How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Camera Modes

By April 29, 2019 April 21st, 2020 Camera Basics, Photography

Three settings control exposure: Aperture, Shutter speed, and ISO. Though it is possible to set all three settings by yourself, it’s not always the best approach. This is especially true in the beginning phases of your photography. 

The good news is your camera comes with pre-programmed settings designed to help you achieve the right exposure for each photo with ease. These settings are called Camera Modes. If you want a quick explanation of the camera modes, I created the cheat sheet below. If you’re interested in learning more, continue reading. 

Camera Modes TableCamera Modes

Camera Modes Dial Image

Camera Modes fall into one of three categories: Auto, Scene, and Exposure. The type of mode determines the degree of control you will have over your camera.

1. Auto mode gives you the least control. In this mode, your camera will have full control over the exposure.

2. Scene mode allows you to make suggestions regarding your scene and your camera will determine the proper exposure accordingly.

3. Exposure modes give you the most control, allowing you to set at least one of the three exposure settings.  

Caveat: Though I will be discussing all of the camera modes in this article, I would like to point out that I only ever use the exposure modes. I believe that these modes are the best way to use your camera optimally and the only modes you should use.

1. Auto Mode

Auto is designed to produce images with proper exposure, white balance, and focus.

In Auto Mode, the camera will adjust every setting for you: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, file format (JPEG), white balance, focus, saturation, and flash. This mode is the most basic and hands-off mode that your camera has. The only thing you will need to do is point and shoot.

Using auto mode will allow you to capture images as quickly as possible. However, in this mode, there is little flexibility in terms of creativity.

Note: Certain camera modes will adjust the saturation of an image by adjusting the picture controls or picture profile.

2. Scene Mode

In Scene mode, the camera will choose exposure settings but will allow you to create and make suggestions about the scene your photographing.  

Let’s say you chose an action scene to capture a running horse. In this case, your camera will apply specific parameters that should be used such as fast shutter speeds to create a properly exposed image. 

There are six scene modes that most digital cameras come equipped with:  landscape, portrait, sports (action), close-up, sunset, and night portrait.

Similar to Auto mode, Scene modes utilizes auto-focusing.  Each scene mode optimizes focus for a given set of conditions. 

1. Landscape Mode

Landscape Mode Icon

Use landscape mode when trying to create an image with a deep depth of field. In this mode, your camera will apply narrow apertures to create the most substantial depth of field possible. A deep depth of field will place most of your subject in focus. In particular, it sets your focus to infinity to ensure sharp images. Contrast and saturation will also be adjusted to create pictures with refined details and vivid colors. This mode tends to emphasize colors often seen outdoors such as blue and green.

2. Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode Icon

Use portrait mode to create images that place the focus on your subject. In this mode, your camera applies wide apertures to create a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field will blur your background and emphasize your subject. In this mode, your camera will automatically place focus on the center focus point.  Your camera will also apply neutral colors and increase the softness to account for skin tones.

3. Sports/Action Mode

Sports Mode Icon

Use the sports mode if you are trying to capture motion. This mode will use fast shutter speeds to freeze movement in the frame. Predictive focus and continuous mode are also be applied to capture the moving subject in motion. Similar to portrait mode, your camera will automatically place focus on the center focus point. Lastly, this mode utilizes continuous autofocus (AF-C). This allows you to take multiple shots without taking your finger off the shutter button. 


4.Macro/Close-Up Mode

Macro Mode Icon

Use macro mode to capture small details within your subjects. This mode utilizes small apertures to maximize the depth of field and place the focus on your subject. In this mode, your camera will automatically place focus on the center focus point. Also, macro mode typically applies fast shutter speeds to reduce camera shake and motion blur.

5. Night Portrait

Night Portrait Mode

Night portrait mode is used to create a shallow depth of field at night. This mode will automatically apply flash to expose at night properly. This will true even if you’re using a tripod. In this mode, your camera will automatically place focus on the center focus point.

6. Other Scene Modes 

There are other possible scene modes that your camera can have which include fireworks, snow, and sunset mode. But these are uncommon.

3. Exposure Modes 

Exposure Modes

Exposure modes allow you the most control over your camera settings. When using exposure modes, you will have to adjust at least one of the exposure settings yourself. These modes will often give you the most considerable flexibility and creative control over your images. 

The Exposure modes on your DSLR camera include:

  1. Program mode (P) – The camera controls both the shutter speed and aperture settings
  2. Aperture Priority mode (A) – The camera lets you choose the aperture and ISO while it automatically picks the shutter speed on your behalf.
  3. Shutter Priority mode (S)– The camera lets you control the shutter speed and ISO while it chooses the aperture for you
  4. Manual Mode (M) -The camera enables you to select all three parameters of the exposure. 

1. Program Mode (P)  

In this mode, the camera sets both the aperture and shutter speed and lets you choose the ISO. 

The amount of light that reaches your lens will be the basis for the choice of aperture and shutter speed. The camera usually picks a reasonably fast shutter speed to minimize the effects of camera shake.

Use this mode if you want to snap a picture quickly without worrying yourself about the settings.

 2. Aperture Priority Mode (A)

This mode gives you control over your aperture and ISO and lets the camera adjust the shutter speed for optimal exposure. Use Priority mode if you wish to retain full control over the depth of field.

In the case of a bright scene, your camera will increase the shutter speed to a level that will create the best exposure. In the same way, a low-light environment will trigger your camera to decrease the shutter speed to correspond with the aperture setting you have picked. 

Most landscape photographers tend to work in this mode. This is because controlling the depth of field is more important in landscape photography than controlling motion. To increase focus, go for a large f-number. The narrow aperture will increase your depth of field resulting in an image with plenty of details.

This mode is also useful in subject isolation, commonly seen in portrait photography. To isolate your subject, choose a small f-number. This will emphasize your subject by blurring out distracting details in the background. 

One of the benefits of using this mode is that it minimizes the risk of overexposure or underexposure to almost zero. This is because the camera has a broad range of shutter speed settings to choose from. 

Even if you drastically change your aperture, for instance, from f/4 to f/16, your camera has a wide enough range of shutter speed to compensate for the decreased amount of light passing through the aperture.

Note that using a narrow aperture means letting in less light through the lens. This will prompt the camera to choose a slow shutter speed as a way to compensate. As such, if you decide to use a narrow aperture, you’ll want to use a tripod to avoid camera shake. Otherwise, set your ISO higher to compensate whenever you use fast shutter speeds.

3. Shutter Priority Mode (S)

In this mode, you manually set the camera’s shutter speed, and ISO and the camera will choose the right aperture for optimal exposure. Use the Shutter Priority mode when you want to control the way motion is captured in the image.

If you want to freeze movement choose a fast shutter speed; to create motion blur, go instead for slower shutter speeds.

In shutter priority mode, you can sometimes end up with an underexposed or overexposed image. This will depend on the limitations of your camera and the amount of ambient light available to the scene.

Once you set the shutter speed to a certain number, your camera will pick the best aperture available to go with that shutter speed. The realized exposure will be limited to the aperture range of your camera.

For example, if your camera lens has a maximum aperture of f/4.0, it will have to shoot at that aperture. This is true even in cases where you’ll need a higher aperture, say an aperture of  f/2.8, to get the proper exposure. The camera won’t be able to use an aperture lower than f/4.0, which will result in an underexposed image.

The good news is, most of the time, you can get around these limitations by choosing a higher ISO. Doing so will make your sensor more responsive to light and correct underexposure. 

4. Manual Mode (M)

The manual mode gives you full control overexposure. In this mode, the camera lets you choose the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. 

Even though some photographers will consider this mode to be the best for creative expression, it’s not recommended if you’re starting so out. You’ll need experience and a good understanding of the camera settings before you can begin to utilize this mode effectively.

Nonetheless, there are specific instances when this mode will be your best option. For example, photographers often deliberately underexpose or overexpose their images to create a certain aesthetic. In this case, using manual mode will be a great choice. Using manual mode is also the easiest when you are particular about the shutter speed and aperture you want to use. This is often true in night photography.

Despite being relatively complicated and even intimidating to shoot in manual mode, you cannot wholly escape it if you’re going to be a diligent photographer.

If you’re unsure about how to learn manual mode, you can read part 1 of this series: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Exposure. Or you can download this manual mode cheat sheet to help you choose the proper exposure settings.

Reasons Not to Use Manual Mode

When using manual mode, you must be able to adjust the Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO settings to the lighting conditions in your scenes. Choosing the proper combination of these three settings can sometimes be cumbersome. Especially in situations where a small variation in any of these settings could alter your image completely. 

Thus, most photographers will use their camera’s built-in light meter to guide them when shooting in manual mode. However, often, when you do so, you would be doing the very same thing the camera does for you in aperture and shutter priority mode. In this case, shooting manual will only slow you down and make you miss your shot. 

Another reason not to shoot in manual mode is when photographing volatile compositions such as animals or where light continually changes. This because you have to manually change all the settings to achieve the correct exposure from one scene to the next. In such cases, it helps to let the camera choose the settings for you so you can focus on getting the shots.

Exposure Compensation

There are times when your camera’s light meter will misread exposure. It does so because it is programmed to interpret light as if it were reflecting off a neutral grey surface. That is, it is designed to turn colors into tones of grey. Since our world is not grey, there will be instances when the camera will provide an incorrect interpretation of reflectance. In such cases, you can either use the manual mode or exposure compensation to override your camera suggestions. 

For example, If you take a photo of a white wall, your camera is likely to interpret your image as overexposed, even when its adequately exposed. The misinterpretation is because a white wall is twice as bright as grey. But your camera’s light meter doesn’t intrinsically know that.

Conversely, images with a lot of shadows are bound to be interpreted by the light meter to be underexposed.  If you take a photo of a black dog, for example, the light meter is likely to read your image as underexposed, even when it is properly exposed.

In these cases, the camera will have difficulty getting the right interpretation of a scene. And in most cases, it will set the exposure incorrectly. 

The exposure compensation lets you adjust to five stops of light in your scene without physically altering your exposure settings. Note that exposure compensation only works when using the program, shutter priority and aperture priority modes.

To use the setting on your camera, look for a button marked by the symbol shown above. The exposure compensation is located on top of DSLR’s near the shutter button. 

If your camera does not have this specific button, then the chances are that it is using dedicated dials instead. Scroll towards plus (+) signs to increase exposure by one stop, or towards the minus (-) signs to decrease exposure by one stop.

Once you choose the compensation value, it will apply to all your subsequent shots until you set the camera back to zero (0). So it’s essential always to remember to reset the camera to zero, so it does not continue to compensate the exposure on photos taken.

By using exposure compensation, you can fine-tune exposure without using manual mode. 


So which mode should you use? That would depend on you. But as a fellow photographer, I implore you to learn and practice using the exposure modes if you want to utilize the full capabilities of your camera. More specifically, master the aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual mode. Though they may seem more complicated to learn than the other modes, they are well worth your time. Once you’ve learned them, these three modes are the only ones you’ll ever need.





About The Author

Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.