(Last Updated On: March 24, 2020)
With your first entry-level DSLR camera in hand, you may be wondering what all of the letters and symbols on your camera’s mode dial mean. Instead of staying in Auto Mode for every photo you take, it’s time get out of Auto and learn about your other options for creatively capturing images. Besides the self-explanatory Sports, Portrait, Low-Light, Close-up, or Landscape modes that your camera may have, your camera body will be equipped with Program, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority, and Manual modes. As you move through these four modes, you gain a little more creative control in different areas of shooting.
Nothing about these different shooting modes should be anything to be intimidated by, and can be extremely useful skills to master for photographers at any level. Just because you read somewhere that you can’t be a “professional” photographer unless you shoot in Manual Mode, doesn’t mean it’s true. There are many circumstances where a photographer is out on a shoot and it makes practical or creative sense to use the Sports or Shutter-Priority modes, for example. Whether you are photographing a baseball game, shooting portraits, or capturing a beautiful rose, there is a mode that will be perfect for you. Below you’ll find a little more information about how each of these modes can be useful for a different purpose or style of shooting, and what you will be able to learn by experimenting with and mastering each mode.
1. Program Mode (P)
In Program mode, the camera will automatically determine the best shutter speed and aperture for optimal exposure and gives you the option of changing the ISO yourself. This mode, marked by the letter “P” on the mode dials of both Canon and Nikon bodies, is a great place to start after you have spent a little time getting used to Auto mode on your camera. Program mode puts you in control of the ISO setting while the camera picks the best shutter speed and aperture to properly expose your image. For those not familiar with what this means, in short, ISO controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to incoming light. Take a look at choosing the best ISO for your shots.
Program mode allows you, the photographer, to learn about how varying ISO levels will affect the image in terms of things like exposure, noise/grain, color quality, etc. For example, this image below was shot in an extremely dark room, with an ISO of 4000. You can see the increased amount of noise that appears in the image when the ISO is too high.
2. Shutter-Priority Mode (S or TV)
As the name suggests, Shutter-Priority mode puts you in control of the shutter speed, while the camera automatically takes care of determining the best aperture for optimal exposure. Again you will have the option to adjust the ISO. This mode is marked by the letter “S” on Nikon bodies, and “TV” on Canon bodies. Shutter-Priority mode is perfect when you need freeze the fast motion of sports or when you want to capture a long exposure shot of a skyline at night, all depending on how long or short your shutter is. To learn more about shutter speed, take a look at What is Shutter Speed.
For freezing fast-moving subjects, like baseball for example, starting with a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second or faster will allow you to completely freeze the action and will eliminate any motion blur. Conversely, if you wish to capture the movement of a waterfall, selecting a shutter speed of ⅕ of a second or slower will allow you to see the flowing water in your final image. In this image below, you see the effects that a shutter speed of ⅕ of a second has on this image.
3. Aperture-Priority Mode (A or AV)
When you need to have complete control of the aperture setting, while the camera takes care of determining the shutter speed, then the Aperture-Priority mode is perfect. This mode is marked with an “A” on Nikon cameras, and “AV” on Canon. With the shift in aperture, you are able to control the depth of field (or how much of the photo is in focus). Additionally with the aperture variations, you will be able to control the exposure of the image. If you are interested in learning more about depth of field, check out my article on Taking Advantage of Depth of Field.
In this photo of a budding plant, you can see how selecting an aperture of f/2.8 made the depth of field very narrow while blurring out the background of the image.
4. Manual Mode (M)
Now that you have mastered all of the semi-automatic modes, you can move on to Manual mode. After having spent time learning about ISO in Program mode, shutter speed in Shutter-Priority mode, and aperture in Aperture-Priority mode, you are ready to bring all of your learning together. With these skills combined, you are ready to start shooting in Manual mode where you will have precise control of all of these settings at once. It may not be easy at first, as there are many variables to control, but your perseverance in learning and practicing will be the key to bringing your photography skills up to par with the professionals.
If you are a hands on person like myself, I find it best to just get out and shoot. Trial and error is a great way to learn how to and how not to shoot photos. With knowledge of the basics of each shooting mode, take some time to see for yourself how little adjustments to the shutter, aperture, or ISO affect your final images. It may take some time to learn how all of these settings work together, and you may find that along the way some of your images may be under or over exposed. It won’t happen overnight, but eventually you’ll develop your own creative style and will soon master the skills necessary to create beautiful images.