.

Photographing subjects with high levels of contrast in strong lighting, the camera may not choose the best exposure. This is because the exposure meter in every camera is calibrated to ‘see’ everything as middle gray, or 18% gray. This is the tone halfway between black and white. Engineers who design cameras must use this as the basis of every light meter so that they adhere to the standard method of measuring light. 

In each section below, I have outlined the essentials of the main camera modes.

Program Mode (P Mode)

In Program mode, the camera will determine what it thinks is the appropriate shutter speed and aperture for optimal exposure. You can choose to set your ISO manually or automatically in this camera mode.

Photographing action is often easier with Program Mode. In this camera mode, you can concentrate more on capturing the action at its peak. You don’t have to be concerned with your aperture, but you still need to be careful of the shutter speed setting the camera is choosing. 

If you’re photographing anything that’s moving, using a shutter speed that’s too slow will result in a blurred subject. Some cameras have a Program Mode option you can set to instruct the camera to pick a faster shutter speed rather than a wider aperture setting.

Most of the time, when set to Program Mode, you’ll find your camera adjusts both the shutter speed and aperture to safe settings in the middle of the range. 

Key Point

In challenging lighting situations, Program Mode may result in underexposure. Strong backlighting is one example. More modern cameras are better designed to cope with backlighting. If you’re using an older digital camera or an entry-level DSLR, or mirrorless, you’ll need to be more careful. You must check how your camera is managed when the lighting conditions are difficult. I’ve added a section below about situations where lighting conditions can affect auto-exposures.

I prefer never to use Program Mode. When I first bought a camera with this mode, I tried it out for only a very short time. I was so used to setting my exposures using manual mode. I would most often get the results I wanted. Letting the camera choose my exposure settings became frustrating very quickly.

Program Mode is most similar to using a point-and-shoot camera. The camera adjusts your exposure each time before you take a picture. If you also choose auto ISO, then your camera is in full automatic mode.

man with a camera at a waterfall.

Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv Mode)

In Shutter Priority mode, you have to set the shutter speed you want to use. The camera then calculates the aperture setting it decides will provide a well-exposed image. You have the option of using auto or manual ISO.

This is one of two semi-auto modes that most DSLR cameras, mirrorless cameras, and many others commonly have.

Using shutter priority is helpful when your shutter speed is critical to your image. This is usually when photographing anything that’s moving. To freeze a moving subject, you need to set your shutter speed so it’s fast enough that your subject does not blur. How fast this is depends on how fast your subject is moving.

For fast-moving subjects like birds in flight, waterfalls, skateboarders, etc., you need to choose a fast shutter speed. 1/1000th of a second or faster will help avoid motion blur. If you want to include blur as a creative aspect of your photo, you’ll need to choose a slower shutter speed.

When you are taking photos in low light situations, you may also prefer to use Shutter Priority mode. Being in control of the shutter speed means the camera cannot set it so that it’s too slow. In low light, when you use Program Mode, there’s always a possibility the camera could choose a shutter speed that’s too slow. This can result in camera shake and blurred images.

Key Point

No matter how fast or slow you set your shutter speed, your camera will adjust the aperture setting to provide what it decides is a decent exposure. When the light is flat, and even the results are more likely to be okay. In strong light, and especially if your subject is backlit, the resulting exposures may not be as you’d want them to look.

female photographer with a digital camera.

Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av Mode)

In Aperture Priority mode, you have to set the aperture you want to use. The camera then calculates the shutter speed setting it decides will provide a well-exposed image. You have the option of using auto or manual ISO.

The aperture is a diaphragm in the lens that works in a similar manner to the iris in our eye. It can open and close to control the amount of light entering the lens. The settings are measured in f-stop numbers. A higher f-stop number means the opening in the lens is smaller, so less light will enter. Adjusting the setting to a lower number means the opening is larger, and more light will enter.

When using a narrow aperture, say f/16 or f/22, the camera will balance the exposure by choosing a slow shutter speed. This means a longer time for light to enter the camera and affect the sensor. Using a wide aperture, less time is needed for good exposure. A faster shutter speed will be set by the camera.

The aperture setting you choose also affects how much of the photo is in acceptably sharp focus. This is known as the depth of field (DOF). A narrow aperture setting means more will be in focus. The DOF is deep. A wide aperture setting means less will be in focus. The DOF is shallow. There are other factors that affect DOF, but these are the subject of other articles. In this article, I am concentrating on exposure settings.

Key Point

A photographer chooses aperture priority when this value is more important than the shutter speed. This is usually with static subjects where you want to have control of the depth of field.

man with a camera.

Manual Mode (M Mode)

With your camera set to manual mode, you have to do all the work yourself. You are in full control of the exposure. This may seem daunting if you are comfortable with any of the auto or semi-auto modes. But it’s not so difficult. The main benefit of choosing to use manual exposure mode is that you are in complete control of your exposures.

Every camera has an exposure meter, also called a light meter. This provides a guide for you to set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. If you are not in manual mode, the meter may not show in the viewfinder or on the monitor. Learning to read the exposure meter and make adjustments to the settings takes some practice. With experience, you’ll become more creative because you always have to be conscious of the light and each of the settings.

I have taught many people during our photography workshops who think that using manual mode is too difficult and it will slow them down. They are fearful of missing the moment because they will not have their exposure settings correct. It’s not that often you need to work so quickly.

Take your time. You’ll be a better photographer for it. As you concentrate on all aspects of making pictures, your photos will improve. Leaving some of the choices to your camera reduces the likelihood of capturing the most interesting exposure.

Which Mode is Best for Photography?

Manual mode is the best camera mode for most photography. When you leave your camera to manage the exposure settings, you will capture acceptably well-exposed images. But they will lack your own creative expression. This can only happen with exposures that are set manually.

photographer with DSLR camera at sunset.

Learning to Use the Exposure Meter

When the meter reads zero, the camera has decided you have a ‘correct’ exposure. The problem is that the camera does not know what you are photographing or what the light is like. It also has absolutely no idea about your creative intent.

Your camera is programmed to make predictions. Often these can be pretty good. Always they are generic and based on the assumption that everything in your composition is middle gray. When your subject is not all middle gray (this is true for most of the photos you take), you’re best to be thinking about how you want to set your exposure. 

Say you are taking a photo of a snowman in a snowy yard. Everything is white. If you let the camera set the exposure, or if you manually set it so the meter reads zero, the scene will look gray. This is because the camera thinks it is. To get the snow looking white in your photos, you’ll need to choose settings that allow more light to enter and affect the sensor.

More often, you’ll have a mixture of tones and light values in your compositions. This is where the decision-making about your exposure comes into play. You must decide what’s most important in your composition and how you want to expose it. With practice, this happens subconsciously in a split second. But you must practice.

Understanding the concepts of light and exposure helps you make more creative exposure choices. Knowing how to manage your exposure meter and the settings, you have complete and precise control of how your exposures will turn out.

Key Point

The word photography essentially means “painting with light”. With your camera choosing your exposure, it’s like paint by numbers. Not so creative, and the results are predetermined to a certain degree. Using manual mode, you are in control and can choose how much or how little light to apply to your canvas.

Leaving the exposure choice to your camera is never going to result in the most creatively exposed photographs.

hipster with a camera understanding digital camera modes.

Auto ISO

Set to auto ISO, even when you’re in manual mode, your camera determines the exposure. You can choose the shutter speed and aperture settings you want, but the camera will then set the ISO to what it is programmed to. 

Using auto ISO does make life easier if you want to concentrate more on creating photos with a shallow depth of field or use a slow shutter speed. But, despite being in Manual Mode, your camera is still functioning like it’s in one of the priority modes. 

If you do use auto ISO, I recommend setting an upper limit can be used. In your camera’s menu system, you’ll find a setting that allows you to limit the highest ISO the camera will choose automatically. Doing this means you can avoid the highest settings, which will tend to introduce a lot of digital noise into your photos.

High ISO noise levels vary from camera to camera. It’s good to do a series of test photos to determine what the highest ISO setting you are comfortable using on your camera. 

To do this, set your camera on a tripod somewhere with not much light. Set your camera to any of the automatic modes and your ISO to manual. Start with your lowest ISO setting, 100 or close to. Take a photo, then double your ISO setting and take another. Repeat this process until you have reached the highest ISO setting your camera has.

Study the results. Zoom into 100% on your computer monitor and look at the digital noise. What is the highest ISO setting you used where the noise is acceptable to you? Set this as the highest level your camera can choose when in auto ISO mode.

photographer taking landscape photos in a field of yellow flowers.

When Auto Modes Produce Poor Exposures

With your camera’s mode dial set to any auto mode, your camera is in control of the exposure. In manual mode, you have control over the aperture and shutter speed, but if you are set to auto ISO, your camera still controls the exposure. With any of these settings, the exposures are calculated by pre-programmed algorithms. 

Your camera does not know what you are photographing, although some cameras do take a pretty good guess. They have a database of image scenarios built in that assist in determining exposures and focus. However, they are not intuitive and do not know what your intention is for the photo you want to take.

Light is never constant. In a controlled studio situation, you have more control over lighting than anywhere. But in a studio, using auto mode is not really an option with strobe lights.

Know what type of photo you want. Manage the exposure settings well.  You’ll be more satisfied with your results when you can confidently manage in Manual Mode. Aperture priority and shutter priority give you some control but not overexposure. Manual mode requires more thought and concentration. Ultimately it gives you a more precise degree of control over every aspect of your photos.

Key Point

The failure of auto modes becomes more apparent when you’re photographing in challenging lighting. Try photographing a subject with strong backlighting in aperture priority mode, especially if the subject takes up only a small percentage of your composition. Your camera will most likely produce an underexposed image. Using shutter priority in this situation has a similar effect.

For more details, check out our complete guide on overexposure vs underexposure.

In high contrast lighting, when you want to expose for the highlights and let the shadows go dark, auto modes will not be of much help. You can adjust the exposure compensation, but if you need to take this extra step, why not use Manual Mode? 

In the manual camera mode, you can be more precise than when you use exposure compensation. Using exposure compensation always seems to involve a certain amount of guesswork.

DSLR camera mode dial close up.

Gaining Insight into Your Camera Modes

Setting exposure parameters comes down to managing ISO, aperture, and shutter speed with skill. However, you set your mode dial will determine whether your camera chooses the exposure or you do.

Light is the essence of photography. How you make your exposures is one of the most important creative choices you have as a photographer. Letting your camera decide the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (the exposure triangle) reduces creativity to an algorithm.

Managing manual mode is more challenging. You have to be more aware and think more about the light and how you want to capture it. Slow down and enjoy the process. Be prepared. Most great photographs happen because the photographer had intent. They were patient to wait and capture the image they visualized.

Good photography is not all about having quick reflexes. This does help with some genres, like sports, wildlife, or any subject that’s moving fast. But even with such subjects, planning, preparation, and patience will empower you to take better photos than relying on your camera to set the exposure for you.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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