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The Camera Mode Dial: A Comprehensive Guide

A guide to the camera mode dial

If you own a DSLR, a mirrorless camera, or even a high-end point-and-shoot model, you’ve probably spent time scrutinizing the camera mode dial.

Here, I’m talking about the circular dial on top of cameras with an array of strange letters: M, Tv (or S), Av (or A), P, and maybe even a U1 or U2 (or C1 or C2). There is also a friendly green option; it may say Auto, or it may simply be represented by a green rectangle.

The default option for most cameras is this green Auto option, which essentially gives the camera complete control over your settings. Auto mode doesn’t do a bad job, but it doesn’t do an especially good job, either. It can lead to poor exposures, unwanted aperture effects, and even blur – so if you want to capture consistently solid shots, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with (and eventually using) the other modes on the dial.

Learning the ins and outs of your mode dial can be somewhat daunting, and those strange letters won’t inspire much confidence for beginners who already feel overwhelmed. But don’t worry! In this article, I walk you through the basic functions of the mode dial one by one, and I explain – using easy-to-understand language – how you can start experimenting with some of your camera’s more advanced settings.

Let’s dive right in.

Auto mode

Camera mode dial

I mentioned Auto mode above, and it might seem fairly self-explanatory, but I’d like to offer some detail about how it works.

Auto mode instructs your camera to choose the three main settings that govern exposure (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO). In general, your camera will then do whatever it can to make sure the pictures you take are properly exposed (in other words, not too dark nor too bright). It might widen or narrow the aperture, raise or lower the shutter speed, or boost or drop the ISO. If your camera has a flash, it may decide to fire it in order to brighten up a scene that is quite dark (e.g., when you’re shooting indoors or at night).

Camera mode dial
Sometimes Auto mode is all you need to get the pictures you want!

Auto allows you to take decent photos in a variety of situations. However, your camera cannot read your mind and determine your artistic intentions, which means that it may pick an unwanted aperture, shutter speed, or ISO value. Auto mode can also produce poor exposures when faced with certain subjects scenarios, and that’s where a semi-automatic mode can come in handy:

P: Program mode

If you’re ready to get off Auto mode and start to make some settings adjustments on your own, Program mode is a good place to start. It’s similar to the familiar, comfortable Auto mode, but with one big difference: You can change a few key settings on your own, including the ISO, the white balance, and whether the pop-up flash is active.

In Program mode, your camera will always try to maintain a properly-exposed picture; therefore, by manually adjusting the ISO, you can force your camera to modify the aperture and shutter speed. And if an image is looking too bright or too dark, you can always use your camera’s exposure compensation setting to tweak the exposure.

Program mode is a fun way to experiment with your camera, and it’ll help you understand how adjusting the aperture and shutter speed can affect your photos. Plus, because it only gives you access to a few settings, it shouldn’t be too overwhelming!

Camera mode dial
Program mode is a great way to delve into your camera settings.

Av (or A): Aperture Priority mode

If you want to gain full control over the aperture in your lens (and thus also the depth of field), Aperture Priority is the mode to use. With your camera set to its Av mode, you can independently adjust the aperture (generally by turning a dial on the rear of your camera), while your camera selects a corresponding shutter speed. You can also independently adjust the ISO.

Aperture Priority is very popular – in fact, it’s used regularly by both enthusiasts and professionals. If you have plenty of available light, it’s a fantastic mode to work with because you can choose whether you want a deep depth of field (i.e., everything in focus) or a shallow depth of field (i.e., just your subject in focus and foreground/background blur). But because your camera will set the shutter speed, you can generally expect to produce well-exposed shots.

Note: As with Program mode (and Shutter Priority mode, discussed below), if you’re in a situation where your images are turning out too dark or too light, you can deliberately boost or reduce the exposure using your camera’s exposure compensation setting.

The biggest problem with Aperture Priority is that, when you’re shooting in low light, your camera might select a too-slow shutter speed that produces a blurry result. Therefore, in lower-light scenarios, you have to keep an eye on your shutter speed to ensure it doesn’t drop too low (and if it does get too low, you’ll need to increase the ISO or widen your aperture to force it back up again).

Personally, I like to shoot with Aperture Priority and Auto ISO. That way, my camera will only drop the shutter speed so far – you can usually set the parameters for your minimum shutter speed in the camera menu – and will instead raise the ISO as needed.

Camera mode dial
I knew I wanted a shallow depth of field for this shot, so I used Aperture Priority mode to select a wide aperture and let my camera figure out the rest.

Tv (or S): Shutter Priority mode

Shutter Priority mode is essentially the opposite of Aperture Priority mode. With your camera set to Tv, you can independently select the shutter speed and ISO, while your camera will choose a corresponding aperture. (You also have the option to use Auto ISO.)

Shutter Priority is particularly useful if you’re shooting fast action (e.g., a sporting event); you can set your shutter speed to freeze the motion of the subjects and know that your camera will select the aperture needed to get the shot. Most cameras can shoot at 1/4000s or 1/8000s on the high end, which is plenty for freezing motion. You can also drop the shutter as low as 30 seconds, which can be good for nighttime photography and capturing light trails.

Camera mode dial
I used Shutter Priority to capture this 30-second shot of the Seattle skyline from the Columbia Center observation deck.

M: Manual mode

Manual mode is the most complex of all the camera modes because it gives you full control over each and every setting. While your camera will offer exposure suggestions via a bar in the viewfinder, you’ll need to carefully select your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Shooting in Manual mode can be a little scary at first, but the trick here is to understand how the exposure triangle works. That way, you can arrive at the correct exposure by monitoring the exposure bar in the viewfinder and making careful changes to your camera settings.

Manual mode is challenging, but it’s also intensely rewarding because you can use it to control your camera to get precisely the picture you want. Any situation can be good for Manual, provided you are well acquainted with your camera and how it operates. However, I’d recommend practicing Manual in slower-paced scenarios so you don’t feel overwhelmed from the get-go.

Camera mode dial
Learning to shoot in Manual mode may seem daunting, but it’s also incredibly liberating!

U1 (or C1): Storing custom user settings

Not every camera allows you to save custom user settings, but if yours has this option, you might want to take advantage of it. These custom settings allow you to specify certain parameters, including exposure settings, white balance settings, image file settings, and more. That way, when you need to switch to different settings in the field, you won’t have to painstakingly dial in each new value; instead, you can simply turn your camera’s mode dial to its U1 or C1 mode.

I find these custom modes especially useful for storing settings that are good for indoor photography, such as a wider aperture and higher ISO, as well as settings that are good for outdoor photography, such as a low ISO and a fast shutter speed. That way, if I’m shooting in a scenario that includes both indoor and outdoor scenes, I can quickly switch between the custom modes without skipping a beat.

You can also use these custom modes to save settings for panning, bracketing for HDR shots, low-light photography, portraits, landscapes, etc. Use them for the types of things you do most often or for those scenarios where you need to access new settings quickly.

Camera mode dial
My U1 mode saves settings for outdoor portraits, so no matter what I’m doing, if I see a portrait opportunity, I can instantly switch my settings to get the shot I want.

Scene modes

Not all cameras offer Scene modes. They’re generally only found on prosumer-type models, and they’re indicated by little icons:

Camera mode dial

Scene modes are essentially modified Auto settings. Each one is suited for a different type of photography – portrait, landscape, action, night, etc. – but you won’t have an opportunity to change any settings directly. If you’re perfectly happy shooting in Auto mode but get frustrated when your images turn out blurry, noisy, or out of focus, you might want to try using one of these instead.

If you like going outdoors and taking shots of landscapes, set the mode dial to the mountain icon, which will force your camera to use the smaller apertures and lower ISO values that are suited for this type of photography. If you want to photograph your kids playing football or running around at the park, use the icon with a person running, which will cause your camera to increase the shutter speed to freeze the action.

Each one of these icons is carefully designed by your camera’s manufacturer to deliver good results in various types of situations, and they often deliver better images than just shooting in Auto mode.

Camera mode dial
The Scene modes can help you get the specific type of picture you want. The Portrait Scene mode forced the camera to choose a wider aperture, resulting in a blurry background behind the subjects.

Other camera modes

While the modes featured above are the most common, there are plenty of other modes you might find on any given camera, and each manufacturer includes a slightly different set of options. Therefore, it’s difficult to list all of the available functions your camera may offer.

Here are just a few more modes that you might find on your mode dial along with some brief explanations:

A-Dep: A fully automatic mode that lets you pick two points (in the foreground and background) that you want to render in focus. Your camera will then select the aperture needed to keep everything between those two points sharp. The abbreviation “A-Dep” stands for Automatic Depth of Field, and while it’s fun to play with, it doesn’t always work out so well in practice.

Box With a Lightning Symbol Crossed Out: Another automatic mode that also disables the flash. It’s good if you want to shoot in low-light situations without using the flash, though your pictures may come out grainy or blurry.

Flower (Macro): A Scene-like mode that’s useful for shooting subjects at close range, such as flowers and insects. It doesn’t affect the properties of your lens but merely tells your camera to focus on things that are closer instead of farther away.

SCN/SCENE: Similar to the icons you may find on a mode dial, this lets you choose from several built-in scene examples to help your camera figure out the appropriate shooting parameters to use.

The camera mode dial: final words

Camera mode dial

Hopefully, you now feel ready to take control of your camera’s mode dial. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading up on the exposure triangle, which will go a long way toward improving your understanding of how each mode works.

By the way, if you check your camera and find that it includes a mode that’s not on this list, it may well be worth your time to open your user manual and investigate. You may find some very useful modes that’ll help you capture better photos!

Now over to you:

Do you have a favorite camera mode? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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