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Home > Learn Photography > A Beginner’s Guide to the Camera Mode Dial

A Beginner’s Guide to the Camera Mode Dial


If you own a DLSR or mirrorless camera then odds are it has a mode dial. (It’s only top-flight pro camera models that tend to do without one.) Weirdly on a lot of cameras the mode dial is stuck and never moves from its initial position. However, this isn’t a manufacturing fault, just the sad fact that a lot of photographers just stick with what works for them. (Obviously this doesn’t apply to you.) My task today is to convince those with a sticky mode dial to give a twist and see what happens…

Generally, mode dials can be neatly split into automatic modes and semi-automatic/manual modes. The mode you select affects what control you have over the image-making process. There are no prizes for guessing that the automatic modes offer you the least control, but that’s getting ahead a bit.

On the topic of automatic modes, let’s look at those first. These vary between camera models but can roughly be split into two types. First there are the scene-specific options, which include modes such as Portrait or Landscape. And then there is Fully Automatic, which is often the default when you first take your camera out of its box.

In the Portrait scene mode colour is usually subtly tweaked in-camera to make skin tones more pleasing.

Scene modes configure a camera so that it’s ready to shoot in a particular situation, setting functions such as the drive or autofocus modes to ensure a greater chance of success. So, for example, in Sports scene mode the camera will set the Drive mode to Continuous Shooting and autofocus to Continuous AF. Select Landscape however, and the camera sets the Drive mode to Single Shooting and autofocus to Single AF. The difference between the two modes is simple. Sports subjects move so the camera tracks movement by constantly updating AF, and lets you to rattle off numerous frames to capture the action as it happens. Landscapes are generally still so the camera is less responsive to suit.

Scene modes will also configure the visual characteristics of a photo too. Portrait mode, for example, generally keeps in-camera sharpening to a minimum – over-sharpened portraits aren’t particularly flattering. Landscape, however, tends to increase sharpening and boosts the vividness of greens and blues – colours found commonly in nature. The thing about scene modes is that they really don’t know what you’re shooting. They rely on you making the decision to select the right mode for the subject in front of your camera.

Fully Automatic comes into its own in social occasions – when it’s more important to enjoy yourself than be fiddling with your camera – or during events when there’s a lot happening all at once.

If in doubt, Fully Automatic is the option to choose. This is a catch-all mode that automates pretty much every option on a camera. Basically you just pick up the camera and shoot. Because of this automation there’s generally very little you can change. And this makes Fully Automatic slightly frustrating if you want to get creative with your photography. (Though of course it can’t automate composition so doesn’t remove all creativity.) What Full Automatic is truly great for are those occasions when you need to shoot but don’t have time to be messing around with technical options.

If you want to feel more in control of your camera then you need to switch to one of the PASM modes: Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual exposure (or, on Canon and Pentax mode dials, PAvTvM  – for Program, Aperture value, Time value and Manual – which doesn’t trip of the tongue quite as well.)

Program shift has its limitations. You can’t use a shutter speed that requires an aperture that is not available on the lens – such as f/128 if you need a particularly slow shutter speed! You may need to alter ISO or add an ND filter to set the desired shutter speed/aperture combination.

Program is superficially similar to Fully Automatic. It sets exposure for you, selecting aperture and shutter speed (and ISO if Auto ISO is selected). However, unlike Fully Automatic you’re not stuck with this initial selection. The selected exposure settings can be overridden by using Program shift – which shifts shutter speed and aperture relative to each other – or exposure compensation – which allows you to lighten or darken an image to either correct exposure error or for reasons of aesthetics. You can also alter settings such as ISO, which is typically set permanently to Auto ISO in the automatic modes. Think of Program as a bridge between Fully Automatic and the final three modes described next.

I used Aperture priority to shoot this scene, selecting a relatively small aperture of f/13 to ensure front-to-back sharpness.

Aperture priority and Shutter priority are both semi-automatic modes. When you select Aperture priority you’re in charge of choosing aperture, leaving the camera to select the required shutter speed, with Shutter priority being the exact opposite. Which you choose is largely down to the subject you’re shooting. Landscape photographers typically use Aperture priority because the aperture value selected affects depth of field. Sports photographers on the other hand need control over the shutter speed to freeze (or even blur) movement, so Shutter priority would be the better option.

I use Manual exposure when shooting flash, separately controlling the effect of the flash with the aperture and the ambient light by the shutter speed.

Manual exposure is the it’s-entirely-your-fault-if-this-goes-horribly-wrong option. When you select Manual exposure you have complete control over exposure. You need to select both the correct aperture and shutter speed before you shoot – using the built-in meter as a guide of course, camera manufacturers aren’t that cruel. And, as light levels may change or if you add or remove filtration, you need to check and recheck that exposure is correct over the course of a photography session. Personally, I rarely use Manual exposure except for one or two specific purposes, Aperture priority is the mode for me. However, there’s no reason not to experiment with Manual exposure, it’s not a scary as it first looks. Plus you have the added bonus that if you create a photographic masterpiece then you can take all the credit, not your camera.

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