Facebook Pixel Program Mode: Everything You Need to Know (Ultimate Guide)

Program Mode: Everything You Need to Know (Ultimate Guide)

Program mode: everything you need to know (ultimate guide)

This article was updated in November 2023 with contributions from Simon Ringsmuth, Rick Ohnsman, Steve Gandy, and Jaymes Dempsey.

What is Program mode on your camera, and when should you use it?

Program mode is one of those “odd one out” camera settings – something that most folks never try because they simply don’t understand how it can help their photography.

Yet once you get the hang of it, Program mode is actually pretty darn useful. That’s why, in this article, I aim to share everything you need to know about this mode, including:

  • What it actually is
  • How it works
  • How to use it for great results

So if you’re ready to become a Program mode master, then let’s get started.

people sitting at a table in a restaurant; photographed with Program mode

What is Program mode?

The camera mode dial operates on something of a continuum. On one end, you have Manual mode, which gives you complete control over the three elements of exposure: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. On the other end, you have Auto mode, which gives you almost no control over exposure.

camera mode continuum Program mode Auto mode Manual mode

As you can see in the diagram above, other modes exist in the middle of the spectrum. These modes – Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Program mode – give you some degree of control, but your camera does significant work, as well. For instance, Aperture Priority lets you control the aperture and ISO while the camera determines the proper shutter speed for a good exposure.

So what about Program mode? What does it do?

Program mode exists somewhere between Aperture/Shutter Priority and Auto mode, and it works like this:

You set the ISO, while your camera sets the aperture and shutter speed.

(Remember: The ISO refers to the sensitivity of your camera sensor, the aperture refers to the lens diaphragm size, and the shutter speed refers to the length of time the shutter captures light.)

Program mode also gives you control over other camera features, such as exposure compensation, but I’ll discuss that in a later section. For now, just remember that Program mode gives you ISO control, but leaves the aperture and shutter speed up to your camera.

(In fact, Program mode is sometimes referred to as “ISO Priority.”)

When is Program mode useful?

While Program mode isn’t nearly as popular as Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, it can make a big difference to your photography – you just have to know when to use it.

In essence, Program mode works best when you care about the ISO, but you don’t care about the shutter speed and the aperture. This is either because you know that your camera will automatically give sufficient shutter speed and aperture values or because these settings won’t affect the final result in a meaningful way.

So if you’re shooting outdoors and you want to produce minimal noise in your photos, you might select Program mode, dial in a low ISO, and then let your camera do the rest.

squirrel photographed in Program mode
I shot this using Program mode, which let me tweak my exposure settings on the fly.

Or if you’re photographing under powerful artificial lights, you might tell your camera to keep the ISO low, then trust it to nail the remaining exposure variables.

Bottom line:

If all you want to do is adjust the ISO, you’re set. Put your camera in Program mode, change the ISO, and focus on composing and framing your shots rather than thinking about the aperture, shutter speed, and overall exposure.

But that’s not Program mode’s only use. You see, Program mode is also a great transition mode. If you’re aiming to improve your photography skills but you’re still stuck on Auto mode, you might try leveling up to Program mode; you can then use it as a stepping stone to Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and beyond.

How to shoot in Program mode

Back in the 35mm film days, you would often choose the film you used based on the shooting conditions you planned to work in.

ISO (or before that, ASA or DIN) was a function of the film. ASA speeds of common film types might be 25, 64, 125, 200, 400, and maybe up to 800. You could go a little higher with special processing. The rub was that, whatever film type you chose, you worked with the same ASA for the entire roll (be it 12, 24, or 36 exposures).

Many film rolls
With film, you had to stick with the same ISO (ASA) for the entire roll. (Image by Rick Ohnsman)

Working with Program mode can be a little like shooting film – in that the first thing you do is pick your ISO setting.

This could be ISO 100 for good outdoor light, ISO 200 or 400 for lower lighting conditions, and ISO 800 or higher for dim conditions (or perhaps for when you will be shooting action and need to use fast shutter speeds).

Some photographers call Program mode “ISO Priority,” because once you dial in the ISO, it will remain set, even as the shutter speed and aperture change. (Of course, the big difference from film is that you can change the ISO from shot to shot if you so choose).

So you start by setting your ISO.

Then, unless you have a special reason not to, I suggest you use the averaging metering modes: Evaluative on Canon, Matrix on Nikon. These will consider the entire image and calculate the exposure.

If your camera is set to Program mode, you will now see that it has selected both aperture and shutter speed settings. Depending on the available light, these will usually be toward the middle of the settings range – perhaps something like 1/125s and f/5.6. You may want to change these, and we’ll get into that in a minute, but if not, you’re good to go. Nail the focus and take the shot.

You can shoot all day like this, with your camera pretty much working as a point-and-shoot machine. As a beginner, rather than puzzle over what your settings should be for each shot, you can use Program mode to concentrate on more important things – chiefly composition – and let the camera figure out the exposure. Take away the clutch and the gearshift, and driving is so much easier, right?

Program mode: beyond the basics

At this point, you should be comfortable with the Program mode basics: You set the ISO, and your camera does the rest.

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find more useful features to unlock. Many of these can help you get the shot you want, instead of the shot your camera thinks you want. In this way, Program mode is like the late-night infomercial version of Auto; it handles all the nitty-gritty complicated stuff for you, but ends with a “Wait, there’s more!”

First, Program mode allows you to use exposure compensation to correct any exposure mistakes. By adjusting the exposure compensation in one direction, you can force your camera to take brighter images, and by adjusting it in the other direction, you’ll get the reverse.

Say you take a photo of snow and it turns out too dark. With a little exposure compensation, you can bring back the snow’s natural brightness (note that you can’t do that in Auto mode).

And you can adjust plenty of other camera settings while in Program mode, including white balance, metering mode (full/center/spot), point of focus, and whether your camera should use its flash.

(Contrast this with Auto mode, and you should start to see the usefulness of the humble little “P” marker on your camera’s mode dial.)

Of course, Program mode isn’t always the way to go. Sometimes, you’ll want to independently adjust your shutter speed or your aperture, in which case one of the Priority options, or even Manual mode, is the right choice.

But when ISO is all that matters, give Program mode a try.

microphone in Program mode
Shooting in Program mode gave me a good overall exposure, but I didn’t like how the microphone was so dark.
microphone program mode
I switched to spot metering, retook the shot, and got what I wanted. Program allows for this flexibility, whereas Auto does not!

Program Shift and some Program mode examples

You now know that Program mode allows you to set the ISO while your camera sets the aperture and shutter speed – but what if you want a narrower aperture and don’t mind lengthening the shutter speed? Conversely, what if you want a faster shutter speed and don’t mind widening the aperture?

That’s where Program Shift comes into play. This option lets you adjust the aperture and the shutter speed together – so the exposure doesn’t change, but the specific settings allowing you to achieve the exposure do.

The specifics for how to use Program Shift depend on your camera model, but I’d like to walk you through an example scenario where it can help you achieve top-notch results.

  1. It’s an overcast day, so you set the ISO to 800.
  2. Your camera is in Program mode, and it suggests an exposure.
  3. You decide you want a deeper depth of field, so you use Program Shift to set the aperture to f/22.
  4. Your settings are now ISO 800, 1/20s, and f/22. (Note that you’ll need to be on a tripod if you’re using a 1/20s shutter speed.)
  5. You focus, then take the shot.
smaller aperture setting
Image by Rick Ohnsman

You take a look and decide it might be better to isolate the foreground leaves with a shallow depth of field. Still in Program mode, you use Program Shift to put the aperture at f/4. Your camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to 1/640s to maintain proper exposure. You take another shot.

larger aperture setting
Image by Rick Ohnsman

Easy, huh? The ISO stayed locked in at 800, and as you adjusted the aperture, the shutter speed adjusted itself.

Suppose now you want to see the effect of shutter speed on a moving object. Still in Program mode, you leave the ISO at 800. To freeze the droplets of a fountain, you use Program Shift to set a 1/1600s shutter speed. You take the shot.

aperture comparison
Note how the top shot, taken at 1/50s, has more blurred water drops; also note how the tree is sharper at f/22. The bottom image, taken at 1/1600s, displays frozen water – but at f/4, the depth of field is smaller. (Image by Rick Ohnsman)

Now, what if you want to get a little motion blur on those drops? Use Program Shift to set a slower shutter speed of 1/50s. The aperture automatically adjusts.

(Exposure compensation is also an option should you need to make your images a little lighter or darker.)

Then make the leap

Program mode can help you get good exposures. And if you pay attention to the settings your camera chooses, you’ll begin to understand the relationship between aperture, depth of field, shutter speed, and motion capture. Program mode can also give you a good jumping-off point to work with a mode such as Aperture Priority.

Say that after making a shot in Program mode, you see the camera chose f/11 as the aperture, and you like the amount of depth of field that resulted. You can then switch over to Aperture Priority mode (Av on Canon, A on Nikon), dial in an f/11 aperture, and start shooting. The camera will stay locked at f/11 while adjusting the shutter speed for various lighting conditions.

The same goes for shutter speed. If your Program mode shot shows a nice amount of motion blur at 1/5s and you want to make subsequent images with that amount of blur, switch to Shutter Priority mode (Tv on Canon, S on Nikon), dial in 1/5s, and shoot away.

The camera will stay locked on the shutter speed you chose and alter the aperture as needed.

aperture/depth of field comparison
In the left photo, the focus is on the tree trunk at the right edge. At f/22, there’s a good amount of depth of field. In Program mode, roll the dial to take the f-stop to f/4 for less depth of field. The camera automatically compensates, putting the shutter speed at 1/160s. The exposure stays identical. (Image by Rick Ohnsman)

Back to the safe spot

If you play around enough with your settings, you may eventually mess things up so that you create a bad exposure or become totally confused about why things are not working for you. That’s when Program mode comes to the rescue.

Working with Program Mode will very often get the job done and is a good option for the new photographer.
These were some of the first images I made when I got my Canon 10D years ago. Program mode was all I knew, but it got the job done. Don’t think you have to immediately learn to shoot in Manual mode to make nice shots. (Image by Rick Ohnsman)

Put the camera in Program mode, put the ISO to a setting appropriate for your lighting situation (ISO 200 might be a good starting point), and it’ll be like hitting the reset button: you’ll be back to letting the camera choose exposure settings.

exploring depth of field with leaves in grass
It’s easy to explore the relationship between aperture and depth of field while in Program mode. This series starts at f/4 on the left, before a roll of the dial (with Program Shift) took the aperture to f/8 (middle), and then to f/22 on the right. The camera did all the exposure calculations. As simple as one, two, three! (Image by Rick Ohnsman)

Regardless of what mode I choose to shoot in, even Manual, I always put the dial back to Program mode before turning off the camera and putting it back in my bag. Then, if that once-in-a-lifetime shot presents itself and I must grab the camera, quickly power up, and shoot, I can be assured I will get a reasonably well-exposed shot.

I hope you will not take this article to mean you shouldn’t learn to shoot in Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode, because it’s true that a great number of professionals use these settings. But if you are new to photography and are confronted with more information than you can immediately absorb, working in Program mode might just be the helping hand you need.

leaves and beach photos
Working in Program mode will free you to concentrate on composition while letting the camera figure out exposure. (Image by Rick Ohnsman)

Concentrate first on learning good composition. And make sure your images are well-focused, because blurry shots are impossible to fix in editing.

For now, let your camera help you with exposure until you begin to wrap your head around all there is to know. Even if you are a more experienced photographer, you might occasionally find that turning the mode dial and working in Program mode is the right choice for a given situation.

Program mode: final words

Program mode is a handy little option, even if it’s often eclipsed by Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority.

So the next time you don’t want to give up all control over your camera but also don’t want to do everything yourself, consider Program mode. You might ask yourself, “Do I need to adjust the aperture? And do I need to adjust the shutter speed?”

If the answer is “No,” then Program mode is probably your best option!

Now over to you:

Do you use Program mode? Do you plan to start using it? Why or why not? What do you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Program mode person with camera

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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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