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Program Mode: What It Is and How to Use It

10 min read

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program mode.

Some might favor Ken Rockwell’s “Professional Mode” moniker, and others might gravitate more towards “Poser Mode”. Needless to say, everyone in the photography scene has their own tongue-in-cheek term for the P position on your mode dial.

But what exactly is program mode about, really? Is it as essential to good photography – or as crucial to avoid at all costs – as some may claim? Let’s find out in this quick guide!

How to Set Program Mode on Your Camera

First comes the easy bit. To engage in program mode, all you need to do on most cameras is to give your camera shooting mode dial a twist to the side. Flanking your regular M for manual mode, A and S for aperture and shutter speed priority, and any scene modes or custom settings your camera may have, Program auto mode is just as easy to enable as any other.

You don’t need to set up anything special in order to use program mode. Thanks to that, switching on the fly between it and any other modes your camera’s mode dial offers is really simple!

What Does Program Mode Do?

You might have heard of program mode as the “automatic mode” on your DSLR or mirrorless camera, and that moniker is not too far off. Indeed, P mode automates a lot more settings than just about any other option at your disposal.

However, that doesn’t mean it turns your camera into a point-and-shoot. In fact, it is crucial to remember what separates program mode from automatic shooting, or auto mode, which is available alongside P mode on many digital cameras.

Let’s take a closer look at exactly what Program mode does and doesn’t do.

Automating Aperture and Shutter Speed Simultaneously

The prime achievement of program mode, both from a technological as well as a practical standpoint, is its ability to take over shutter speed and aperture control at the same time.

With P mode engaged, your camera chooses a combination of aperture and shutter speed that matches the light in your environment. Unlike semi-automatic settings, there is no need to adjust settings whatsoever in order to get a (more or less) well-exposed image.

Exposure Compensation in Program Mode

Close-up view of exposure compensation dial on a contemporary mirrorless camera.

However, that doesn’t mean that there are no manual controls in Program mode, should you need them. By making clever use of the exposure compensation dial, you can actually “tell” your camera which settings to dial in.

For example, if you are shooting outdoors in a dimly lit environment, your camera’s program mode might push the shadows significantly to give the entire scene an evenly-lit, bright look.

That’s great for clarity, but it might not be the style you’re going for. With a simple twist of the exposure compensation dial, in this case, towards a negative number, you can override your camera’s settings to produce an underexposed image.

That flexibility, allowing you to create almost any kind of photography in varying styles and in all kinds of light, is what makes P mode so much more interesting and versatile than auto mode.

ISO Settings On-Demand

Program mode lets you take advantage of full automation for the two main exposure settings, aperture and shutter speed. The third side of the exposure triangle, ISO, is left up to you to manage.

Just as in manual mode shooting, setting your camera’s mode dial to P mode allows you to either determine ISO yourself or activate automatic ISO priority mode.

Close-up view of ISO button on a contemporary digital camera.

With Program automation active, Auto ISO functions in much of the same way as other exposure settings do. Your camera will intelligently make use of automatic ISO to compensate for lighting conditions. By default, it will try to keep the ISO low while pushing the shutter speed and aperture to its limits to maximize image quality.

You can override this, and nudge your camera’s metering in the other direction, by either using EV compensation, manual ISO, or a combination of the two without having to leave P mode at all!

The Utility of Mode P Compared to Manual Mode

While program mode offers obvious and striking benefits, many still prefer fully manual control. In some cases, one or the other might be preferable, depending on what you’re going for.

Let’s take a look at the trade-off between manual mode and program automation.

Greater Control versus Higher Speed

Adjusting all settings yourself offers you the peak in control over proper exposure. While you can make sure that your camera selects your ISO and white balance for you, shooting in mode M allows you to pull off any aperture and shutter speed combination you can think of for unique effects.

In some special cases, this might actually be faster than relying on automatic settings and EV compensation. However, for most general photography, P mode offers you much quicker shooting.

Close-up view of a vintage medium-format camera showing the all-manual exposure controls on the lens barrel. Shutter speed, aperture, focus, and shutter release controls.

Consider the light in your scene and how much adjusting you really need to get the most out of your camera. Are you going for a specific depth of field? Are you shooting with flash and have a certain kind of exposure value in mind for the foreground or background subjects?

In these and other kinds of situations, you will probably be much better off setting aperture values and perhaps shutter speed settings manually, too. Program mode works best when you are dealing with less predictable situations when quicker and more reliable results are preferable.

Situational Awareness

A young male photographer composing a shot in the street. Bloom and lens flare effects visible in background.

Without having to rely on manual control, program mode lets you focus more on your shooting environment. In hectic situations such as reportage and street photography, this can allow you to spend less time with your eyes off the viewfinder, fumbling for buttons or dials.

Instead of spending time adjusting the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more, leaving the mode dial on P can take out a lot of superfluous effort from your shooting. In this way, you can really streamline your workflow and produce a lot more images with less fuss, thanks to program mode.

Getting to Know Your Camera

Forgoing auto exposure in favor of manual photography can be a great teaching tool. Understanding the relationship between the elements of your exposure triangle is one thing.

But working with it and experimenting with different settings and combinations yourself, hands-on can teach you much more about the mechanics of your camera’s mode dial.

While P mode only affects aperture and shutter speed directly, having those two essential settings automated makes you less likely to want to take manual control over much else.

Adjusting camera exposure settings via buttons and dials. Close-up view of top LCD area of a Canon DSLR, showing many essential controls.

How many times have you caught yourself shooting in program mode or even full auto but still choosing to operate manual focus or set your own white balance? Are you comfortable choosing your own metering mode, either?

True, tackling all of these manual settings at once can be overwhelming. However, you don’t have to go all in right away. I suggest simply enabling manual mode on your next photo walk, toying with a setting or two, and comparing the results by means of a test shot for each change in configuration.

Soon, you’ll intuitively learn how each of your camera’s dials affects your images!

What About Semi-Auto Mode?

Program mode contrasts quite heavily with manual exposure. However, where is the line between full auto mode and the two semi-automatic settings on your mode dial?

Using Aperture Priority

A close-up portrait of a young puppy dog showcasing high degrees of bokeh and shallow depth of field.

In aperture priority or Av mode, as it might feature on your camera model, you maintain control over your lens aperture but not over shutter speed. The camera decides the exposure time in favor of giving you EV compensation via both the lens diaphragm and ISO (if using manual ISO, that is).

This mode is basically one of the default choices among portraitists because it allows you direct control over depth of field whilst automating the less essential settings for scenes without moving subjects.

Compared to program mode, shooting in aperture priority leaves you with a marginally higher choice of manual camera settings to mess with. The manual lens aperture can also work as a sort of override to your light meter’s suggested exposure value, much like the exposure compensation dial.

Shutter Priority Mode For Pin-Sharp Images

sharp image of a moving subject.

Sometimes, you may actually prefer it if your camera makes aperture value decisions for you automatically. At the same time, a higher degree of manual control compared to program mode lets you take advantage of certain camera features better and can indeed be crucial for certain creative techniques.

Enter shutter priority mode. Labeled Tv mode on Canon cameras, it allows you free reign over exposure time, with full automation over lens aperture values and on-demand manual control over ISO, white balance, metering mode, and more.

Shutter priority shooting really becomes useful when shooting fast-moving scenes. High-speed subjects react very strongly to different shutter speed settings.

Dial in a very fast speed, and you’ll be able to snap-freeze their motion, resulting in stunningly sharp action photography. On the other hand, slow exposure can result in impressive motion blur photography that can serve as an amazing visual effect of its own.

You can, of course, practice these kinds of visual tricks using manual exposure compensation in P mode. However, it’s so much easier to switch on over to Tv mode instead and have direct control over the most important settings.

Why Program Mode is the Beginner Photographer’s Staple

Knowing all this, it may not be that surprising to hear how program mode is among the most widely recommended and useful camera settings for beginner digital photographers.

Because it takes out a lot of guesswork and needs for manual adjusting, it simplifies the shooting experience. This can make taking even a simple photo a lot less stressful than it otherwise would be for someone not yet familiar with their camera and all its various features.

How to Get Beautiful Images Out of Program Mode

I already went over how it is important not to see program mode as some kind of “full auto” switch that enables fire-and-forget, point-and-shoot photography. Instead, it is a highly automated yet precise and useful shooting mode with just as much versatility as any other.

Dramatic black-and-white scene of a lone fishing boat. Impressive monochrome landscape photography achieved in program mode.

Like every other position on your camera’s mode dial, program mode needs you to understand its inner workings and consciously use them to your advantage.

Exposure compensation is one half of that puzzle. Using it skillfully, you can maximize color rendition and depth of field in your landscape photography while keeping tricky subjects pin-sharp in sports photography, all without the need for manual control over either aperture values or shutter speed.

The Understated Versatility of Program Shift

There is another way you can “guide” program automation to express your creative vision. In fact, Program Shift is one of the most powerful aspects of this shooting mode, allowing you to fine-tune your exposure even in very difficult conditions.

View through the viewfinder of a contemporary digital camera. Portrait photography in program mode.

Program shift is quite easy to use. Simply apply a gentle half press to your shutter release button until you see the meter display and information panel on the bottom of your viewfinder light up. Now, turn your camera’s main dial (the rear one on most Nikon and Canon DSLRs and similarly-styled mirrorless cameras) to “shift” the automatic program setting.

What this does is increase your shutter speed while opening up the lens aperture, or vice versa if you rotate the dial in the other direction. To understand program mode shifting and its benefits, let’s look at some example use cases.

Program Shift in Low Light Photography

When shooting in low-light environments, you generally have two options.

One, use a combination of a fast aperture, high ISO, and the slowest shutter speed you can afford while using the camera handheld. Two, stabilize your camera on something like a tripod and use the same general exposure settings as in the daytime, but with much longer shutter speeds to grab more light.

A young male photographer using his camera on a tripod in low light photography.

Of course, approaches somewhere in between are also possible. But by and large, most photography in low light conditions is accomplished in one of these two ways.

There’s only one problem. In program mode, your camera thinks only of the most likely shooting scenarios, not necessarily the ones you are facing. For example, in its shutter speed and aperture values, program mode tends to assume handheld shooting, which may not always be the case for you.

So if you’re out late and shooting with stabilized gear but don’t want to have to switch back to manual mode, program mode lets you achieve the same results with the help of exposure shifting.

Program Shift for Playing With DOF and Motion Blur Effects

I previously mentioned how having manual control over aperture and shutter speed settings can be really useful for creating some deliberate visual effects. That includes playing with extreme depths of the field or applying motion blur to moving subjects.

Nighttime photography in program mode using program shift. High degree of creative motion blur in color.

In program mode, you can achieve these very same effects with the help of program shift.

If your camera defaults to, say, settings of 1/60th for shutter speed and an aperture of f/2.8, then a few twists of the main dial should get you to 1/2 and f/16. That’s five stops if you’ve been keeping count!

As you can tell, the crucial difference between program shift and exposure compensation is that the latter actually changes your exposure value – making your image appear more light or dark in some areas. On the other hand, program shift tries its best to keep the overall exposure of the scene the exact same, only altering the settings themselves.

This means that careful use of both of these features generally leads to the best, most refined results when shooting in program mode.

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
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