Camera Modes Explained – Photography Basics

Photography Basics - Understanding Shutter SpeedBuilding on yesterdays post regarding Metering Modes, Camera Modes control your whole camera and are very important.

Camera Modes

When I speak of camera modes I speak of those little letters and pictures typically atop a dial on the top of your camera. P, A, S, M, B and then a bunch of pictures.

Camera Modes

Or, if you have a Canon, it gets goofy with AV and TV. No, you don’t have TV on your camera (yet). It stands for Time Value (Shutter Speed) and is silly Canon still uses it. Av is for Aperture Value. Those C’s are Custom Modes.

My Canon 7D Mark II also locks those other modes represented by pictures, but a lot of cameras have them.

Standing down from my soapbox, I will list out what the modes do and how they are best used. If you think I’ll be referencing back to previous posts and starting to tie more things together, you’re right.

Oh, and a slight rant; before you get too caught up in which mode to use, it doesn’t matter as long as you are getting the shots you want. Being proficient in modes other than your favorite will give you more latitude to experiment and try new things, though.

Auto Mode

Auto mode is the mode I use when I hand the camera to someone to take my picture. It’s the green box mode. It’s the mode I’m trying to get you out of by doing all these posts.

It handles practically all aspects of photo taking: shutter speed, aperture, ISO, flash use and in some cameras, it makes you coffee each morning. It’s that automatic. It’s handy, but not so useful for learning.Camera Modes

Use This Mode When You

  • Hand a camera to someone who has never used your camera
  • Are new to photography and don’t know what else to do
  • Just don’t care (and also throw your hands in the air and wave them)
  • Are too tired to think and your photo instincts are shot
  • Don’t want to shoot in RAW

Program Mode

Camera Modes - Program ModeP Mode. Program Mode is like Auto but now you can change things. It is the mode I use second most often and people often gasp in horror when I tell them, at least those who are just getting into photography.

Camera ModesThey tend to think Manual is the only way to go to have complete control over everything. I thought that too at one time, especially the time when my camera didn’t have a Program Mode and all I had was Manual.

Yet most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have quality Program Modes which handle most functions but leave many to be adjusted. For instance, the camera will pick a shutter speed, ISO and aperture setting for you. But if you like, you can manually set the ISO.

Likewise, turning a dial will adjust the shutter speed and aperture settings while keeping the overall exposure the same based on your selected metering mode. You can also pick focus points and choose to over or under expose the scene by a set number of stops and change the white balance.

I use at times and typically I will use the front dial on my camera to make a quick change to the chosen settings to adjust to my liking. Such as adding in just a bit of depth of field with an increase in aperture or quickly underexposing by a stop when I know the camera will meter higher than I desire.

Use This Mode When You

  • Want to start taking control of your camera
  • Have a name that starts with P (that’s my secret reason for using it; ego)
  • Are happy with the camera’s metering and know what to expect

A nice thing about Program Mode is it has a safety to typically not allow you to under or over exposure your shot. This can be handy.

Aperture Priority Mode

Camera Modes - Aperture ModeCamera Modes - ApertureA Mode (or Av mode on Canon and Pentax because they like to annoy me). As you hopefully guessed, aperture mode allows you to control just the Aperture, not shutter speed. ISO can be set to manual or auto in this mode as well.

Camera ModesIt also allows control over the items mentioned in Program Mode. Depending on how your camera is set up, the main dial, or rear dial, will always be used to select the aperture and that aperture will not change unless you want it to. Adjustments are made in 1/2 stop or 1/3 stop increments.

This mode is best used to control what aperture controls, which is? Depth Of Field.

Use This Mode When You

  • Are shooting a landscape
  • Want to control depth of field, like when shooting a landscape
  • Are thinking of shooting a landscape
  • Just got out of the car on your way to shoot a landscape
  • Dream about shooting a landscape tonight
  • Accidentally shoot a portrait or two between landscape shoots

It’s the mode I use the most, not because I shoot landscapes, but because I primarily want control over my Depth of Field. I keep an eye on my shutter speed and use my aperture setting to adjust that as needed (remember the Teeter Totters of Doom?).

Shutter Priority Mode

Camera Modes - Shutter Speed ModeCamera Modes - ShutterS Mode (or Tv on, again, Canon and Pentax because they are so advanced, it’s known as Time Value. I’m not sure why they departed from Shutter Speed Priority, but they are whacky.) As with Aperture Mode, Shutter Priority Mode controls the shutter speed.

Camera-ModesNo matter where you set it, there it is. The range is typically in 1/3 stop increments but can be switched to 1/2 stop. The range extends from 30 seconds to the fastest shutter speed your camera is capable of. Mine is 1/8000th of a second, for instance. It has all the same manual controls as Program Mode.

NOTE: In both Aperture and Shutter Speed Modes, it is possible to over or under expose when selecting your setting, unlike in Program Mode. If the shutter speed is too fast for the aperture, for instance, the aperture setting may blink or list “LO”, indicating the amount of light is too low for a proper exposure

Likewise, if you set the aperture to f/45 and there is still too much light for your highest shutter speed to be used, your camera will still use that highest shutter speed but will blink to tell you things are going to come out all wrong. This can happen with sunset shots.

Use This Mode When You

  • Are shooting action shots, like sports
  • Want to ensure no camera induced blur with a long lens
  • Want to control blur in general
  • Are taking night shots with flash and want more control
  • Are taking a picture of a yeti

Manual Mode

Camera Modes - Manual ModeM Mode. All you’re doing in this mode is combining the Shutter and Aperture modes and now you can adjust both of those values. Party! Your camera will still meter and list, via a scale, if you are under or over exposed, but life is up to you now, big fella.

Camera ModesThis mode can be liberating and confusing for some and is best not used in fast moving situations where constant change is needed. It’s all about control.

Getting good at Manual Mode needs repetition and practice, that’s all. Just like anything, it can be made second nature if you work at it and have a desire.

ISO can be set manually or automatically in this mode as well, for true manual control.

Use This Mode When You

  • Want to brag about using it
  • Lust after total control
  • Are feeling creative and want to play
  • Shoot in a studio and know your lighting setup
  • Shoot at night and know your camera’s metering is inaccurate

Creative Camera Modes

Not all cameras have these modes and some have many, many more. But I want to list some of the useful ones. They can be used like a crutch while learning, but don’t rely on them.

Portrait Mode

Camera Modes - PortraitPortrait Mode will bring your aperture to a lower number (wider opening, less depth of field) to help isolate the model. It will also, if shooting in JPEG mode, add in a bit of warmth to skin tones and choose a decent ISO. It may also change in-camera sharpening, tone and contrast.

Action/Sports Mode

Camera Modes - Sports ModeThis is great for sports in a no-thinking way. Shutter speed and ISO are jacked up to stop motion, aperture be damned. Frame rate is also increased to its highest, typically. Usually defaults to JPEG mode as well. It can be great for getting shots of fast-moving kids when you don’t want to think about it.

Landscape Mode

Camera Modes - Landscape ModeAperture be praised in this mode. Saturation might also get a bump, especially in the greens and blues. Some cameras will also pick a slightly ‘off’ focus point in order to maximize depth of field. Great mode for when you want as much in focus as your camera can handle.

Night Shot Mode

Camera Modes - Night ModeNight Shot Mode is a fun one. Your camera will meter for the entire scene and expose as such, but also fire the flash to light up foreground objects. And by objects I mean people. This mode is best used with a tripod as the metering for the scene, at night, means a longer shutter speed to expose faint city lights. Handholding is ok, but will leave some streak or blur in the overall scene, even though the object will be stopped with the flash.


Some other modes of note:Camera Modes

  • Child Mode – Not what you think. Does not deliver children, nor make them eat healthy snacks. But helps with taking pictures of the fast moving buggers.
  • CA – This mode mystifies me. It uses sliders on the back of the camera to control things like Contrast while shooting. Might be useful to some, but kinda clunky in practice.
  • B – Bulb Mode. In this mode the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold the shutter release. Great for long star exposures when using a remote trigger which has a lock for the shutter release, leaving both hands free for beer.
  • C1, C2, C3 – Custom settings. Handy for certain set of situations, like maybe heading underwater or one set for studio use, etc… Records and uses any number of settings, like metering mode, white balance, etc…
  • Close Up/Macro – Usually a faster shutter speed and wider aperture for flower pictures as well as small things you want to sell on Etsy.
  • Pentax cameras also have some Hype modes and a Sensitivity mode. Plus a TAv which allows for more creative use.
  • Snow, Sunset, Fireworks Pets….the list goes on and on and is ever-growing.

Do the modes make sense? I hope so. If not, please ask questions in the comments section below.  We’ll be discussing camera modes further as we get into different shooting situations.

Up Next: White Balance

Questions?  Pop ’em like Pez in the comments section below. or email me at

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

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1 Comment Camera Modes Explained – Photography Basics

  1. Paul Weimer October 19, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Like you, I generally go with AV, although I will use TV if the light is not great and I want to avoid a shutter speed where hand held camera shake is a problem, or I want to avoid the “unhappy middle” of flowing water shutter speeds


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