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60 Seconds to Understanding Camera Modes


 SymbolControls Set by HumanControls Set by Computer
Full AutoANoneAll 3 (and they cannot be adjusted)
Program ModePNoneAll 3 (but they can be adjusted)
Shutter Priority ModeS or TvShutter speed (& ISO)Aperture
Aperture Priority ModeA or AvAperture (& ISO)Shutter speed
Manual ModeMShutter speed & Aperture (& ISO)None


If you are looking for a little advice without getting into the complexities of which mode does what, here is my recommendation:

Beginners:  When you are just starting out with photography, use Program mode.  It is exactly the same as Auto mode, meaning that the camera does everything for you, but when you are ready to make some adjustments of your own the camera will let you.  If you are in Auto mode, on the other hand, the camera completely locks you out.  So with Program mode you still have the comfort of the camera doing everything for you, with the possibility of making changes of your own as you gain experience.

Intermediate and Beyond:  When you are ready to take control of the camera, use either Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode.  Either is fine.

I find that people who are dealing with rapidly changing conditions or a moving subject tend to prefer Aperture Priority mode, while people who are shooting a still, unchanging subject tend to prefer Manual mode.  Many people use both.

And you can forget about every other mode on your camera.  Seriously.

Descriptions of the Modes

Now, on to the descriptions of each mode on your camera dial.  Here they are in order of least control to most control by the photographer.

Auto Mode:  This mode is known among snooty photographers as “Idiot Mode.”  When you use this mode, you essentially turn your camera into a point and shoot (although with better image quality due to the bigger sensor).  In this mode, the computer in your camera controls every setting on your camera and your are powerless to do anything about it.

Don’t use this mode.  If you really want the computer to set everything for you, use Program mode, which is discussed next.

Program Mode:  In this mode, the computer in your camera sets all the exposure settings.  However, if you wish, you can adjust the aperture or the shutter speed up or down.  When you do that though, the computer will make a corresponding adjustment to keep the exposure where it thinks it ought to be.  In other words, if you shorten the shutter speed by one click, the computer will open up the aperture by one click to offset the change you just made and keep the exposure the same.

Usually, on a different dial or sometimes in the camera menu, you can also tell the camera to underexpose or overexpose as well.  This is referred to as “Exposure Compensation.”  This gives you additional control over the camera.  It applies in the next two modes listed here too.

If you don’t understand exposure yet or you are just not comfortable operating the camera settings on your own yet, use this mode.  The computer won’t let you stray from an automatic exposure so your picture should be ok, but you can adjust the aperture or the shutter speed as you gain a little confidence with your camera.

Shutter Priority Mode:  I’m not going to dwell on this mode because nobody uses it.  Basically, you set the Shutter Speed and the computer sets the Aperture.  I suppose it could have some application where you absolutely must use a given shutter speed, but that is pretty remote and in any case there are other ways to do that.  Forget about this mode.

Aperture Priority Mode:  Along with Manual, this is one of the modes commonly used by advanced photographers.  You set the aperture, and the computer in your camera sets the shutter speed.

Since the aperture is paramount in determining your depth of field, many photographers want to concentrate on that and just let the computer take care of shutter speed for them.   So this mode makes a lot of sense.  It is often described as the best of all worlds; which is control by the photographer where it matters (aperture) and the speed of a computer where it usually doesn’t (shutter speed).

Of course, sometimes shutter speed matters.  But it is a simple matter to move the aperture setting with an eye on the corresponding change in shutter speed made by the computer.

I should mention that the photographer will always set the ISO in this mode as well.

Manual Mode:  It is just like it sounds.  The photographer has full control over the aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  The computer will offer no guidance.

Many advanced photographers use this mode.  It helps you master the camera, and once you get used to it you can move pretty quickly.  The down-sides are that you cannot adjust the settings as fast as the computer, and there are times you will forget to change a setting.

That’s it for the descriptions.  You should have a good handle on the camera modes now.  To drive it home, however, I offer you an analogy.

You Control the Future of Humanity

As you know, most end of the world sci-fi stories involve humans ceding a little too much control to the robots until one day the robots wonder why they need these pesky humans around and take over (think The Matrix or The Terminator).  There is much to learn from these movies for your photography.  When it comes to your camera, don’t cede too much control to the robot in your camera.  You never know, it might take over.  At the same time, the robot can be useful and improve your life.

So, choose your camera setting, and then read below for the future scenario you have created with your choice.

Full Auto Mode:  You have ceded control of the world over to the robots.  Fool.  All is lost.

Program Mode:  You have ceded control of the world to the robots, but you have built in an override.  Interesting move.  Risky, obviously, but there is hope for a human takeover in the future.

Aperture Priority Mode:  You are living in balance with the robots.  Nice work.  Don’t get too comfortable though.

Manual:  Just to be safe, you have abolished the robots.  You could be accused of being overly conservative, but there will definitely be no robots messing up your future (photographs).

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