Digital Camera Modes Explained: Choose the Best Shooting Mode For Your Subject

On most DSLRs, the Mode dial is split into three sections: Scene modes (for doing point-and-shoot photography in specific conditions); full point-and-shoot Auto mode and the Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes, which give varying degrees of control over your shots. In our latest beginner photography tutorial we explain how your digital camera modes work and when to use them.

Digital camera modes explained: choose the best shooting mode for your subject

Program exposure mode

Do you want your camera to set exposures automatically or would you rather have control over the lens aperture and shutter speed? This is what your camera’s Mode dial is for.

The green Auto setting, the P setting and the Scene modes all adjust the aperture and shutter speed automatically. This is ideal if you don’t have time to make adjustments.

We’ll cover the Aperture Priority (A), Shutter Priority (S) and Manual (M) modes in subsequent sections. For now, we’ll take a closer look at the fully automatic camera modes, the differences between them and which ones to use in specific shooting conditions.

Digital camera modes explained: Program Exposure mode

Below we’ll explain how to set these modes and the differences between Full Auto and P modes. But what about Scene modes? They go further than simple exposure adjustments and will typically include the following:

Portrait mode: This sets a lens aperture that’s wider than normal to blur backgrounds, and adjusts the image processing for a softer, more flattering result.

Landscape mode: Using this mode will boost colours, contrast and outlines.

No flash mode: This disables the flash so it won’t fire, even in dim lighting. This avoids embarrassment in theatres and museums.

Sports mode: This mode’s high shutter speeds will freeze action. The focusing is usually switched to Continuous mode or Predictive Autofocus, where available.

Close-up mode: The settings in this mode depend on the camera. Some will switch to Centre-spot focussing.

Night portrait mode: This mode uses flash to illuminate your subject, but this is balanced against the background lighting to produce a natural looking result.

These scene modes change the camera’s focusing and image processing settings, as well as the lens aperture and shutter speed combinations. The differences are often subtle, though, and many photographers prefer to make adjustments manually.

Choosing between P and Auto camera modes

Choosing between P and Auto camera modes

The green Auto mode really is completely automatic – it even pops up the flash if the camera calculates that additional lighting is needed and it automatically increases the ISO (sensitivity) in poor light to cut the risk of camera shake.

The P mode also sets the lens aperture and shutter speed, but it doesn’t change the ISO or automatically fire the flash – these are controlled manually by you.

There’s another important difference: in P mode, rotating the camera’s command dial adjusts the relationship between the lens aperture and shutter speed, while maintaining the correct exposure, so you can select a faster shutter speed or a smaller lens aperture without having to leave the P mode. This is usually referred to as Program Shift. That just leaves the various Scene modes.

Aperture Priority (Av) mode

Digital camera modes explained: Aperture Priority (Av) mode

Aperture Priority (A) mode enables you to choose the lens aperture. Your camera then automatically sets the shutter speed that will give the correct exposure.

This is useful in situations where you want precise control over depth of field. Shallow depth of field means only subjects close to your camera are sharp, while more distant objects are out of focus. Large depth of field means everything is sharp, from nearby objects to the far distance.

Depth of field changes according to the lens aperture, the focal length of the lens (the zoom setting) and the focused distance.

So depth of field will diminish with longer focal lengths, wider lens apertures and nearer subjects. It increases with shorter focal lengths, smaller lens apertures and more distant subjects.

Shallow depth of field is good for isolating portrait subjects sharply against a blurred background, while large depth of field is good for close-ups and landscapes, where you want everything sharp.

If you choose a wide aperture (a low f-number), it will result in reduced depth of field but faster shutter speeds because the lens is allowing more light through to the sensor.

If you choose a small aperture, you will get a greater depth of field, but slower shutter speeds (because less light is now reaching the sensor).

If you want a large depth of field and therefore choose a small lens aperture, you need to keep an eye on the shutter speeds because they could become so low that you risk camera shake.

That’s one reason why professional landscape photographers use tripods – they’re using small lens apertures to get maximum depth of field so nearby objects and the distant horizon are sharp.

You may want to bear in mind that lenses don’t give their sharpest results at the extreme ends of their aperture ranges. At maximum aperture your photographs are likely to look slightly softer than if you stop it down to f/5.6 or f/8. Similarly, at f/16 – and certainly by f22 – the sharpness will begin to diminish again.

As a rule, it’s more important to get the best shot pictorially, so if you need a wide or small aperture to achieve that shot, don’t worry about it.

Generally, though, the aperture range f/5.6 – 11 is best when depth of field isn’t an issue, but you do want to be sure you’re getting the best sharpness.

Lens aperture and focal length

Lens aperture and focal length

You can set Aperture Priority mode by turning your camera’s Mode dial to A. Press the shutter button halfway down to activate the exposure meter, then turn the Command dial.

This alters the f-number on the camera’s status panel or LCD. The maximum aperture corresponds with the lowest number and depends on the lens and its zoom setting.

Most DSLR kit lenses have a maximum aperture of f3.5 at 
the wide-angle end of the zoom range and f5.6 at the maximum telephoto setting. In this shot, the lens was originally set to 28mm equivalent and full aperture (f3.5).

We then zoomed in to 50mm equivalent, where the lens’s maximum aperture was f4. The camera made the adjustment automatically.

Shutter Priority (Tv) mode

Digital camera modes explained: Shutter Priority mode

When using Shutter Priority (S or Tv) mode, you choose the shutter speed and the camera automatically chooses the lens aperture that will give the correct exposure.

Shutter Priority mode is particularly useful when you want to control the amount of movement blur that appears in your shots. To freeze fast-moving action in a sports shot, for example, you’ll need to select a fast shutter speed.

When you use this setting, there’s a risk that you might accidentally overstep the available aperture range. If this happens, the camera may display an alert, but will still take the picture (which will end up looking under-exposed).

Some models have a ‘safety’ option, which will restrict the shutter speeds available in particular conditions to prevent this.

Similarly, if you choose a shutter speed so low that the camera can’t select a lens aperture small enough, it will either take an overexposed shot, or restrict the shutter speeds available to you.

Paradoxically, if you want to shoot with the fastest shutter speed possible under the conditions, it’s better to switch to Aperture Priority (A) mode and choose the maximum aperture. The camera will then select the fastest speed you’ll be able to achieve in the conditions.

Shutter Priority mode is best when you want to create movement blur. It’s useful for panning shots, where the subject shows up sharply against a blurred background (try shutter speeds in the region of 1/60sec to 1/250sec), for blurring wheels or limbs to show movement (try 1/15sec to 1/125sec) or to give moving water a silky sheen (1/4sec to 2sec or longer). In each case, make sure the camera can select a suitable lens aperture for correct exposure.

You can access the Shutter Priority mode by moving your camera’s mode dial to the S or Tv position. You then need to half-press the shutter release to activate the exposure metering system. Now rotate the camera’s Command dial while watching the status panel or the LCD.

Depending on the camera model, you turn the dial either clockwise or anti-clockwise to increase or reduce the shutter speed.

You’ll need to use a tripod for shutter speeds of 1/30sec or longer. This minimum shutter speed is higher with longer zoom settings.

Safe shutter speeds

Safe shutter speeds

No one can hold a camera perfectly still, and the slower the shutter speed, the greater the risk of blurring from camera shake. It can be dangerous to generalise, but there’s a rule of thumb for working out safe shutter speeds.

It’s based on the equivalent focal length you’re using. The 18mm wide-angle position on the kit lens will correspond roughly to a 28mm lens on a film camera and the 55mm position corresponds to approximately 85mm in film camera terms (this doesn’t apply to full-frame DSLRs, where no conversion is needed).

Simply take the reciprocal of the equivalent focal length to find out the minimum safe shutter speed. So at the 18mm position this would be 1/27sec (the nearest equivalent is 1/30sec), while at the 55mm position it would be 1/83sec (1/80sec or 1/90sec is the nearest).

Manual mode

Digital camera modes explained: Manual mode

In Manual mode, you control both the lens aperture and the shutter speed directly. The camera will still measure the light levels, but it will only recommend an exposure – it won’t change any of the settings itself.

Manual mode is useful in home photo studios and for still life photography where you’ve arranged the lighting carefully and have time to take exposure measurements, either with the camera or using a separate hand-held light meter (which can yield more accurate results in some conditions).

It’s also useful if you want to take a series of overlapping frames and stitch them together as a panorama. Here, it’s essential there are no exposure variations between the frames.

To set the exposure manually, turn the Mode dial to the M position. What happens next depends on the camera and how it’s set up.

On digital cameras with a single Command dial, turning the dial adjusts either the lens aperture or the shutter speed. To adjust the other, you hold down the exposure compensation button while you turn the dial.

On digital cameras with twin Command dials, one will adjust the shutter speed and the other will adjust the lens aperture.

To measure the exposure using your camera, you need to look at the exposure display in the viewfinder or on the LCD and adjust the shutter speed and/or aperture until the marker appears in the middle of the exposure bar.

Handheld light meters have advantages in studios or in situations where you have your camera set up on a tripod. You can go up close to the subject and take meter readings from different areas to work out an average value.

Most handheld meters also include incident light attachments, which are translucent domes that fit over the sensor. These enable you to measure the amount of light falling on the subject rather than how much light it’s reflecting (which can vary according to the subject’s properties).

This is often the slowest but best way of measuring exposure, and is something that the exposure meters built into DSLRs can’t do themselves.

The handheld meter will quote a choice of shutter speeds and lens apertures, which you can then set on the camera using the controls we’ve already mentioned – it’s up to you how you want to balance the shutter speed against the lens aperture.

– Retrieved from Digital Camera World


40 Tips to Take Better Photos


1. Get in close

It was the famous photojournalist Robert Capa who once said “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He was talking about getting in amongst the action. If you feel like your images aren’t ‘popping’, take a step or two closer to your subject. Fill the frame with your subject and see how much better your photo will look without so much wasted space. The closer you are to the subject, the better you can see their facial expressions too.

2. Shoot every day

The best way to hone your skills is to practice. A lot. Shoot as much as you can – it doesn’t really matter what. Spend hours and hours behind your camera. As your technical skills improve over time, your ability to harness them to tell stories and should too. 
Don’t worry too much about shooting a certain way to begin with. Experiment. Your style – your ‘voice’ – will emerge in time. And it will be more authentic when it does. — Leah Robertson

Leah Robertson is a super talented Melbourne based photographer and videographer, specialising in music and documentary photography.You can see her work here.

3. See the light

Before you raise your camera, see where the light is coming from, and use it to your advantage. Whether it is natural light coming from the sun, or an artificial source like a lamp; how can you use it to make your photos better? How is the light interacting with the scene and the subject? Is it highlighting an area or casting interesting shadows? These are all things you can utilise to make an ordinary photo extraordinary.

4. Ask permission

When photographing people, especially while in countries with different cultures and languages, it can be hard to communicate. In certain countries if you photograph someone you are not ‘supposed’ to photograph, it can get ugly and rough very quickly if you are not careful. So out of respect you should always ask permission. 

I have started shooting a series of school children in Pakistan. These are all posed portraits and they are looking down the lens. My guide helps me with the language and I limit myself to smiling, shaking hands, giving ‘hi-five’ and showing them the image on the back of my camera once it is done. You would be amazed how quickly people open up. — Andrea Francolini

Andrea Francolini is a well known Italian born, Sydney based sports photographer. He is also the founder of My First School, as trust which has the aim to facilitate educations in Northern Pakistan. You can see his work here.

5. Use flash during the day

You might think that you should only use flash at night time or indoors, but that’s not the case at all. If it is an extremely bright day outside and the sun is creating harsh shadows on your subject, switch on your flash. By forcing extra light onto your subject, you will be able to fill in those ugly shadows and create an even exposure.

6. ISO

There are questions to ask yourself when deciding what ISO to use:

What time of day are you shooting? If you are shooting outside during the middle of the day you will need to use a lower ISO such as 100 or 200. If you are shooting at night time without a tripod you will have to increase the ISO to a higher number to be able to record the light on the camera’s sensor.

Will the subject be well lit? If your subject or scene is too dark you will need to use a higher ISO such as 800 or 1600.

Do you want a sharp image or an image with more movement in it? Using a high shutter speed to capture fast movement might mean that you need to use a high ISO to compensate. Likewise, if you’re using a slow shutter speed to capture blur you will need a low ISO to compensate.

Don’t forget, increasing your ISO increases the grain or pixel size in your photo. So don’t use an ISO of 3200 or 6400 if you don’t want a photo with a lot of ‘digital noise’.

7. f/4

f/4 is my ‘go to’ aperture. If you use a wide aperture with a long lens (200mm-400mm) you’re able to separate the subject from the background. This helps them stand out. Works every time. — Peter Wallis

Peter Wallis is a sports photographer extraordinaire, working for The Courier Mail in Brisbane. You can see his work here.

8. You’ve got to be joking

A well timed joke will always yield a more natural smile, than simply saying “smile” — Dean Bottrell

Dean Bottrell is a Emerald based photographer who specializes in portraiture. You can see his work here.

9. Buy books, not gear

Having expensive camera equipment doesn’t always mean that you’ll take good photos. I’ve seen some absolutely amazing images shot with nothing more than a smart phone. Instead of having ten different lenses, invest in some fantastic photography books. By looking at the work of the masters, not only do you get inspired, you come away with ideas to improve your own photos.

10. Read your camera’s manual

The best way to know what to do with your camera is to actually read the manual. So many people miss this really important step on their photographic journey. Every camera is different, so by reading the manual you’ll get to know all the funky things it’s capable of.

11. Slow down

Take time to think about what is going on in the viewfinder before pressing the shutter. How are you going to compose the shot? How are you going to light it? Don’t jump straight in without giving it some thought first. — Brad Marsellos

Brad Marsellos is the Wide Bay über Open producer. You can see his photos, videos and musings on life here.

12. Stop chimping (checking the photo on the back screen)

It’s a bad habit digital photographers can develop. Time and time again I see photographers take a photograph and then look at the back of the screen straight away. By doing that you could miss all the special moments. You can look at your photos later. You can miss ‘the shot’ and it affects the flow of your work, so just keep shooting! – Marina Dot Perkins

The lovely Marina Dot Perkins is a news, travel and wedding photographer who worked for The Canberra Times and is now based in Newcastle.

13. Framing

This is a technique to use when you want to draw attention to something in your photograph. By framing a scene or a subject, say with a window or an archway, you lead the viewer’s eye to the primary focal point.

14. Shape with light

Never shoot with the sun directly behind you. It creates boring, flat light on the subject. If you shoot with the light source to the side or behind the subject, you are able to shape with the light, creating a more interesting photo. — Patria Jannides

Patria is not only a talented news photographer, she is also my long term friend, mentor, and personal cheer squad. She even helped me to land my first job as a paid photographer. Thanks for everything P xxx

15. Watermarks

This tip isn’t in direct relation to TAKING photos, but it does affect the look of photos. When it comes to watermarks, the smaller the better. And if you can avoid using them, do.

Chances are, unless you are a paid professional, there’s not much of a chance of your photos getting nicked. But in reality, they won’t prevent your images from getting stolen. They only distract from the fabulous image that you’ve created, because once you’ve slapped a watermark all over it, that’s all the viewer will be looking at. The only way you can prevent your images from being stolen is to not publish them on the internet.

Read Open producer Luke Wong’s blog post on watermarks here.

16. Be present

This means make eye-contact, engage and listen to your subject. With the eyes – lower that camera and be human. Bring the camera up for a decisive shot. But remember to lower it, like you’re coming up for air, to check in with your subject. Don’t treat them like a science experiment under a microscope. Being there with your subject shows them respect, levels the playing field in terms of power dynamics, and calms them down. You’ll get much more natural images this way. — Heather Faulkner

Heather Faulkner is a photographer who convenes the ePhotojournalism major at QCA, Griffith University. She is also the executive director of The Argus, a student-run, visual journalism online magazine. See her personal work here.

17. Shutter speed

Being aware of your shutter speed means the difference between taking a blurry photo and a sharp photo. It all depends on what you are after. If you are shooting a sporting event or children running around in the backyard, you probably want your subjects to be in focus. To capture fast action you will have to use a shutter speed over 1/500th of a second, if not 1/1000th to 1/2000th. On the opposite end of the scale, you might want to capture the long streaks of a car’s tail lights running through your shot. Therefore you would change your camera’s shutter speed to a long exposure. This could be one second, ten seconds, or even longer.

18. Charge your batteries

This seems like a simple one, but pretty much every photographer on the face of the planet has been caught out before. Including myself. The trick is to put the battery onto the charger as soon as you get home from your photo shoot. The only thing then is to make sure you remember to put it back into the camera after it has been recharged…

19. Focal length

Keep it simple. I shoot with two prime lenses and one camera; A 28mm and a 35mm. For everything. I use the 35mm lens 70% and the 28mm lens 30% of time. It takes some time to get used to it, but once you work it out, shooting primes is the only way to go. It means you have to work with what you have and you can’t be lazy. Basically, this means more pictures and less fiddling around with zooming and maybe missing moments. It also helps for consistency. If you’re working on a project or a series, keeping the same focal lengths is a great way to maintain a powerful sense of consistency. — Justin Wilkes

Justin Wilkes quit his job in Sydney this year to cover the political and social change in post revolution Egypt. He has since had his photographs published in The New York Times, TIME magazine, and The Jakata Globe to name but a few. You can see his amazing documentary work here.

20. Be part of a photographic community

Like ABC Open! Not only will you be able to publish your photos for the rest of the country to see, you’ll be part of an active group that offers feedback on how great you are going. You can learn new things to help you improve your technique, and you might even make some new photography buddies.

21. Shoot with your mind

Even when you’re not shooting, shoot with your mind. Practice noticing expressions and light conditions. Work out how you’d compose a picture of that scene over there that interests you, and what sort of exposure you might use to capture it best. — Leah Robertson

22. Return the favor

Always remember that if you are shooting people in a different country, they are probably doing you a favor by posing. So the least you can do is return this favor some way or another.

I often return to the same places year after year, so I bring along prints and look for the people I photographed previously. In some areas people do not have a picture of themselves. Imagine not having a picture of you and your family? Strange don’t you think? Yet many people don’t. So a $0.50 print can really make someone happy. It also opens doors for more photography further down the track. — Andrea Francolini

23. Have a camera on you at all times

You can’t take great photos if you don’t have a camera on you, can you? DSLR, point-and-shoot or smart phone, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you have access to a camera, you’re able to capture those spontaneous and unique moments in life that you might have otherwise missed.

24. The golden hour

Shoot portraits and landscapes in the golden hours — the light is softer and the colours are more vibrant. — Dean Bottrell

25. Keep it simple

Don’t try to pack too many elements into your image; it will just end up looking messy. If you just include one or two points of interest, your audience won’t be confused at where they should be looking or what they should be looking at.

26. Don’t get bogged down by equipment

We’ve all seen these types of photographers out and about. They usually have three or four different cameras strapped around their necks with lenses long enough for an African safari. In reality, there’s probably no need for all that equipment. One body with one or two lenses means that you’ll be freer in your movements to capture interesting angles or subjects on the move.

27. Perspective

Minimize the belly-button photograph. This is a reference to Moholy Nagy of the Bauhaus movement in photography (which was all about lines of perspective). In other words, perspectives are more engaging when we crouch down, or lie down, or elevate our position in reference to the subject. Look at how changing your perspective can change the visual language and implied power dynamics of the image. Crouching low can make your subject more dynamic, whereas gaining height on your subject can often minimize their presence in the image. One of my favorite exercises is to make my students lie down and take pictures, often in the dirt. I am a little cheeky. — Heather Faulkner

28. Be aware of backgrounds

What’s in your frame? So often I see great photos and think “didn’t they see that garbage bin, ugly wall, sign, etc?” It’s not just the person or object in your frame, it’s everything else in the background that can make or break a great photograph. So don’t be afraid to ask the person to move (or move yourself) to avoid something ugly in the background. — Marina Dot Perkins

29. Shade

Shade can be your best friend. If there is no way you can make the available light work for your photo, shoot in the shade. You’ll get a nice even exposure with no patchy highlights throughout your shot.

30. Rule of Thirds

This is one of the most common tips that pop up when it comes to improving your photos.

To break it down, you cut your frame into thirds by using both horizontal and vertical lines. You then place your point of interest over the cross sections of the grid.

Check out this article for further details about using the rule of thirds.

31. Exposure

I’ve been shooting a lot of protests lately. Basically, they’re just a lot of people really close to one another; often moving. After having made many mistakes with getting my exposures right, I worked out that if the sun is behind me and in the face of protestors I will set exposure compensation to underexpose by a stop to bring out even tonal range. When the sun is behind the protestors I like to over expose just slightly to bring out the shadow details on their faces. This could apply to street photography when the light is in front or behind your subject. — Justin Wilkes

32. Don’t spend too much time post-processing

The key is to get it right in the camera first, so you don’t HAVE to spend time editing. Over working a photo in editing software very rarely looks good, unless you are trying to achieve a super-artsy effect. If it takes you longer than ten minutes to alter your photo, maybe think about going back out into the field to re-shoot it.

33. Variation

Variation is key. I often use a recipe from Life Magazine picture editors for building a story narrative. I look for: over-all shots or scene-setters, interaction, action, portraits, details, medium shots and of course the signature image. Having this list in my head helps me start photographing a story that sometimes isn’t visually apparent until you get into it. This is great when you’re in a crowded or busy place. — Heather Faulkner

34. Become one with the camera

Push the button regardless of the outcome so the camera becomes part of your hand. — Dean Saffron

Dean Saffron is a photojournalist and an ABC Open superstar. His video The Spokesman, has had over 170,000 views. Woah!

35. Hold your camera properly

You might not know it, but there is a right way and a wrong way to hold a DSLR camera. The correct way is to support the lens by cupping your hand underneath it. This is usually done with the left hand, with your right hand gripping the body of the camera. This helps to prevent camera shake. If you are gripping your camera with your hands on either side of the camera body, there is nothing supporting the lens, and you might end up with blurry photos. To get an even stabler stance, tuck your elbows into the side of your body.

36. Limit your palette

When photos have too many colours spewing out from them, they’re often hard to look at. Unless it’s a photo of a rainbow or the Mardi Gras. Try to focus on having one or two colours predominately featuring in your photograph. It will be more pleasing to the eye and will help set the tone of the image.

37. Get your subject to relax

This applies mostly to portrait style photography. As a press photographer, I spend most of my time doing one on one portrait shoots. I think it’s really beneficial to take the time (if you have it) talking to your subject, asking questions, showing an interest in whatever it is they do. I find it really helpful in relaxing the person and often they’ll say something and that can lead to a better photo opportunity. — Marina 
Dot Perkins

38. Inspiration from all forms

Take in as much photography as you can – online, and in books and magazines. But not passively. Look at different styles. Work out what you like or don’t like about them. Look at the technical elements of pictures and think about how they were made, and what the photographer is trying to say. The more you take in, the more arsenal you’ll have when creating your own work. — Leah Robertson

39. Be patient and persevere

With time, patience, and perseverance, you will get better; with each and every photo you take.

40. Break the rules

Now that you know some of the rules, go ahead and break them! Experiment. Have fun. Learn from your mistakes. Make up your own tips and techniques for taking fantastic photographs. I’d love to hear them.

Go forth and shoot!

About the author: Lisa Clarke is a photojournalist based out of the Capricornia region of Australia.

Out In The Field Taking Photos

Everyone is a Photographer

Please find below the PowerPoint presentation from this week:

Shot Composition

For our next class:

  1. Brief quiz
  2. Bring your still camera
  3. Bring your external drive

You will go out “in the field” and take still photos around campus, based on the shot selection list I will provide to you.  This should take no more than one hour.

You will then come back to the classroom and upload these photos to your class blog, along with a description of each shot (CU, ECU, MS, etc.).

Title your post “Shot Composition In-Class Assignment.”

You only need one post for all of the photos.

Please make sure all of your photo open in a separate tab.

This post is in addition to your normal weekly posts.

If time does not permit to upload the photos during regular class hours, they must be posted no later than the end of the day.

Shot Composition & Standard Shots

It was a sincere pleasure meeting all of you last week, and I hope you all are looking forward to the class.

As a one-time reminder, both of your weekly blog posts are always due no later than Friday night at midnight.  Hopefully, you will not wait until the last minute.  If you are unclear as to what your blog posts should contain, please read the requirements at:

In addition, please complete your “25 Things” page by Friday (January 20th.).  This and your “About” page will count as an in-class assignment.  Your photo must be included in the “About” page to receive full credit.

For our next class, I will lecture on Shot Composition & Standard Shots.

Finally, I would recommend that you subscribe to this website via email and text messages, as well as checking it at least once every day.