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Camera Modes Explained for Newbies


Okay, so for one reason or another you’ve decided to step up to a new, more capable camera. Maybe you’ve moved up from a point and shoot, or maybe your phone just doesn’t cut it for you anymore. But now what? There are all these buttons and dials to make sense of – where do you even start? Not to worry, read on!

Your Mode Dial Explained

Manual Mode is used to capture long exposure images such as this.

The Camera Mode Dial

Well, the first place to start, is by learning about camera modes. This is where you’ll tell the camera how you want to capture an image. Very likely, you’re looking at this dial, or it may be a display on the screen, and you’re wondering what all those different camera modes are.  I’ll explain all of that in a moment, but first I’ll need to go over a few definitions:


This is the opening in the lens, that determines how much light enters the camera. The aperture also affects depth of field, which is the range of objects that are in focus – from those that are closest to you, to those farthest away. A smaller aperture setting will give you greater depth of field, while a larger aperture setting gives you shallower depth of field. Aperture settings work a bit backwards, in that the higher the number, the smaller the opening. For instance, f/4 is a larger aperture than f/11. Of those two, a setting of f/11 will give you greater depth of field. For more on how the aperture works, see How to Take Control of Aperture and Create Stronger Photos.


Use of a large aperture creates a shallow depth of field as in this image, where only a small portion is in sharp focus.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed determines the amount of time that light is allowed to enter the camera. It also determines how movement is recorded in an image. A faster shutter speed will freeze motion, while a slower one will blur motion. Faster shutter speeds are often referred to in fractions of a second, such as: 1/125th, 1/60th, 1/500th and so on – while longer shutter speeds can be one second, 5 seconds, or even 30 seconds long. For more on shutter speed, check out Demystifying Shutter Speed.


Your camera’s ISO determines how sensitive it is to light. Lower numbers, such as ISO 100 or 200, mean your camera is less sensitive, and are used in bright situations, such as outdoors on a sunny day. Higher numbers, such as ISO 800 or 1600, make your camera more sensitive to light, and are used when there is less available light, such as outdoors on a cloudy day, or indoors when you can’t use flash. Read 6 Tips for Using ISO Effectively With Your Camera for more on setting your camera’s ISO.

Every camera’s mode dial is a bit different. The major manufacturers all tend to have the same, or similar basic modes, but each may have their own spin on things, or even throw in a few of their own special modes. In this article I’ll deal with the basic modes that are common to pretty much everyone.

The Basic Modes

Mode Dial

The Mode Dial (a Nikon dial is shown here)

Your camera will have a few basic modes, where the camera takes control of everything, and all you have to do is push the shutter button to take the picture. These modes can be a good place to start if you’re unsure of how to get a specific type of picture.  Keep in mind that when using these modes, the camera is controlling everything, including: color, contrast, white balance, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The most common of the basic modes are:

Auto Mode

Depending on your camera’s brand, this will be indicated in one of several different ways. Sony uses a green camera icon, Canon uses a green box, and Nikon uses a camera with the word Auto above it. What you need to know about this mode, is that the camera is making all exposure decisions for you. If the camera is a recent release, it may also be using a type of Intelligent Auto mode, where it analyzes the scene you are taking a picture of to determine the best settings. The flash may pop up if needed. The camera will set an appropriate aperture, ISO, and shutter speed to allow you to hold the camera and get a good exposure.

Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode is usually indicated by a head icon of some kind. When this mode is selected, the camera optimizes your settings for taking pictures of people. It will select color settings, choose a fairly shallow depth of field, and a fairly fast shutter speed, to ensure that your subject is not blurry. The camera may decide that flash is necessary, and fire if it is needed for exposure. Want to learn more about shooting portraits? See 10 Crucial Things You Need To Think About for Portrait Photography.

Portrait Mode

Portrait mode is great for capturing images of people. Be aware your camera’s flash might fire if there’s not enough light!

Landscape Mode

This mode is generally indicated by an icon containing mountains. When you select Landscape Mode, you are telling the camera you’re shooting scenery. The camera will record vivid colors, and set a small aperture for maximum depth of field. You may also need a tripod, as the shutter speed may be too slow to handhold the camera without blurring the image. The flash will not pop up in this mode. For more on photographing landscapes, take a look at 7 Landscape Photography Mistakes That Could be Ruining Your Photos.

Landscape mode is used for scenes like this where you want a lot of depth of field.

Landscape mode is used for scenes like this where you want a lot of depth of field.

Sports Mode

An icon of a running man indicates Sports Mode. This setting is best for capturing subjects that are moving, such as children playing, or a sporting event. The camera uses a faster shutter speed to freeze the motion of the subjects, and will use a wider aperture for shallower depth of field. The ISO may be raised to accommodate the faster shutter speed, and the flash will not fire. If catching action is your thing, Catching the Action: Photographing Youth Sports has some tips for getting started.

Sports Mode

Sports mode will set a shallow depth of field and a fast shutter speed to stop action.

Night Portrait Mode

That picture of the person with a star or moon behind them? That’s night portrait mode. This mode is used to capture pictures of people at night, usually firing the camera’s flash to illuminate them. However, the camera will also use a slightly slower shutter speed, and a higher ISO, to allow any ambient light to record in the image as well. Think of it this way – if you want to take a picture of someone at night in front of a neon sign, and you want the glow of the neon to show up in the image, this is the mode to use.

Close-up Mode

Almost invariably, an icon featuring a flower indicates Close-up Mode. Many people incorrectly call this Macro Mode. I say incorrectly, because macro generally means you are recording the objects you are photographing at life size, or larger. Close-up mode is used when you are photographing an object very close to the camera. Each manufacturer uses this mode a bit differently. While Nikon states that the camera will use a small aperture to maximize depth of field, Canon states that it will use a wide aperture to blur the background. The camera will also attempt to focus on the nearest subject to the camera. In each case a tripod may be necessary to work with a slower shutter speed.

Close-up Mode

Advanced Modes

The advanced modes on your camera’s mode dial grant you more control over exposure choices to some degree, depending on which mode you select. In addition, you’ll have the flexibility to choose picture styles, white balance, and other settings as well. Let’s start with the more basic of the advanced modes, and move on from there.

Program Mode

Contrary to popular belief, the “P” on the mode dial does not stand for “Perfect”. It stands for Program, and is Auto Mode’s big brother. Program mode is a good general use option. The camera will select the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed for you. Sounds like Auto Mode, right? It’s similar, but in Program mode, you have the ability to choose the white balance you want, the picture style you want, and you have the ability to shift the exposure, so if the camera selects a shutter speed or aperture you don’t want, you can shift that setting, and the camera will adjust the others accordingly. Your Guide to Understanding Program Mode on Your Camera can provide further insight into this setting.

Aperture Priority Mode


Once you know how the advanced modes work, an image like this can be done a number of ways. Either Aperture Priority with a small aperture, or Manual mode with full control, could be used.

On Canon or Pentax cameras, this mode is indicated by an Av on the dial, while other manufacturers simply use an A. This mode is exactly what it says – you choose the aperture setting you want, usually deciding on such a setting to achieve a specific depth of field, the camera will then set the appropriate shutter speed to achieve proper exposure. You will also be responsible for choosing an ISO setting. Many cameras now feature an AUTO ISO setting, which lets the camera choose the ISO, if you’d rather not be bothered with selecting it yourself.

Aperture priority is best used when you know you want a specific depth of field for your image. For instance, if you’re shooting a landscape or grand vista, you’ll likely want the entire scene in focus, so you’ll want to choose a smaller aperture, such as f/16, to achieve that. The camera will then set the appropriate shutter speed for proper exposure. You’ll need to be aware of the shutter speed the camera selects, as you may need a tripod to keep the camera still if a slower shutter speed is necessary.

Shutter Priority Mode

The S on your mode dial (Tv if you have Canon or Pentax) stands for Shutter Priority mode. The Tv stands for Time Value, or the length of time the shutter remains open for exposure. This mode is the opposite of Aperture Priority. You’ll choose the shutter speed, and the camera will set the appropriate aperture, to give you the proper exposure. Remember, you’ll also need to set the ISO to ensure your exposure is correct, or set AUTO ISO so the camera can do it for you.


Use of shutter priority allows you to select the shutter speed for panning shots like this one.

Shutter priority is useful when you know you want to use a certain shutter speed to capture motion in a specific way. For instance, if you are photographing sports, you know you want a faster shutter speed to freeze the action. You’ll likely set a shutter speed of 1/500th (or faster) to ensure you’re doing that, and let the camera set the aperture for the appropriate exposure. For more information on both Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes, see Getting off Auto – Manual, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes explained.

Manual Mode

Universally indicated by an M on your mode dial, in Manual Mode you are truly flying solo. You are responsible for setting your aperture, shutter speed, and the ISO, to achieve the proper exposure. This gives you the ultimate freedom in creating images, as all camera settings are available for you to set, and change as you see fit. You’ll want to keep an eye on your camera’s meter to be sure you aren’t over or underexposing the image. How to Learn Your Camera’s Light Meter and Master Manual Mode is a great primer if you’re ready to take the plunge and learn to shoot manually.

If you’re still not sure where to start, have a look at A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing Shooting Mode for further clarification.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

  • Lynne

    I think I need to pick one mode and play around with it and then move on. Great advice

  • That usually works very well when you’re starting out. Choose Program and see how the camera handles certain situations, and then move from there. The beautiful thing about digital is that the settings used are embedded in the file, so you can review the exposure settings for each shot later to see what the camera was doing.

  • Lynne

    Thanks Rick, after I replied I was going to ask you that. Program Mode it is

  • holycow

    Thanks for that info on the embedded information, there is quite a bit of info on one picture.