Photography Basics: Beginner's Guide to Camera Modes

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After buying a new DSLR camera, you may become overwhelmed by the number of shooting modes available. What are all of these camera modes? And how do you know which one you want to use?

As an experienced photographer, it is valuable to have a fundamental understanding of your camera - inside and out - and this includes understanding all of these camera modes.

9 Camera Modes and Reasons to Use Them

The Six Automatic Modes

Shooting in one of the automatic modes is a great starting point if you are new to photography, or are placed in a new environment where you don't have much time to toggle with your settings to get the right exposure. These camera modes are designed to heavily assist the user in getting the right exposure. There are, of course, limitations and imperfections - but again, for someone just beginning, it can provide an easier starting point than diving right into the complex and technical aspects of photography. 

Auto Mode

One of the simplest camera modes is Auto Mode (also known as Automatic Exposure Mode). This mode is fundamentally designed with novice or casual photographers in mind as it does the hard work that goes into getting a correct exposure for you in all types of situations. Your camera will automatically calculate the optimal shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and flash settings (if applicable) for you - so you don't have to worry about toggling through all of these settings on your own.

As someone starting out with photography, shooting in Auto Mode can be an easy way to acclimate to taking photos, and allow you to focus on the artistic side of photo taking - like nailing great compositions.

The downside of Automatic Mode is that it is not perfect. While it does a decent job for what it is, we would not trust it in settings where the output is expected to be professional. All it takes is one instance where the camera automatically bumps the ISO too high - leading to excessive graininess in the photos - to prove this point. While some problems can be corrected in post processing (like in Lightroom or Photoshop), it is ideal to be able to get the settings right in camera.

Still, Automatic Mode is a great starting point if you yourself are just starting out with photography!

Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode is another automatic shooting mode that is refined to focus on the key defining element(s) that make portrait photography great. While focusing on the subject, the camera will choose a shallow depth of field (lower f-stop) in order to keep the subject in focus, and the background blurred (creating a bokeh effect!). As with the basic Auto Mode, your camera will do the leg work in determining the "best" settings for the photo to capture the right exposure. As before, this is not a perfect process, and works best in well lit environments.

Macro Mode

Macro Mode was designed with taking photos of small objects (think insects or wedding rings) in mind. This mode allows you to focus on objects closer to the camera lens, that might otherwise be unable to be focused on. Keep in mind that, even while shooting in this mode, there may still be some limitations regarding what you can capture depending on your camera body model & camera lenses. There are macro-specific camera lenses that will help you get better quality close up images.

Landscape Mode

Do you enjoy taking photos of the natural world? If you do not have a specific individual subject, and would rather focus on the whole environment, landscape mode helps to automatically focus on the entire scene. This is usually done by your camera choosing a small aperture (high f/stop number), and adjusting shutter and ISO settings to allow enough light into the camera.

Sports Mode

Even if you aren't planning to photograph sporting activities anytime soon, this camera mode can be useful when you are looking to capture movement. The way this is achieved by the camera automatically is it will be told by this setting to keep the shutter speed higher in order to "freeze" the scene it captures. Even if you do not care for automatic photography modes, it may be worth trying this mode from time to time, especially if you are stuck in a fast-paced shooting situation and uncertain of the settings you should select on your own.

Night Portrait Mode

The last of the automatic camera setting modes is Night Portrait Mode. As the name would imply, this mode was created to automatically assist with adjusting your camera settings to take a well exposed portrait (of a person or another stationary object) in the dark. Most photographers would agree that taking photos at night is an entirely different ball game, and is really where some technical expertise is necessary to take good quality photos. After all, on a sunny day with some clouds creating a natural light diffuser, capturing great quality photos is relatively easy (even for beginners!). During the night, getting an exposure that looks natural, allows in some of the ambient lighting in the scene, and captures your subject cleanly takes more time to get right. Night Portrait Mode will aid you with adjusting the shutter speed to be slower - which allows the camera more time to take in light from the scene, adjust ISO as necessary, and adjust your flash settings (if applicable) to only illuminate the person or object you are looking to capture. 

The Two Semi-Manual Modes

If you feel comfortable with your photography using automatic exposure, but are not quite ready to dive into the depths that come with shooting in full manual mode, using Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes may be a great next step. These modes allow you to control only 2 of the 3 "exposure triangle" components, and helps to automatically set the others. 

Aperture Priority Mode (AV Mode)

In Aperture Priority Mode, you select the aperture and ISO, and the camera automatically chooses the shutter speed. This is actually quite a cool mode, and one that helps to make the exposure triangle easier to understand. When selecting the aperture (also known as f-stop), the basic thing to keep in mind is that a lower number (like f/1.4 or f/2.8) creates a larger aperture (creates more separation between the subject and the background, more bokeh), and inversely, a larger number (like f/16 or greater) creates a smaller aperture (allowing for less separation between the subject and background, usually utilized most for landscape photography at higher values). 

This camera mode provides you with better control over the camera settings than any of the full auto modes. If you are just beginning to explore different depth of fields in your photography, this might be a great setting to start with! 

Shutter Priority Mode (TV or S Mode)

In Shutter Priority mode, you select the shutter speed and ISO, and the camera automatically chooses the aperture. This semi-manual mode is most comparable to the Sports Mode from the full auto camera setting section. The focus is on choosing a shutter speed that will suffice for capturing movement, and effectively freezing it into a crisp and clear photograph. In general, higher shutter speeds with work best for capturing this movement, and the camera will take care of dialing in the aperture for a fine exposure. 

Manual Mode

Manual Mode provides the photographer with the ultimate creative and technical freedom to get the right exposure as they see fit. The vast majority of professional photographers will shoot in this mode in most instances. In our minds, the many automatic and semi-manual modes provide great stepping stones to create a sense of comfort with your camera - and to gradually learn more about the settings - but your ultimate goal should be to shoot in Manual Mode. 

Manual Mode lets you control the 3 main elements of the exposure triangle - the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Learning how these 3 components work together takes a while, and we can both admit that it is quite a challenge sometimes to overcome new hurdles in this department as you will need to make adjustments based on the lighting, and sometimes even things that would seem trivial like the light color or size of the environments you are in. Getting a proper exposure, even in seemingly complex situations, is essential as a professional photographer. 

One of the attractive elements of Manual Mode for us is that it offers a good deal of flexibility not found in the other modes. The other modes look to create a "perfect" image (in the way a computer can, anyways!). In many situations, we like intentionally under-exposing our images, as this seems to allow us to capture more depth in the image (in the way of shadows). When post processing in Lightroom, we can increase the exposure (making for a "brighter" image), and control the shadows and highlights in our images finely. 

Conclusion

The 9 camera modes all provide value, and have their unique places in the world of photography. The camera modes seem by design to help beginners get acclimated to using a camera and capture nice compositions in the automatic modes, then help introduce the beginners to more of the technical aspect of photography through the "-priority" modes, and finally give the most freedom in manual mode - which also comes with the biggest learning curve.