Getting to grips with your camera and what it can and can’t do is one of the first things you’ll do when you buy a new camera.
The mode dial lets you quickly access the cameras predetermined settings in order to make your photo taking as simple as possible.
Whilst some of these modes are aimed at beginners there are also advanced settings that you can access at the twist of the dial.
As with all photography techniques, it might take a bit of time to familiarise yourself with what each mode does.
However, once you find what works for you and your photography you’ll be able to quickly access modes that can benefit your images.
Equally, working your way through each setting of the mode dials will teach you about the importance of the exposure triangle in photography.
Having some assistance from your camera at the start is a great way to concentrate on just taking photos. You can focus on improving things like your composition and ability to see light, there really is no need to rush this process.
Below we have listed the typical modes you will find on most camera models.
Click to quickly jump/navigate to each section
Beginner Photography Modes
The modes we will discuss here are great for photographers who are just starting out.
They allow you to get out there and start taking pictures which is one of the most important aspects of learning photography.
At the same time, they will help you to identify settings that you can see are achieving the correct results as well as settings you want to avoid in the future.
With all of the automatic modes, their names and icons will vary from brand to brand.
However, most camera manufacturers have similar beginner modes to help you quickly and effectively take photos.
These modes tend to disappear with more advanced camera models as companies target their cameras to more professional users.
This will typically be the only green icon on your camera’s mode dial.
Full auto mode is designed for beginner photographers who want high-quality images without over-thinking their settings.
The camera will aim to get a balanced exposure to your photo no matter the circumstances.
The problem with this method of photo taking is that it doesn’t allow any level of control.
Your shutter speed could be too slow, your focus could be off and you might end up with poor photos as a result.
A camera can be easily fooled by lighting or movement and it is, therefore, necessary to exert even a tiny bit of control and tell it what to do in order to get the best photos.
Try and get out of this mode as quickly as possible if you want to become a better photographer.
If you’ve been shooting in auto mode for some time you might notice that the pop flash (if you’ve got one) pops up on its own from time to time.
As we’ve already mentioned cameras can be easily tricked so it thinks it needs flash when perhaps it doesn’t.
One thing you can do to prevent this is to set your mode dial to NO FLASH. This mode is typically symbolised by a lightning bolt with a line through it. By selecting this mode it will stop the flash from unnecessarily popping up.
Choosing this can be great if you’re still shooting in auto mode but want to be more discreet with your photo taking.
Equally, we would always advise you not to use an onboard flash anyway. This direct lighting isn’t good for professional looking photos.
An external flash or a bounced mounted flash is always a better way to go. By doing this you will produce softer lighting with a more natural feel.
The portrait mode can be a great way to make quick and dramatic images.
Selecting this mode will force your camera and lens to select a wide aperture and produce a shallow depth of field.
We’ve discussed in a previous post how separating your subject from their background can take your portrait photography to the next level.
This mode does this for you whether you’re taking photos of models or even dabbling in some pet photography.
As with all of the auto modes it can run into problems if for example there is subject movement.
Because you are not controlling the settings you could end up with slow shutter speeds or a high ISO. This could result in a blurry and noisy photo.
However, this mode can be useful in well-lit conditions as it is more likely to give the desired results.
In the opposite way to the portrait mode, the landscape mode will set your camera to a narrow aperture.
By doing this your camera will produce a large depth of field meaning more of your photo will be sharp and in focus.
As we discussed in our post all about landscape photography a narrow aperture is great for your photos as it captures all the detail of your landscape.
In a similar way to the caveats of the portrait mode, you could also end up with too slow a shutter speed and a high ISO.
However, if you’re utilising a tripod for your landscapes the chances of you getting sharp and in-focus photos will dramatically increase.
The dedicated sports mode will help you to freeze the action of any moving subject.
You shouldn’t think of this mode as only working for a basketball or football game. It could be used for pet photography or capturing a race between friends at the beach.
Your camera will set high shutter speeds in order to produce sharp photos of high octane action.
To compensate for this high shutter speed your camera might also have to set a wide aperture and/or a high ISO.
Once again the downfall of these auto modes is that you have very little control over these settings.
This might be fine as you’re starting out but eventually, you are going to want to decide yourself on the best settings for a situation.
We gave some useful advice to one of our Smart members recently who wanted to improve his sports photography.
After taking advice from our mentors he was much happier with the results he was getting capturing his local football team.
Whilst it is difficult to compare to an actual macro lens the macro mode does a pretty good job.
In a similar way to the portrait mode, it sets your camera and lens to a wide aperture enabling a shallow depth of field.
Additionally, it lets you get closer to your subject in order to further isolate it from its background.
This mode can be great for getting detailed shots of flowers or insects and exploring the creative possibilities of your camera.
As the name suggests this is a mode that is best suited to low light photography.
Shooting in night mode will slow your shutter speed, widen your aperture and increase your ISO.
It might also force your flash to pop up to increase the amount of light hitting the sensor.
Professional Camera Modes
The more advanced modes allow for a greater deal of control over your settings.
You can control your aperture, shutter speed, white balance, ISO etc. These settings will all have an impact on how your final image will turn out.
Getting to grips with some of these modes will help you to learn photography and are a great stepping stone to eventually shooting full manual photography.
P – Program
The program mode is like an advanced version of the auto mode.
This mode is still making all the decisions for you but it allows a lot more control over how your photo will turn out.
As we’ve mentioned the trouble with the full auto mode is that cameras can easily be tricked. Say for instance that you’re taking a photo in the snow your camera will most likely underexpose this image.
By being in program mode you can dial in exposure compensation to raise the exposure. This will then adjust your settings accordingly to achieve a better exposure for your photo.
Program mode also lets you control the ISO and white balance as well as giving you access to other functions that you can’t control in auto.
TV/S – Shutter Priority
This is a great shooting mode if you want to prioritise freezing your subject within your shot.
Shutter priority shares many characteristics with the sports mode that we discussed earlier. However, it allows you to take way more control and produce better photos in the process.
Using this means you will set your shutter speed depending on the subject you are photographing. Over time you will become more familiar with the types of shutter speeds you need to capture certain things.
Shutter priority can be a great way to improve your car photography for example as it allows you to dial in your shutter speed and not worry about your other settings too much.
You’ll also be able to take control of your ISO in this mode if you so wish which will impact the size of the aperture that the camera auto selects.
Additionally, you can set exposure compensation to control your exposure in a more accurate way.
AV/A – Aperture Priority
This shooting mode shares many characteristics with shutter priority.
However, with this mode selected you will be prioritising your aperture and allowing the camera to auto-select your shutter speed.
Many photographers use this mode because of its versatility and speed. It means you can consistently shoot at a shallow depth of field without worrying about your other settings.
With some camera models, you can even set a shutter speed limit of 1/250 sec for example. This means that you can get great handheld shots that won’t be shaky.
Once again you can take control of ISO and adjust the exposure compensation if required.
This is a great mode for lots of photography purposes and many professional photographers will use this as it means they can concentrate more on shooting.
Additionally, aperture priority can help you to learn more about ISO and the impact it will have on your shutter speed.
By raising your ISO you will also get a faster shutter speed meaning you can capture the action even in low light situations.
M – Manual
This is the mode we hope you will eventually use after studying our online photography course.
Not only will our course teach you everything about photography but we also have mentors on hand to guide you on your journey.
Shooting in manual means that you choose the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Learning how to properly use it will enable you to get more consistent photos and be ready for whatever environment you are shooting in.
Maybe you’re trying to capture the Northern Lights in Iceland or looking to take sharper photos of animals at the zoo? Whatever you are trying to achieve with your photography manual mode will have the answer.
There are times when manual mode isn’t the best option though and shutter and aperture priority become very effective. For example, if you’re photographing a wedding and you’re trying to capture quick important moments in challenging light.
This is where some of the semi-automatic modes can be lifesavers in allowing you to capture a shot when there isn’t time to adjust all your settings.
B – Bulb
The bulb mode is a really useful feature for long exposure photography.
Setting your camera up in this mode allows you to expose your camera’s sensor to light for as long as you want.
Most cameras won’t allow shutter speeds slower than 30 seconds so accessing the bulb mode open new creative possibilities.
You should always use bulb mode with a tripod and wireless or cable shutter release as this will limit camera shake. This is especially important with bulb mode as you’re working with extra long exposures.
Essentially, once you have pressed your shutter button the sensor will be exposed to light until you press it again.
This allows your camera to absorb loads of light making it particularly good for star trails, fireworks or night time cityscapes.
C1,C2,C3 /U1,U2,U3 – Custom Modes
Utilising the custom mode can be a great way to quickly access familiar and well-used settings.
Called C1, C2 and C3 on Canon models these modes allow you to dial in your favourite settings which you can go to with the flick of the switch.
Say you quickly want to set your camera to f/2.8, 100 ISO and 1/4000sec you can set that up on C1. You can then have 2 other go to settings which you can navigate to at any time on C2 and C3.
This can be really useful at weddings especially if you’re using flash and you know what has worked in the past.
Many modern cameras also come with a video mode which allows you to capture HD films.
With many video modes, you can also make use of the functions we’ve discussed in this article.
For example, you can access video whilst in aperture priority. This will allow you to select your aperture and the camera will choose an appropriate shutter speed and ISO to get an even exposure.
This is a great way to get stunning video captures without worrying too much about your settings.
Making The Most Of Your Cameras Mode Dial
All the modes we have discussed have their advantages and disadvantages.
Their usefulness will depend largely on your current ability as a photographer. As you develop and hone your skills you will learn what best works for you and your style of photography.
You’ll notice along the way that there are similarities between the sports mode and shutter priority for example. Equally the portrait mode is very similar to aperture priority.
Your goal should be to take photos that you are happy with and you shouldn’t feel any pressure to jump straight into manual photography.
Don’t think you are any less of a photographer if you use aperture or shutter priority either. Some of the best portrait photographers in the world use these modes as they work for them and the type of images they create.
Ultimately, as long as you can correctly expose your images with settings that will produce the best images the rest is about you and your creativity.
See you next time!