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When starting out in photography, one of the scariest and most confusing things for a beginner is deciding which camera mode to use. While the automatic modes provide a bit of a safety net for those just starting out, there will come a time when you either want to or have to, take greater control of your camera to get the results you desire. But how do you know what camera mode to use?
First off, I won’t discuss any of the automatic modes here. A full discussion of what those do can be found here: Camera Modes Explained for Newbies. What I’d like to do here is discuss specific situations and the appropriate mode for each. Before we dive into that, I’ll explain the basics before we move forward.
The aperture is the opening of the lens, which determines exactly how much light enters the camera and strikes the imaging sensor. The aperture also affects the field of focus from foreground to background, otherwise known as depth of field. A shallow depth of field is one that has a sharp focus on the subject, while objects in front of or behind the subject are out of focus. Deep depth of field is when the entire image is in sharp focus from foreground to background. And of course, you can have a depth of field that is somewhere in between those two.
Aperture is shown as a number on your lens, usually as a ratio. For instance, lenses with a maximum (widest) aperture of f/1.8 will have a very shallow depth of field. That same lens set to f/16 will have a deeper depth of field. An easy way to remember this is smaller numbers give you less and higher numbers give you greater depth of field.
Shutter speed determines the amount of time light strikes the sensor when it enters the camera. The faster the shutter speed, the less light strikes the sensor. In addition, shutter speed is directly responsible for how movement is rendered in an image. Shutter speeds are referred to in fractions of a second, such as 1/125th, 1/60th, or 1/1000th. Faster shutter speeds, such as 1/500th, freeze motion, while slower shutter speeds, such as ½, 1 second, or even 30 seconds, will show motion as more of a blur. The longer the shutter speed, the more blur motion will create.
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 to light and are used in bright situations, such as in direct sunlight. When there is less light, such as in shade, or indoors, you might use a higher ISO such as 800, 1600, or 3200 to make your camera more sensitive to light. ISO plays an important part in the various situations I will discuss going forward, so always keep in mind that you can change this setting, and don’t be afraid to raise your ISO if needed.
Before going any further, I want to clarify that there are multiple ways to get a specific desired result with your camera, using any of these modes. Once you understand the relationship between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, you’ll be able to do whatever you like in any of these modes.
But which mode is best for which situation? You’ll have to visualize your image to decide.
Program Mode resides on the advanced side of the camera mode dial, usually denoted by a P. In this mode, the camera will set the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed for you. So when should you use Program Mode?
Program Mode is good when you’re not looking for any effect in particular. Your camera, when set to Program Mode, will attempt to give you a proper exposure that can be handheld, meaning you won’t be required to use a tripod to steady your camera. This is a good mode for when you’re just casually photographing and just want to be sure your exposures are right.
It is a lot like Automatic Mode in that regard, except that you have the ability to override, or shift, the exposure the camera sets, as well as many other settings such as white balance and picture style. In addition, while in Auto mode, the camera will pop your flash up when it thinks it needs more light. But in Program Mode the flash will not pop up unless you tell it to.
On some cameras, this mode is simply denoted by an A on the mode dial, while on Canon cameras it is denoted as Av, meaning Aperture Value. In any case, in this mode, you set the aperture and ISO you want and the camera will set the appropriate shutter speed for you. So when should you use Aperture Priority mode?
To determine the answer, visualize your finished image in your mind’s eye. What do you want it to look like? Generally speaking, if you’ve decided that the most important factor in your image is a specific depth of field, you’ll want to use Aperture Priority Mode so that you can force your camera to give you the depth of field that you want. For instance, if you’re making a portrait, you probably want your subject in sharp focus, but you may also want the background to be a little blurred, to keep your viewer’s focus on the subject. An out of focus background can create a setting without distractions for the viewer. So you might decide you want to use a fairly wide aperture such as f/4, to create enough depth of field to keep your subject sharp, but let the background blur nicely.
It’s important to note, however, that you also need to keep an eye on the shutter speed setting. While the camera will set this for you, unlike in Program Mode, the camera is not going to try and give you a fast enough shutter speed to handhold. If there isn’t enough light, this will result in a slower shutter speed that may not be fast enough to freeze any subject movement. This could result in a slight blur due to unsteady hands or slight movement by your subject. If the shutter speed chosen by the camera (based on the aperture you’ve set) isn’t fast enough to freeze motion in this situation, you’ll need to raise your ISO. Raising your ISO will effectively increase the shutter speed given for the aperture you’ve set.
Another situation for Aperture Priority would be a landscape photo, where you may want greater depth of field to keep the entire scene in focus. In this situation, your primary goal is to get lots of depth of field to keep the entire scene in focus, so you’d set an aperture of f/11 or even f/16 to capture a greater amount of the scene sharply. In this situation, if you’re using a tripod, the shutter speed may not be as big of a factor for you.
But if you’re handholding the camera, you will want to pay attention to the shutter speed the camera sets to ensure it’s fast enough to avoid camera shake. In addition, if there is moving water or clouds, or the wind is blowing the trees or grass, you’ll want to ensure that the shutter speed the camera sets is appropriately stopping that movement to your liking. If not, you’ll want to adjust your ISO so the camera sets a more appropriate shutter speed.
Shutter Priority is usually denoted using an S on most cameras, while Canon uses Tv, representing Time Value to denote Shutter Priority mode. Shutter Priority Mode is just the opposite of Aperture Priority. In this mode, you set the shutter speed you want, as well as the ISO, and let the camera choose the appropriate aperture. This mode is an excellent choice when you’ve decided that rendering motion in a certain way is the key component of your image.
For example, suppose you are photographing a sporting event. Most likely, you’ll want to freeze the action of the athletes on the field. To do so, you need a fast shutter speed, such as 1/500th or even 1/1000th. In shutter priority, you’ll need to again keep an eye on your ISO to ensure that the camera is giving you a proper exposure. Usually, the exposure indicator in your viewfinder will flash to show that at the current settings, proper exposure cannot be achieved. In this case, raise the ISO to achieve the correct exposure for the shutter speed you want.
As another example, let’s say you want a slower shutter speed to create a panning effect. Again you would set the correct shutter speed to create the effect, and let the camera adjust the aperture. Any time the primary concern is the appearance of motion in an image, Shutter Priority is a good choice for shooting or camera mode.
Once you’re comfortable with changing settings and you really want to take control of your camera, Manual mode is the way to do that. You will set all of your settings according to how you want your final image to look. There is one caveat, however. Your settings will also be dependent on the available light in the scene. So if you want a fast shutter speed, and deep depth of field, you’ll probably need to raise your ISO a bit. Or compromise on one of the other settings as well.
Just keep an eye on your camera’s meter and it will help you find the right combination of shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. The other modes do a nice job of taking some of the load off your brain by allowing you to choose one setting to have priority, but sometimes you just need to take full control.
One instance where you’ll need to do this is when creating an exposure longer than 30 seconds. Today’s cameras don’t have shutter speeds for longer than that, so you would need to calculate in your head how long to keep the shutter open, and then use the Bulb setting to do so. Any time the camera can’t properly calculate exposure is a good time to use Manual Mode.
Another time to use Manual Mode is when the lighting in a scene is especially challenging, such as when there are a lot of dark shadows. Your camera will try to expose for the deep shadows, causing the highlights to overexpose. Using a manual setting to override the camera’s choices will work well in achieving a satisfactory exposure.
As I mentioned, there are many ways to capture an image and arrive at similar settings. But each time I’m out photographing, I go through the following checklist in my head:
The answer to those four questions should lead you to the correct mode for the shot you want.