What camera modes should you use?

What shooting mode do you normally use on your camera? Is it always in Auto mode? Does this work in every situation? Probably not.
While most cameras have apart from the Auto mode, also a landscape mode, a portrait mode, a sports mode, a macro mode, etc. This gives you a bit more control depending on the photo you’re taking, but you’re still not in complete control.
If your subject is strongly back lit, the Auto mode will probably cause a silhouette. Or when it’s dark, your photos may become moved and grainy.

If you don’t want to think when taking a photo, the Auto mode is perfect, but it doesn’t work in every situation.

A typical mode dial on a Nikon camera
A typical mode dial on a Canon camera

For more creative control there are a few other modes that let you, the photographer, decide. These modes are aperture priority (Av or A), shutter speed priority (Tv or S) and Manual (M).

Why would you want to use these modes?
Even though cameras are getting more ‘intelligent’, you probably have your own vision of how your photos should look like. You should be able to decide what is in focus and what is not, and how much of your scene is in focus. If something is moving in the scene, do you want the movement to be frozen or do you want to see motion blur. Now I will explain you the most important camera modes, that will help you improve your photography.

Aperture priority Mode (Av on Canon – A on Nikon/Sony)

When you use this mode, you have to set the aperture, while the camera will select a shutter speed and ISO value to give a ‘normal’ exposure.
Aperture controls the depth of field or how much of the photo is in focus. For portrait photography a low depth of field is usually used, so the background is blurred. You can do this by opening the aperture, which corresponds to a low f-number.
In landscape photography we often want everything sharp from foreground to background. To do this we need to close the aperture to a value between f/8 and f/16. Closing the aperture more degrades image quality due to diffraction, but might be necessary if the foreground is very close to the camera.

Aperture wide open for a nice blurred background (f/2.8 – 1/1000 s ISO 100)
Closed aperture and sharp from foreground to background (f/16 – 1/40 s – ISO 100)

Shutter speed priority Mode (Tv on Canon or S on Nikon/Sony)

In this mode you set the shutter speed and the camera selects the aperture and ISO value.
This mode is often used for moving subjects or to show movement of water for example. I sometimes use it when taking photos of wildlife. With a long lens and moving animals, often the only way to make a sharp photo is to use a wide open aperture anyway, so setting a fast shutter speed at least makes sure that the movement is frozen and helps against camera shake.
If I want to show the movement of water I choose a slow shutter speed, so the water becomes a blurry and shows where it moves.

Fast shutter speed because of the long lens and moving lion (1/1250 s – f/5.6 – ISO 800)
Slow shutter speed to show the spray of the waves (1/5 s – f/14 – ISO 100)

Manual mode (M)

This mode gives you complete control. You can set everything separately. If you have always used Auto mode, I would start with the previous modes, Av and Tv. Once you have got the hand of it and are comfortable with them, you can then start with Manual Mode. Here you have to set shutter speed, aperture and ISO. ISO could still be on auto-ISO, but it’s better to set this manually as well. Keep it as low as possible, but as high as necessary. When you want to use Manual Mode, you need to understand the exposure triangle, which describes the relationship between the three parameters.
Once you start using manual exposure, you probably will never go back again. You now take you photos knowing what the effect of the settings on your photo will be.

Leaving the Auto mode behind is not as difficult as it might seem. Just give it a try and you will get used to it quickly. You will then be much more conscious about how to take your photos and you will see this really improves your photos. Have fun!

One thought on “What camera modes should you use?

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