A Beginner's Guide to Camera Modes

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When you're a beginner photographer, just one look at all the buttons, dials, and menu options on your camera can send panic through your heart.

Add in a camera owner's manual that's more like a novel, and there's just a ton of information to soak up.

If you ask me, that's part of the reason why beginners seldom move beyond that little green box on the camera dial, otherwise known as automatic mode.

But here's a secret - moving beyond full auto opens up many more opportunities for you to get creative, learn more about photography, and take more control over how your photos look.

Let's take a quick look at the primary camera modes on your camera.

Automatic Mode

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Since most beginners use automatic mode, I doubt there's much mystery about what it does...

But in the spirit of giving a complete overview, full auto mode gives the camera all the control over the settings.

That means you just point and shoot, and don't need to worry about changing things like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Full auto also takes care of metering, focusing, white balance, and whether or not to fire the flash.

In other words, it's the camera's show - it decides what to do and how the final image will look.

There are a lot of benefits of shooting in auto, especially for beginners.

However, because the camera takes care of all the decision-making, full auto is something that all beginners will eventually grow out of.

As a result, moving up to a semi-automatic mode could give you the tools you need to take your photography to the next level.

Semi-Automatic Modes

Aperture Priority Mode

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Let's say you want to take a portrait that has a nice, blurry background like the one above.

So, you research how to get a blurry background and find that aperture is one of the principal factors that determines depth of field.

The question is, how do you control aperture without having to shoot in full manual mode?

The answer is aperture priority.

Denoted as A or AV on your camera's dial, aperture priority is a step up from full auto because you get to determine the aperture.

To help you out, your camera then selects a shutter speed to match, that, in normal lighting conditions, will result in a good exposure.

So, you turn the camera dial to A or AV, select a large aperture (i.e. f/2), and the camera selects the shutter speed.

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Though you can adjust other settings like ISO, you might not even need to.

That means you can make one adjustment - aperture - and get a better image because you're telling the camera exactly what you want (for that setting, at least) rather than the camera simply guessing.

Conversely, if you want a deeper depth of field such that the scene is in focus from front to back (like the landscape shown above), you can dial in a smaller aperture (i.e. f/16), let the camera choose the shutter speed, and get a more pleasing picture.

Does aperture priority mode get a perfectly exposed picture every time? No. But under typical lighting conditions, it will typically outperform full auto mode, and that's a good thing!

Learn more about aperture priority mode here.

Shutter Priority Mode

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Now let's assume that you're taking a photo of your kid playing soccer and you want to freeze their movement as they run by to kick the ball.

Since shutter speed controls the appearance of movement, you know you need to select a shutter speed that's fast enough to freeze movement.

So, you turn your camera's dial to S or TV to put it in shutter priority mode, select a shutter speed of 1/1000 seconds, and the camera selects an aperture to get a good exposure.

Of course, the same caveat that applies to aperture priority mode applies to shutter priority mode - it doesn't get a perfect exposure every single time, but under normal lighting conditions, it will work quite well.

You can also use shutter priority mode to blur movement.

Naturally, you just pick a slower shutter speed, and again, the camera will select an aperture that's appropriate to get a good exposure.

The shutter speeds you need to select to freeze or blur movement depends on a lot of factors. Learn more about shutter speed here.

Program Mode

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Program mode, which is denoted as P on your camera dial, is an interesting setting because it's a little more versatile than aperture priority and shutter priority.

To begin, you can think of program mode as "ISO priority mode" because you can select the ISO you'd like so you can control the camera's sensitivity to light.

The camera will then select an appropriate aperture and shutter speed to get a good exposure when shooting in typical lighting conditions.

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For example, if you're in the yard with your kids in the early evening, and you want to minimize the sensitivity of the camera's sensor to light (given that there is so much light ), you can put the camera in program mode, select ISO 100 (the least sensitive setting), and shoot away.

Conversely, if you're indoors in the evening and there isn't much light, you can again select program mode, crank up the ISO to 1600 to make the sensor more sensitive to light, and take your photos.

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However, program mode has a trick up its sleeve - you can override the aperture and shutter speed as you see fit.

So, where you're stuck with the shutter speed, the camera chooses when you're in aperture priority mode, in program mode, you can change it.

And, where you're stuck with the aperture the camera chooses when you're in shutter priority mode, again, in program mode, you can change it.

As I've noted for aperture priority and shutter priority modes, in program mode, the initial settings the camera selects to work with the ISO you've chosen will work for a good exposure in normal lighting conditions - but it isn't perfect.

That's why program mode is so valuable because you can change all three exposure settings if need be.

Learn more about other tips that will help you take your photos to the next level.

Manual Mode

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At the top of the heap, so to speak, is manual mode.

This is indicated as M on your camera dial and is the mode that many professionals use because it gives you complete control over the camera settings.

Think of it as the polar opposite of automatic mode...

Because you control aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, manual mode means that you can fine-tune the settings to fit the lighting situation.

It also means that you don't have to worry about the camera selecting settings that aren't quite right for more challenging lighting.

Of course, since you control all the exposure settings, that also means that you have to be wary of selecting the wrong settings.

Manual mode is more work than automatic mode or one of the semi-automatic modes.

However, because it gives you control over the situation, it's a goal to work towards because it will help you develop a better understanding of exposure and how to manipulate it.

For now, though, strive to get out of auto mode and into one of the semi-automatic modes outlined above.

After some practice with those mid-range modes, see what you can do in full manual!

Learn more about these camera modes in the video above by First Man Photography.

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