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An Easy Guide to Icon Modes

If you are just starting out with photography, you may be looking at the top of your camera and wondering what all those icons on the mode dial are.  In this article, I will identify these modes for you and tell you what they do.

Camera Icons Diagram showing icon modes

The “icon modes” for a Canon camera. Other brands will be similar.

What Are These Modes?

All of these modes are really the same as “Automatic” mode in that the camera is making all the decisions for you.  However, with these modes you are giving the camera an idea of what you are trying to accomplish, so the camera will use that information to “bias” its settings in one direction or another.

These modes are generally collectively referred to as the “icon modes” because they are represented by icons on the mode dial.

Description of the icon modes

Here is how your camera will act when you set it in the various icon modes:

Portrait:  In this mode, the camera will use as large an aperture as it can when taking the picture.  The reason for that is that when you are shooting portraits, you generally care very little about the background.  The large aperture will let in more light, and at the same time make you depth of field very shallow, blurring out the background.

Landscape:  In this mode, the camera will use as small of an aperture as it can.  The reason is that when you are shooting landscapes, you generally want as much of the picture as possible in focus. The smaller aperture will result in a much wider depth of field for your picture, and will thereby tend to keep everything in the picture sharp.  Be careful though – the smaller aperture will let in less light, which will generally result in it setting a slower shutter speed, and can result in camera-shake if you are hand-holding your camera.  Try using a tripod.

Close-Up or Macro:  The exposure settings will not be affected by choosing this mode, but the camera will allow you to focus closer than normal.  You might notice that it takes the camera a little longer for your camera to focus.

Sports:  In sports scenes you generally want to “stop the action” with a faster shutter speed.  A slower shutter speed would result in the action being blurred because the subject would be moving while the shutter is open.  Therefore, in this mode the camera will try to use a faster shutter speed when taking the picture.

Night Portrait:  In this setting, the camera will do two things.  First, it will set a slower shutter speed, with the idea being to gather more ambient light to make the scene look more natural.  Second, the camera will trigger the flash to light the subject.  You should probably use a tripod in this mode.

When Should You Use Icon Modes?

If you are just starting out with photography, and are uncomfortable with any of the manual modes of your camera, you might try using these icon modes.  They will allow you to stay in an “automatic” mode but will give you a better chance of success by letting your camera know what you are trying to accomplish.

Honestly, though, I do not recommend using these for very long.  In fact, I personally would start out using P (Program) mode, which will allow give you the comfort of automatic settings along with the ability to change the exposure settings as you gain experience.  After that, I would move to M (Manual) or Av (Aperture Priority) mode and take control of your camera.

But if you are in the beginning stages of photography where you are still using an automatic mode and you want to increase your odds that the camera does what you want, give the applicable icon mode a try.  It will probably work better than straight Automatic Mode.  It may also get you thinking about how you can affect exposure of your pictures using the camera settings, and that is a good thing as well.

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