From Shutter-priority to Program: What do camera shooting modes mean?

Improve your photography by understanding what the mode options on your digital camera do.

While most people start off relying on Automatic, digital cameras come equipped with a host of shooting modes, many of which will often get you a better picture.

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Understanding the differences between the various shooting modes and learning how to select the right one is a key step towards becoming a better photographer.

With that in mind, here are the most common modes, how they are indicated on your camera’s mode dial or menu, and what they have to offer.

Automatic

Icon: A green or red camera icon, but varies between manufacturers

Fully automatic is the most basic point-and-shoot mode and is found on virtually all digital cameras, save for some high-end DSLRs. In Full Auto the camera takes charge of everything, from shutter speed and aperture to ISO and white balance. Partly because of its blanket approach to light metering and inherent simplicity, cameras used in Full Auto mode can often be fooled. Despite this, it’s still the easiest and most commonly used setting.

Program

Icon: ‘P’

Here the camera will automatically select the right shutter speed and aperture combination, but will also allow the user to take control over other important settings such as built-in flash, ISO sensitivity, white balance, light metering and autofocus mode.

As such it’s often the first step many users take away from Automatic.

Aperture-priority

Icon: ‘A’ (‘Av’ on Canon cameras)

Aperture-priority is a semi-manual mode that allows you to select your own aperture value with the camera automatically pairing it with the correct shutter speed.

Aperture-priority is primarily used when you want to take direct control over depth-of-field, which basically means the amount of the photo that is in focus. Low apertures (f/1.8-4) will produce a shallow depth-of-field effect, where the foreground and background behind the main subject will appear blurred, while higher apertures (f/12 and above) result in photos where everything is in greater focus.

Shutter-priority

Icon: ‘S’ (‘Tv’ on Canon cameras)

The second of the two semi-manual modes, Shutter-priority mode allows you to choose your own shutter speed with the camera selecting an appropriate aperture.

Shutter-priority is useful when capturing moving subjects, as it enables you to ‘freeze’ them and to keep them sharp. At the other end of the spectrum Shutter-priority mode can also be used creatively to capture long exposures of clouds, moving water or car lights.

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Manual

Icon: ‘M’

This is the hardest mode to master, but is also the most creative. For this reason it tends to be the choice of many pro photographers. To shoot in Manual mode, you need to use the camera’s built-in light meter (or a standalone metering device) and adjust the shutter speed and aperture yourself until you find the right combination.

Camera with shooting mode icons

Automatic Scene Recognition

Icon: Varies between manufacturers

Automatic Scene Recognition (ASR) provides a step up from basic Full Auto in that the camera has been pre-programmed to recognise a range of scenes and then automatically apply optimal settings to get the best picture.

For example, if the camera recognises that you are trying to photograph a landscape it will boost saturation and contrast, whereas if you’re shooting a person, the camera will select a low aperture in order to get a shallow depth of field so that your subject stands out from the background.

Scene

Icon: ‘SCENE’ or mode-specific icons eg mountains, an athlete or fireworks

Most cameras offer a range of individual Scene modes that you can call upon in certain situations. Unlike Automatic Scene Recognition modes these need to be manually selected, usually via in in-camera menu. Modes available vary between camera brands, but generally Landscape, Portrait, Fireworks and Sport.

They work in much the same way as their automatic counterparts, with the camera automatically choosing the best settings to make the most of the scene before it.

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Art Filters

Icon: Varies between manufacturers

Thanks to the rise in popularity of apps such as Instagram, many digital cameras now come with a range of built-in Art Filters.

While the name assigned to them varies between manufacturers (Panasonic calls them ‘Creative Controls’ while Sony calls them ‘Picture Effects’) all Art Filter modes have one common purpose – to enhance your captured images by applying a set of digital filter effects.

The number and type of effects varies greatly, but popular effects include things like Miniaturisation, Toy Camera and Selective Colour.

Panorama

Icon: Widescreen icon

Panoramic shooting mode allows you to create ultra wide-angle images well beyond the capabilities of the camera’s lens, usually by holding the shutter button down while panning the camera along the axis of the scene you want to capture. Resultant images can cover anywhere between 120 and 360 degrees.

Automatic HDR

Icon: ‘HDR’

All digital cameras have a limited spectrum of light that they can capture before the highlights blow and shadow areas become an indefinable sea of black.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography aims to solve this conundrum by increasing the spectrum at either end to produce images with enhanced detail in shadow areas and intact highlights.

Traditionally this has been done by capturing multiple frames at different exposures and then blending them together using specialist computer software. Built-in Automatic HDR modes, however, allow you to do all of this in-camera without the need for a computer or any software, usually with a single press of the shutter button.

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