Advanced Shooting Modes: What They Are and When to Use Them

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Are you ready to get off Auto? When most people get started in digital photography, the first thing they do is set the shooting mode dial on the top of the camera to Auto. It makes sense to let the camera make decisions about things while you’re just getting used to using it.

In Auto mode, the camera makes decisions not only on the Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO but also on many other factors such as White Balance, Focus Mode, Focus Points and Metering Mode.

After awhile, you might start to choose one of the automatic scene modes such as portrait, sports, landscape or night, if your camera has those options. This gives the camera a bit more information about what you’re shooting so it can make better decisions for you.

But at some point, you are going to want to take control and make those decisions for yourself. Your camera is smart, but it’s not an artist! This is where the advanced shooting modes come in.

The Exposure Triangle

Before we get into discussing advanced shooting modes, you need to understand the concept of how the exposure triangle works.

First, there is shutter speed – the length of time that the shutter is open. This is the easiest part of the triangle to understand; the longer the shutter is open, the more light comes in and hits your camera’s sensor.

The San Diego skyline by Anne McKinnell - Advanced Shooting Modes: What They Are and When to Use Them

ISO 100, 24mm, f/22, 80 seconds

Second, there is the aperture – the variable opening in your lens through which the light passes. The opening is round and works just like the pupils in our eyes. On a bright day, you squint, making the pupil smaller to let in less light. When the light is dim, your pupil is larger to let in more light.

Generally speaking, a small aperture opening and a long shutter speed may allow the exact same amount of light in as a large aperture opening and a short shutter speed. Choosing this balance between aperture and shutter speed is the key, and your choice will depend on what you are trying to achieve with your photograph.

The third and final factor in determining exposure is ISO – the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. For those of you who remember the film days, ISO is similar to ASA, the speed of the film. Essentially, it’s best to leave ISO at a low setting such as 100 (other photographers will recommend using high ISO as needed – do your own research and experiment with your camera). But if you’re in a low-light situation, you might need to increase it so that less light is required to make a good exposure.

Advanced Shooting Modes: What They Are and When to Use Them

Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas. ISO 200, 10mm, f/18, 1/10th of a second.

Advanced Shooting Modes

There are five main advanced shooting modes available on most digital cameras:

  1. P for Program Mode
  2. A or Av for Aperture Priority Mode
  3. S or Tv for Shutter Priority Mode
  4. M for Manual Mode
  5. B for Bulb Mode

Many professional photographers frown upon using anything other than Manual Mode. But I respectfully disagree. A camera is just a tool and a smart one at that! There’s nothing wrong with letting your camera do what it’s good at as long as you are controlling the factors that are important to you.

Program Mode

In Program Mode, your camera chooses the shutter speed and aperture. You can control other factors like white balance, focus mode, focus points and metering mode. Program mode is a good place to start when you’re just coming off of auto mode and learning how to use your camera settings. But it isn’t where you want to stay because aperture and shutter speed are the key to taking control of your images.

Aperture Priority Mode

When you use Aperture Priority Mode, you tell the camera what aperture you want to use, and it will calculate the appropriate shutter speed to make a good exposure. The size of the aperture affects depth of field, which is a critical concept when you want to take creative control of your images.

When you have a very large aperture opening, such as f/2.8, you are going to have a shallow depth of field. That means that whatever you focus on will be sharp, but everything in front and behind it will be out of focus.

On the other hand, when the aperture opening is small, such as f/22, you have a large depth of field, so more things that are in front and behind your focus point will also be sharp.

The difference between large and small apertures - Advanced Shooting Modes: What They Are and When to Use Them

Try them all

The best way to understand this is to try it out for yourself. Put your camera in Aperture Priority Mode and take the exact same photograph using each aperture setting. Then look at the photos on your computer and you’ll see the effect that aperture has on the depth of field.

What you’ll find is that photos with a large aperture have a soft background and photos with a small aperture have a background that is in focus. For me, depth of field is the most important factor in my photography, so I almost always use Aperture Priority Mode.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Arizona - Advanced Shooting Modes: What They Are and When to Use Them

ISO 100, 33mm, f/18, 1/25th of a second. For this image, it was important to keep everything sharp from the closest cactus in the foreground to the mountains in the background. So I chose a small aperture to ensure I had good depth of field.

F-Numbers are Tricky

Before we leave this topic, there’s one thing that many people find confusing and that is the f-stop numbers. A large aperture opening is represented by a small number and a small aperture is represented by a large number. I don’t want to get into too much math here, but my trick for remembering how this works is to think of it like a fraction. 1/2 is larger than 1/8, so f/2 is a larger opening than f/8.

Shutter Priority Mode

When you use Shutter Priority Mode, you tell the camera what shutter speed you want to use, and it will calculate the appropriate aperture to make a good exposure. This mode is most useful when you have moving objects in your frame and you want to either freeze the motion or blur the motion.

For example, if you are photographing a bicycle race, you probably won’t be happy with just any old shutter speed. You’ll likely want to use a relatively long exposure, such as half a second or one second, to blur the motion of the bicycles going by. Or you’ll want a fast shutter speed such as 1/500th of a second to freeze the motion. Anything in between would look out of focus.

Shooting waterfalls is another good example of when to control the shutter speed for the silky water effect.

Englishman River Falls, Vancouver Island, British Columbia - Advanced Shooting Modes: What They Are and When to Use Them

ISO 100, 180mm, f/22, 1/10th of a second.

Manual Mode

When you are in Manual Mode, you must tell your camera both the aperture and the shutter speed you want to shoot at. You will use your camera’s light meter to determine whether the settings you have entered will create a good exposure, then adjust the settings based on whether you have too much or not enough light.

In Manual Mode you are in complete control and practicing with it will give you a good grasp on how aperture and shutter speed work together. Once you understand this, it may be more convenient to use either Aperture Priority Mode or Shutter Priority Mode to accomplish your goals.

Bulb Mode

Bulb Mode allows you to extend the shutter speed beyond the camera’s built-in limit, which is usually 30 seconds. You can use this mode to photograph the streaks of clouds moving across the sky, or at night to photograph star trails.

To use Bulb Mode, press the shutter button and hold it down. The shutter will open and stay opened until you release the shutter button. But of course, this method isn’t practical because you can’t just stand there holding the shutter button down for 10 minutes! Plus, having your finger touching the camera during a long exposure will cause camera shake and your photo would be blurry.

Star trails at Joshua Tree National Park, California - Advanced Shooting Modes: What They Are and When to Use Them

This photo was made using an intervalometer programmed to make a 7-second exposure every 15 seconds for two hours. Then all the images were stacked to create the star trails.

The best way to use Bulb Mode is to use a shutter release cable (or a remote trigger). This allows you to press the button on the cable to open the shutter and then lock it opened so you can walk away and come back later to release it. Another option, instead of using a cable release, is to use an intervalometer which will allow you to program how long you want the shutter to be opened and even program multiple shots. For example, you can set it to take a 2-second exposure every 5 minutes for an hour.

Conclusion

Remember, the camera is your tool to use any way you like to make your art. The shooting modes are just some options that are available to you so you can accomplish your creative goals. Have fun and experiment!


Shooting modes are just one of the camera settings you’ll want to master to take control of your camera and your photography. My new eBook Taking Control: Essential Camera Skills for Beginners will help you understand what all the knobs and dials on your camera do and how to use them for creative control over your images.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

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