Understanding Your Camera – Shooting Modes


Understanding Your Camera - Shooting Modes

Do you remember the first time you picked up a digital camera? I remember my first one was a Christmas present to the family. It was 3.0 megapixels and had 3 shooting modes. As I graduated to better cameras, I noticed more and more icons showing up, which opened up to more possibilities. But what does it all mean?

Most cameras, including point and shoots, have a dial on top with different icons. These icons refer to shooting modes, which tell your camera how you are shooting. There are two types of modes: basic and creative. I am focusing mainly on the creative modes, but there is information about the basic modes as well. This guide is catered towards DSLR cameras, but there are point and shoot cameras that can benefit from this information as well.

Understanding Your Camera - Shooting Modes

Basic modes are modes that have the settings already decided for you. You don’t need to adjust anything else. Just throw it in that mode and shoot. If you want to just shoot and not think, you can throw it in Auto Mode, which tells the camera to pick the settings that it thinks are best. If you want to take action shots, you can throw it in Action Mode, which tells the camera that you need a fast shutter speed.

Some cameras only have a few basic modes. Others have a wide range, including sunset, snow, and beach. These modes have settings already configured because in most cases, these scenarios share the same conditions. For example, if you throw it in Snow Mode, chances are you are shooting a scene that is very bright with the light reflecting from the snow. The camera then knows to adjust the settings to compensate for the bright light.

Understanding Your Camera - Creative Modes

Creative modes are the modes that give you control over some or all settings. I’m going to focus on Program (P), Shutter Speed (Tv), Aperture (Av), Manual (M), and Automatic Depth of Field (A-Dep). If you have a DSLR and are not using one of these settings, you just wasted your money. The point of buying a DSLR (and why they are expensive) is to have control over your camera. If we let the camera do the work, it may not get it right because it doesn’t always know what we want.

Homemade Caramel Sauce with white balance adjustment

Why is it important to have control over your settings? The main reason is lighting. Lighting varies so much, it is impossible for the camera to get it 100% correct. Yes, it can be pretty darn accurate, but it can be improved if you customize your settings. Adjusting settings such as ISO and exposure help make the scene brighter or darker when your camera doesn’t cooperate. Or perhaps you purposely want to have a darker scene to reflect the mood. You can read more about lighting situations and why it is important to control your white balance here. Even the slightest adjustment in white balance improves your picture.

Understanding Your Camera - Shooting Modes

The Program (P) mode lets you control some basic settings without worrying about aperture or shutter speed. It is very similar to automatic mode except you can adjust white balance, exposure, and ISO. The camera decides the settings for aperture and shutter speed, based on the lighting of your situation. If I don’t have time to mess with the settings (such as traveling or Murray playing), I’ll throw it in P.

Why use P instead of auto? If you put your camera in auto mode, you have no control over anything. Your white balance is automatically adjusted, your flash automatically pops up. If you’re going to shoot in auto all the time, you might as well go back to a point and shoot. You also can’t use your viewfinder (the screen). I have no idea why it is set that way, but you cannot use the viewfinder in any of the basic modes. I tell new DSLR users to shoot in P as they learn because there is less to worry about. You don’t need to worry about your shutter speed or your aperture. You can practice setting your ISO, your white balance, and your focus. It is also a great learning tool.

Understanding Your Camera - Shooting Modes

The Shutter Speed (Tv – Time Value) mode lets you control the shutter speed without worrying about aperture. Controlling shutter speed is important when taking action shots. It is also extremely dependent on light. I will not be discussing details in this post.

Understanding Your Camera - Shooting Modes

The Aperture (Av – Aperture Value) mode lets you control the aperture (f number) without worrying about shutter speed. Aperture controls your depth of field, making a difference between a blurry and a focused background. I wrote a whole guide about understanding aperture here.

Understanding Your Camera - Shooting Modes

Manual (M) mode lets you control every setting possible. This is especially handy if the camera isn’t cooperating. For example, I am shooting in Av mode and want the aperture to be f 8.0. However, the shutter speed my camera is automatically selecting is too slow. I can go to manual mode and set the aperture and shutter speed to what I want. Of course, I’ll have to compensate in other areas (tripod, lighting, ISO), but it would allow me to achieve my end goal.

Understanding Your Camera - Shooting Modes

The Automatic Depth of Field (A-Dep) mode lets you focus on depth of field without having to adjust the f number. The camera picks the f number for you. I have never used this mode, but since it is listed on the dial, people would be asking about it. It is a great place to start if you want to achieve depth of field but not sure which f number to pick.

By understanding the purpose of each mode and how it works, you can decide which one is the best to use. The best way to learn is pick one mode and use that mode only until you understand how the settings work. Even if you set up a tripod and shoot in every f number possible, you will see the differences between a low f number and a high f number. Then you will learn what you like and don’t like and not spend as much time deciding.

What modes do you use? I shoot mainly on Av but do find myself on P when necessary.

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  1. ….my brain just exploded O_O

    that is so complicated. omg I’m so dumb

  2. Great information Carla!! I took your advice and have been shooting in P for various stuff and A for food (plus setting white balance). So glad you are doing these tutorials. Major big help!

  3. Awesome post! I mainly shoot in M mode but I’m so ready to explore the other settings :)

  4. You, my dear, are meant to be a teacher. I was in class this week and using a different camera and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to change the f stop in manual mode. When I asked the chef, he kept switching it to Av, but it was choosing all the wrong settings. In that moment, I wish I had you around because I knew you’d understand what I meant! [and you’d give me an easy to follow explanation!]

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  6. A-Dep…. I love this setting to keep everything in focus. I believe it is only found on Canon’s. You basically compose your shot, (typically with a group of people) and then when you slightly tap your shutter button to auto focus, do it on every face, then position your shot in the frame and take the shot. It’s great for shots of people at say, The Grand Canyon when you would like not only the people in focus, but the background as well. (At least it’s been working that way for me lol) I’m by no means an expert at the subject…. clearly lol since I’m reading this article LOL

  7. I have a Canon Rebel question I haven’t been able to find the answer to yet – maybe either you or one of your other readers knows. I confess that I keep my camera on auto most of the time (well, auto + no flash), because I have small children and I’m not quick enough at changing settings yet. But I cannot figure out any way (in any mode) to tell the camera which of the focus points I want it to use. Surely there’s a way to select this, right? or they wouldn’t have bothered to put them all in there!

    • Check your manual and look up AF points. It should explain how to select them.

      • My sister and I just figured it out last night. Apparently, you can’t select the focus points it uses when you’re in the auto-focus modes. Which makes no sense to me, because I don’t see why you’d need them if you’re shooting in manual! But that’s why I hadn’t been able to figure out how to do it.

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