How to Find Your Way Around the Mode Dial

How to Find Your Way Around the Mode Dial


Your camera’s Mode Dial is the gateway to its exposure modes. Knowing which exposure mode to use, and why, is the key to creative photography, and to taking photos like the one above.

If you want to create beautiful images then you need to know how to control your camera’s settings. It all starts with your camera’s Mode Dial (not all cameras have a Mode Dial, but most do). Here’s what the Mode Dial from the EOS 650D (or Rebel X4i if you’re in North America) looks like. It’s fairly typical of many SLR cameras:


As you can see, there are a lot of icons. This can be confusing, especially for newcomers to photography. If you’re new to using an SLR, then how do you know which mode to select?

Let’s start by looking at Full Auto. It’s depicted by the green A+ icon on the Mode Dial of the EOS 650D (the precise term for the fully automatic mode on this camera is Scene Intelligent Auto). With other camera brands the Full Auto mode is also clearly marked by using an icon of a different colour to the rest (Nikon uses green, Pentax and Sony blue).

Full Auto mode is aimed at photographers who don’t know how to use the camera’s more advanced controls. If you’ve just picked up a digital SLR for the first time you can set it to fully automatic and start taking photos even if you know nothing about photography.


There are several other fully automatic modes on the EOS 650D’s Mode Dial (see above). Not all cameras have these modes (they are noticeably absent on many models aimed at semi-pro and professional photographers). They have names like portrait, landscape, close-up mode etc.

They are also aimed at photographers who don’t know how to use the more advanced controls on their camera. Their use is straightforward. If you’re taking a portrait, for example, then just set the camera to portrait mode. You don’t need to know anything about the camera or how it works to do this.

Fully automatic modes are very helpful for photographers that don’t know much about how their camera works. But they are too restrictive to be useful to creative photographers. On Canon EOS cameras, for example, you can’t change the white balance, Picture Style, autofocus mode or shoot in Raw in the fully automatic modes. Neither can you override the camera’s selected aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings. You can’t even use exposure compensation. You are locked into the settings the camera selects, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The fully automatic modes on other manufacturer’s cameras have similar restrictions.

The creative half of the Mode Dial


Now, these are the modes that creative photographers are interested in! They are Program Auto Exposure (P), Aperture Priority (Av on Canon EOS cameras), Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon EOS cameras) and Manual (M).

I’m a great believer in keeping things simple. You’ll find the only exposure modes you need in this section of the Mode Dial.

If you’re new to photography, your task as a creative photographer is to move away from the fully automatic modes and start using Program, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority as soon as you can.

Once you’re comfortable with using these modes, you can also consider using Manual mode. There are some compelling reasons for doing so (I discussed them in another article here).

Let’s take a brief look at the benefits of Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes:

Program Auto Exposure (P)

Often overlooked, Program is a surprisingly useful exposure mode. It works like this: you set the ISO and the camera sets the shutter speed and aperture according to the reading from its built-in exposure meter.

Many cameras now also let you use Auto ISO. With Auto ISO activated, the camera also selects the ISO. You can usually restrict the upper (and sometimes the lower) end of the ISO range available to the camera so that it doesn’t set an ISO that is too high.

At first glance, Program seems nearly the same as Full Auto. But the differences are crucial. You retain full control over settings like image quality (ie Raw or JPEG), white balance and Picture Style. You can use exposure compensation to override the camera’s exposure settings. And if you don’t like the aperture/shutter speed combination selected by the camera, you can use Program Shift (that’s Canon’s term, check your manual if you have a different brand of camera) to nudge the selected settings one way or the other.

In other words, while the camera is in an automatic mode, you stay in control of the settings. This is crucial for creative photography.

This is the sort of photo you might take in Program mode. Neither the aperture nor the shutter speed are particularly important:


The next two exposure modes really let you get creative:

Aperture Priority (Av)

I’m sure plenty of readers are already aware of the effect of aperture on the photo. For those of you who aren’t, here’s how it works. There are three approaches to using aperture:


1. You use a wide aperture to take a photo with shallow depth-of-field. You know those beautiful portraits you’ve seen with the background completely out of focus? That’s the sort of thing you can achieve with a wide aperture. Some photographers buy prime lenses (which have wider maximum aperture settings than zoom lenses) just to take advantage of this characteristic. I created the above portrait with an 85mm lens set to f1.8.


2. You use a small aperture to ensure that the entire scene is in focus from front to back. This is the opposite approach and one often used by landscape photographers who want everything within the scene to be rendered sharply. It’s the opposite to the first approach. I selected an aperture of f16 to create the above landscape image.


2. You use a middle-of-the-road aperture, that is one somewhere in the middle of your lens’s aperture range, to create a photo where part or most of the scene is in focus. Parts of the background may be out of focus, even if you have to look closely to see it. This is the sort of approach you would take when you want the background to be recognisable, but it’s not important for it to be completely sharp. The above photo is a good example, taken with an aperture of f5.6.

Aperture Priority works very simply. You set the ISO and the aperture, and the camera sets the shutter speed required to give the correct exposure.

Shutter Priority (Tv)

You use Shutter Priority when you want to set a certain shutter speed to record any movement within the frame a certain way. Again there are three approaches:


1. Set a fast shutter speed to freeze motion. This is what sports photographers do when they freeze the motion of athletes in mid-leap. I used a shutter speed of 1/2000 second for the above photo.


2. Set a slow shutter speed to blur any movement within the scene. You would normally set the camera on a tripod to support it when you do this, although you can also use creative techniques like panning if you are hand-holding the camera. I used a shutter speed of 30 seconds and asked my model to stand still to create the photo above.

3. Set a middle-of-the-road shutter speed that freezes most motion and lets you take a photo free from camera shake. This is the typical approach that many photographers take most of the time. But exploring fast and slow shutter speeds is fun and creative.

Shutter Priority also works very simply. You set the ISO and the shutter speed, and the camera sets the aperture required to give the correct exposure.


There are only three modes you really need to use on your camera: Program Auto Exposure, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority (some of the others, such as Manual or Bulb mode, will come in useful as your skills develop). But as for the fully automatic modes on your camera, it’s best to forget about them completely. They will hold you back, and prevent you from getting the full potential out of your camera.

This article is the second in a series. The next one will take a close-up look at your camera’s colour and contrast controls.


Understanding EOS

Andrew S Gibson is the author of Understanding EOS: A Beginner’s Guide to Canon EOS cameras. The use of the Mode Dial is one of the topics discussed in-depth within the ebook.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • Peter Gregory February 22, 2013 03:53 pm

    In all these modes except Manual, you are relying on a correct interpretation of exposure value by the camera's metering system. The Manual mode makes you be the interpreter of the metering information. I use spot metering exclusively in Manual mode, taking a reading on the brightest white then and on the darkest shadow. I calculate the difference in full stops and find a mid range value. Use the histogram and blinkies for fine tuning - bringing the image away from either edge to make sure you aren't blowing out or underexposing detail. Shooting outdoors in snow can really throw the camera's metering. It is a good example for when you are a better interpreter of exposure info. The camera's exposure metering will pull way too far down to tone done the pervasive highlights of the snow. It will give you an underexposed image.

  • ArturoMM February 16, 2013 05:53 am

    I think this much disagreement is caused by two facts:

    Most of the diferent modes overlap each other, meaning that they have some or a lot in common.

    Many times which mode is better depends on taste o abilities of the photographer.

  • Scottc February 12, 2013 09:56 am

    A very well written article on exposure modes! Maybe a little more attention to the scene modes, but this is otherwise as straight forward of an explanation as can be.

    I've personally found that the fastest way to "manual" is via the aperture priority mode. Most seem to catch on to the shutter pretty quick, but aperture mode will force you to consider ISO and shutter pretty quickly.

  • John February 12, 2013 09:00 am

    I spend probably 90% of my time photographing in A-mode and 10% in M. I rarely shoot in anything else. The only time I use full manual is when I'm trying to do something creative with the scene at hand and need a shutter that isn't achievable at my desired aperture setting.

  • Albin February 12, 2013 07:10 am

    Of course it's a tour of the Mode dial, but too many new photographers "breaking in" to the self-settings are unaware of Exposure Compensation. Getting that P, Av or Tv setting right is often impossible without it. Agree with those who say the presets including Auto are worth a look even as a reality check on the a manual setting: one might humbly ask "What would Auto do?" before jumping to conclusions too far out the learning curve.

  • JoeD February 12, 2013 06:41 am

    I too disagree with the advice to a beginner to ignore the presets. I'm still pretty new, and while I tend to keep the camera on Av mostly, I will jump over to sports mode as a fast way of switching on servo auto-focus and continuous shooting. Haven't dickered much with the other options myself, but wouldn't it be helpful for a beginner to at least see what the camera does to many different settings when you choose portrait mode, landscape mode, night portrait, etc?

    I tried out the CA setting for about a half-hour and got sick of it. I do occasionally use P when I'm unsure and don't want flash.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer February 12, 2013 04:43 am

    The explanations of the different exposures modes were well done and detailed. However, I have to disagree with the conclusion. As someone who has taught over 200 1-on-1 photography lessons, a majority to absolute beginners, I start them in manual mode. My hundreds of hours of teaching experience has taught me that there is no point really in starting in aperture priority mode. Manual just means setting only one more thing yourself, the shutter speed. And in my experience with every DSLR Canon & Nikon has made in the past five years, it is really easy for aperture priority mode to get tricked into choosing a shutter speed that cannot be hand held reliably (i.e. below 1/60th).

    I used to start teaching my students in aperture priority mode, but now totally believe in starting in manual, with only every really using shutter priority as the other exposure mode choice (for moving subjects crossing different background light).

    What I teach in my lessons can be seen here for reference and/or criticism:

  • Brian February 12, 2013 03:27 am

    I spend 95% of my time in Av or Tv. Learning manual when in studio.
    I should use P more, but often forget about it. It is useful.
    I never use the automatic modes.


  • Alec Salisbury February 12, 2013 02:29 am

    I think most North Americans call it the T4i but great article!

  • Dave Hodgkinson February 12, 2013 02:20 am

    I disagree completely about ignoring the other modes. Know what they are, what they do and it'll stop you say, forgetting to set white balance in snow, or any of the other stuff if you want to take a picture quickly.