A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing Shooting Mode


Even the most seasoned veteran photographer may use a pre-programmed mode occasionally in order to concentrate immediately on a shot rather than take the time to calculate exposure and miss the opportunity for the great image. But if you are a beginner at photography or want to advance your photography skills beyond the use of Auto mode, begin by adventuring away from the green box.

When you are setting up your camera to capture an image, there are four basic results to consider: wide depth of field, shallow depth of field, motion blur or freeze motion. How do you know which mode to use to control these basics of photography? Let’s take a look.


Auto (Green box)

In Auto mode, your camera will automatically set the shutter, aperture, ISO, white balance, and even the pop-up flash for you.

Advantages: This is a great option for beginners with a digital camera – but don’t become dependent on it! Only use it until you learn to take control of your camera.

Disadvantages: In certain lighting conditions the auto settings may produce undesirable images. For instance, a portrait that is heavily back-lit might just produce a silhouette. In low-light, you may end up with blurry and grainy images; also in low-light, the camera may choose to fire the flash to give more light and many camera models don’t provide a way to disable the flash if you don’t want it.

When to use: Any time you want to use your camera just as a point and shoot camera, this is your mode.

This portrait was intentional shot into the sun in Auto Mode. While the camera did a decent job with exposure, it might be a 1/2 stop under exposed. Auto exposure settings choose by the camera are 1/250th of a second at f/6.3 with ISO of 100. while the shutter speed and ISO are good, a wider aperture would have lessened the DOF and made the background less distracting.

This portrait was an intentional shot into the sun in Auto mode. While the camera did a decent job with exposure, it is a 1/2 stop under-exposed. The auto exposure settings chosen  are 1/250th of a second at f/6.3 with ISO of 100. While the shutter speed and ISO are acceptable, a wider aperture would have lessened the DOF and made the background less distracting.

Program (P)

In Program mode, your camera will automatically set the shutter speed and aperture, but will allow you to choose ISO, white balance, exposure compensation and flash options.

Advantages: This is a great next step for a beginner who wants to take a little more control of their camera and improve their images.

Disadvantages: As in Auto mode, certain lighting conditions may lead to unpredictable results, due to the partial automatic settings which leave some results to chance.

When to use: Use this mode if you want to take a good first step to ultimately taking complete control of your camera’s options.

Shutter Priority (TV – Canon) (S – Nikon)

In Shutter Priority mode, you select the shutter speed and ISO and the camera will automatically choose the proper f-stop for what it determines to be the correct exposure.

Advantages: Great for controlling freeze action and motion blurring of moving objects.

Disadvantages: In this mode you have control of your shutter speed, so you must be careful that your camera can choose an f-stop to give you a proper exposure. The type of lens you have available to use comes into play here. Most cameras can shoot at a very fast shutter speeds, but if your lens doesn’t have a large enough aperture to match that shutter speed the resulting image will be under-exposed.  For example, if you are shooting with a shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second, and the proper exposure for the speed of the subject requires an f-stop of f/2.8, but the widest opening on your lens is f/3.5, the image will be under-exposed.

When to use: Use this mode when you want to control the motion of the object you are photographing. Use a fast shutter speed if you want to freeze the motion or use a slow shutter speed if you want to blur the motion. This mode is also useful when using large mm lenses where you need to set a fast shutter speed to avoid blurred images due to camera shake.

Choosing shutter priority and setting shutter to 1/8th of a second to blur the water.

Shutter priority with a shutter to 1/8th of a second was used to blur the fast moving water.

Here are some suggested shutter speeds for Shutter Priority:

  • Freeze very fast motion – 1/3000th of a second
  • Athletes in motion – 1/500th to 1/1000th of a second
  • Birds in flight – 1/1000th to 1/2000th of a second
  • People walking – 1/250th of a second
  • Panning moving objects – 1/30th to 125th of a second
  • Blurring fast moving water – 1/8th of a second
  • Blurring slow moving water – 1/2 to 1 secondshutter

Aperture Priority (AV – Canon) (A – Nikon)

In Aperture Priority mode, you select the aperture and ISO and the camera will automatically choose the proper shutter speed for what it determines to be the correct exposure.

Advantages: Other than Manual mode (next paragraph), Aperture Priority is the most popular shooting mode photographers use, mainly because it controls what is in focus in your image. And in most cases the item you have in focus is the element that will make or break the success of your image.

Disadvantages: In low-light situations your camera may choose a very slow shutter speed that will produce a blurry image, either because of movement by the subject or camera shake.

When to use: Use this mode when you want to control the Depth of Field (DOF) of your image. The larger the aperture the more light reaches your camera’s sensor and the shallower the DOF. Reversely, the smaller the aperture the less light reaches your camera sensor and the deeper the DOF. Beware that changing your aperture will also affect your shutter speed. More light from large apertures requires a faster shutter speed and less light from small apertures requires a slower shutter speed.

Using Aperture Priority to set a larger aperture to increase DOF

Aperture Priority to set a larger aperture to increase DOF.

Here are some suggested f-stops for Aperture Priority:

  • Landscapes -f/8 or higher for more DOF
  • Portraits – Large aperture  (f/2.8) for shallow DOF to blur the background
  • Macro – f/8 or higher for more DOFaperture

Manual (M)

Manual mode allows you to change both the shutter speed and aperture settings independently from each other. No settings will be automatically set by the camera. Your camera’s built-in light meter will guide you on the exposure it determines to be correct, but you have complete control to adjust the shutter and aperture separately to get the exposure you determine to be correct for the image you are creating. Before you use the manual mode it is recommended that you have an understanding of the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) and how each will affect your final image.

Advantages: This mode gives you complete creative control of the image you are capturing.

Disadvantages: While this mode has many creative advantages, you must be careful to always check the exposure with every image, especially when shooting in fast changing lighting conditions.

When to use: After you have learned to use this mode and learned the effects and results of the settings and how they work together, you will use this mode almost every time.

Here Manual mode was used to control the DOF and to use a slow shutter speed to blur the waterfalls.

In Manual mode, a small aperture was used to control the DOF while also setting a slow shutter speed to blur the motion of the waterfall.

Scene Modes

Scene mode is very similar to Auto mode. You choose the scene you are shooting and the camera will choose settings for you optimized for that scenario. Different camera models may have different scene modes, but listed here are some of the most popular:

  • Sports – Camera will increase ISO and use a fast shutter speed to capture fast action.
  • Landscape – Camera will use a small aperture to maximize the DOF; flash may also be disabled.
  • Portrait – Camera will use a large aperture to  throw the background out of focus. Some models of cameras will also use face recognition in this mode.
  • Macro – Camera will choose small aperture to give as much DOF as possible.

Advantages: As with the Program mode, these Scene modes are a beneficial starting point for beginners and will often give a better result than shooting in Auto mode.

Disadvantages: While these settings can produce desirable images at times, the results may vary and will not be reliable.

When to use: While these scene modes may be a step up from Auto mode for beginners, use these options as a starting point to learn your camera, understand its workings, and upgrade your photography skills.



So which mode is the best?

It is completely up to you which mode you feel most comfortable using. But if you are using the Auto, Scene or Program modes and you want to improve your photography, learning how to set exposures using the exposure triangle of shutter, aperture and ISO will help you make the best possible choices to create better images.  The two most popular modes used by professional photographers are Manual and Aperture Priority. Remember, professionals were once beginners too. Enjoy your camera experiences, no matter which mode you choose!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • Yann Bizeul

    For the most part, that’s a good article. But the conclusion? “Once you know manual mode you will almost exclusively use it”… I’m sorry but no, and I don’t think it reflects the majority of experienced photographers out there. That kind of conclusion is the reason why every beginner start to think Manual is the Saint Graal and what every photographer is headed to.

    The reality is that Manual is as useful as A or S mode, even P. I shoot almost exclusively in A mode, it takes a little bit of homework understanding the metering modes, but it’s actually good to know your camera and is always useful in the long run. Manual mode I used when I control the light or in some situation when the scene is really tricky.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Thanks for you feedback Yann, I agree it is good to know all the modes and how they can be used to your advantage.

  • persaerex

    Some time, when I use the camera like a point and shoot camera, I set the NoFlash mode, that is like auto mode, but without the use of the hated, small, dslr flash!

  • Jeffrey Joy

    Thank you for the information. It was helpful.

    Web designing course in Chennai

  • Yann – sorry you lost me. Where in the summary does it say “Once you know manual mode you will almost exclusively use it”?

    It says “The two most popular modes used by professional photographers are Manual and Aperture Priority.” which I would agree with. What did we miss?

  • Yann Bizeul

    It as been rephrased in the article as “After you have learned to use this mode and learned the effects and results of the settings and how they work together, you will use this mode almost every time.”

  • I haven’t changed the wording, not sure what you mean. I think we need to just move on.

  • Yann Bizeul

    When I quote, I copy and paste, these are not my words. Yes we can move on but I’m confused the author is Bruce and you Darlene says *you* didn’t rephrase anything. I was talking about the article, Bruce words

  • I’m the editor of the site. I edit and schedule all articles on dPS. I asked about the wording being changed because you said “it has been rephrased” meaning changed. I scan comments and if there is something in the article that doesn’t make sense or could be worded better – I am the one who has the power to fix/edit after publication.

  • Brian Wadley

    Not a great idea to get into this kind of argument with your readers, but there are multiple ways to interpret the word “rephrased” in this context. The focus on use of Manual Mode by professionals/advanced users is made twice in the article.

    The first time (at the end of the section talking about Manual Mode), it reads as, “After you have learned to use this mode and learned the effects and results of the settings and how they work together, you will use this mode almost every time.”

    The second time (In the conclusion) and where the idea was rephrased by the author, it reads as, “The two most popular modes used by professional photographers are Manual and Aperture Priority.”

  • Sorry you feel I was being argumentative, that is not the intention. I take comments from readers and do sometimes edit the articles if we have made a mistake. We full admit we aren’t perfect, no one is. So if something in an article is incorrect or confusing, and a readers gives a suggestion for an improvement we may take it on board and make that change. That’s why I asked my question, for clarification.

  • Craig Anthony Evans

    I would have to say manual for me all the way, I find having total control over the settings makes you work alot harder for photographs. The only feature thats on auto for me is focus however as ZI take alot of wildlife/bird photography I use AI Servo which gives more control to the photographer in regards to the when to take the picture. Going back to 1988-89 and the 1990s I recall using film cameras in and out of school and with this you really needed to get the settings right or your rolls of films would be a waste of time and money, so from early on in my photography journey I was shooting manual. I would say Im a purist, because at the end of the day if a photographer is only ever shooting on automatic they are never going to learn the technical aspects of photography and they shouldn’t bother buying an slr and stick to using their phones and ipads. Define what you do and learn from it everyday.

  • I agree with the statement of auto shooting. I’ve found too that when I shoot in auto I don’t have the opportunities in Lightroom that I do when I shoot in manual/raw. Although I can get great photos, I have no clue (after years) of f, iso, etc. when I get really stuck I put it on auto just to give me a guideline and then go to manual/raw. I’m still trying to absorb the written knowledge but in reality,, I just have an eye and wing it. I wish I could find a way to understand the innards…I keep trying. Thanks for your comment!

  • K.G.W.Abeytunge

    Don’t forget that you can still use auto focus in the manual mode.With my Sony A-57, I do that all the time.

  • KC

    About “Auto”. There’s a bit of a stigma attached to Auto mode, and there shouldn’t be. The goal is to capture “the moment”. Like forgetting the lens cap on, or charging the battery, or having the wrong lens attached, capturing the moment isn’t going to happen if your fiddling with buttons. Nobody wins a prize for the shot they didn’t get.

    Enough cliches and preaching. Yes, Manual gives you full control. The “big secret” is after you’ve done it a bit, you pick up patterns. This equals that. This lighting, that situation, this lens, that shutter speed, this f:/stop equals good image.

    With cameras being as computerized as they are, Auto sometimes offers a level of granularity you can’t achieve in any other mode. Shutters speeds and f:/stops are almost infinitely variable (within limitations). Odd things like 1/310 second or f:/5.9 may “happen”.

    The trick to Auto is figuring out what it’s actually programmed to do, where it’s strength’s and weaknesses are. It different for each camera model and brand. Something to consider: Auto can be very good with the pop-up flash, balancing ambient light and flash output.

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