Camera Modes

Most cameras have a variety of shooting modes, some of which are fully automatic.

The green mode or auto mode is the one that allows you to completely free yourself from camera settings, while the semi-automatic and manual modes allow you to be creative.

Some cameras also have pre-programmed modes, known as “scene modes”, which help you to
photographing a particular type of scene without any knowledge.

Unfortunately, many people use them without really knowing how the digital camera was programmed.

The most obvious reason for this is that automatism has become so convenient and quick to use, that most beginners don’t look to use any other mode.

Still, if you are in this case, you should know that the camera does not always know how to react to the subject you want to photograph.

In this article, I will explain how your camera’s shooting modes work to help you determine which one you should use.

Camera Mode : Auto

Who hasn’t used this mode on their digital camera one day.

The average photographer uses the automatic mode and will always use it if he is not interested in the picture.

For him, he doesn’t want to mess with the camera settings.

On the other hand, if you want to improve your photos, you must absolutely leave the automatic mode.

To do this, he must know the basics of photography to know how to make the right adjustments.

Advantages of the automatic mode The auto mode selects the aperture value, shutter speed, sensitivity, white balance, focuses by itself and fires the flash when there is no light.

All you have to do is concentrate on framing and composing and then press the shutter release button to expose the picture.

The auto mode can suit most beginners because it is simple to use and requires no special knowledge.

Nevertheless, I advise you to get out of this mode as soon as possible because it prevents you from being creative.

Disadvantages of the auto mode The fully automatic mode won’t guess what you want to photograph, so you have to leave it alone.

The photographer decides the final exposure of the picture, whether to use the flash, and where to focus.

The white balance is set automatically, which can distort the actual colors seen at the time of shooting.

The camera used in auto mode may also decide to increase the sensitivity when there is no apparent reason to do so.

The problem is that this will generate noise and therefore a lower quality on the image.

By choosing auto mode, you have no control over the shooting settings, which prevents you from taking the pictures you want.

Scene Modes

These exposure modes are preprogrammed to allow the camera to recognize a specific scene and propose the best settings for it.

However, all is not perfect, as the automatic scene modes can make a lot of mistakes and take pictures that do not correspond to the expected result.

The fashion was wearing This scene mode will ensure that you always choose a large aperture to minimize depth of field and create a background blur.

Switch to this mode if you want to achieve this effect for your portrait photographs.

In order not to distort the subject, avoid shooting with a wide angle, but rather use a standard focal length.

Landscape mode

If you choose this mode, your camera will make sure to always choose a small aperture to maximize the depth of field.

The advantage of this mode is that it extends the area of sharpness, making it ideal for getting a sharp image everywhere.

However, using a small aperture can cause the shutter speed to drop considerably if light conditions are unfavorable.

In this case, you will have to use a tripod to avoid motion blur.

Macro mode

If you want to discover the world of the infinitely small, this mode will please you because it has been programmed to photograph subjects up close.

To make this possible, the focus distance is shortened by a few centimeters, allowing you to photograph insects, close-up flowers and other small subjects.

With macro mode, a small aperture is often chosen by the digital camera to maintain a maximum sharpness area.

The depth of field is very limited in macro, of the order of a few millimetres, so a small aperture is necessary.

Focusing in this mode is also more difficult to achieve.

Also, do not expect to use your camera’s built-in flash in macro mode, as it may create harsh shadows and overexposed areas.

In macro photography, small diaphragm openings are used, which greatly reduces exposure time.

For this practice, I strongly recommend the use of a tripod.

Sport mode

As the name suggests, this mode is designed to photograph moving subjects.

You will be able to take pictures of racing cars, children, birds, etc…

In Sport mode, the camera will automatically choose the highest speed, allowing you to properly freeze the movement.

This is a mode to be used when there is sufficient brightness, otherwise the camera will tend to increase in iso sensitivity.

Night portrait and night landscape mode

Here too, its evocative name makes it possible to photograph in difficult lighting conditions.

The digital camera selects a slow shutter speed to capture as much light as possible.

The use of this mode allows the flash to be used with portrait photographs.

In low light conditions, the speed is so slow that you will have trouble taking pictures freehanded, so I recommend using a tripod with the night mode.

Camera Mode : Program (P)

P mode is similar to the fully automatic mode we saw at the beginning of this article, except that it gives you control over certain shooting parameters.

Exposure is automatic, but you can influence the aperture/speed ratio by choosing one or the other, for more creativity.

This means that you can play with the depth of field and movement by choosing the torque that suits you.

You can also change the sensitivity according to the light conditions as well as the white balance.

You also have control over the flash settings.

I invite you to look in your camera manual as the P mode can be more or less flexible depending on the model.

Program P is a mode that I recommend you use instead of the fully automatic green mode.

Once you have understood how the open/speed torque works, you can move on to the more creative modes.

Camera Mode : Aperture Priority (A or AV)

Called A or AV, this mode is designed to control the opening of the iris.

The shutter speed is automatically calculated according to the light conditions.

In this mode, you can choose white balance or auto, as well as sensitivity.

Aperture priority mode is the mode you will choose most often to define the area of sharpness you want to have in your image.

Aperture-priority mode is widely used in portrait photography when detaching the subject from the background.

In this case, you choose a large aperture to achieve a shallow depth of field.

When it comes to landscape photography, one generally wants to get a sharp picture from the foreground to infinity.

In this case, the aperture priority mode allows you to set a small aperture that will increase the depth of field.

With this mode, you have control over the sharpness area.

As for the shutter speed, it should be fast enough to freeze the movement, unless you want a particular motion effect.

Be sure to keep an eye on it to avoid it going down too much, otherwise you will have to use a tripod.

Speed priority mode (S or TV) As you might have guessed, this shooting mode is designed to capture motion.

This is the mode to choose if you want to do wildlife or sports photography.

The principle is simple, you choose the shutter speed you want and the camera’s light meter will automatically calculate the right aperture value to expose the image.

With this mode, you can also create effects with water from a waterfall for example by using slow speeds, called long exposures.

Remember that if you want to use slow speeds, you can’t make mistakes because any movement on your part will result in a blurred picture.

To avoid this, it is essential to work with a tripod or monopole if the speed is fast enough to freeze the action.

Camera Mode : Manual (M)

With this mode, you will have full control over the camera’s exposure settings.

You set the aperture value, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, etc…

If you want your photo to be darker or lighter, you’ll need to know which setting to change to get the rendering you want.

To do this, it is crucial to be fully aware of the role of each of your digital camera’s settings.

I therefore invite you to read the article on the exposure triangle in order to understand the harmony of the exposure parameters.

If you are new to photography, you will find it difficult to use this mode until you have fully mastered the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity.

I hope it is very clear to you, if you have any questions, do not hesitate in the comments.

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Photo Exposure Modes

For creative photographers, there are only 3 modes of photo exposure that are interesting: A Aperture-priority Auto or AV – S-Speed or TV-priority and Manual mode. You can forget about the Green mode (All Auto), the P mode (Program – not interesting) and the Scene modes, which are however – in my opinion – the least bad of the auto modes – as we saw in the article Why you need to get out of the All Auto mode.

Photo exposure modes Aperture, Shutter Speed or Manual

On your camera, Aperture-priority Auto mode is symbolized by the letter A (for aperture) or Av at Canon, Speed-priority Auto mode is symbolized by the letter S (for speed) or Tv at Canon (photo) and Manual mode by the letter M

As we saw in the previous article Understanding exposure when the camera measures light, it displays the result as 2 digits: one for the aperture and one for the speed, hence the expression of exposure torque.
In A / Av mode, you choose the aperture (i.e. the diaphragm) and the camera will adjust the speed.

in S / Tv mode, you choose the Shutter Speed and the camera adjusts the aperture (the diaphragm) BALANCE2

In short, in these 2 photo exposure modes, you manually set one parameter and the camera sets the other, hence the expression semi-automatic mode.

Remember the image of the scale in our article on the exposure mechanism? You press one of the plates (by choosing the Shutter Speed or Aperture) and the camera takes care of balancing the other plate, so that the photo is correctly exposed.

In manual mode, you can adjust shutter speed and/or aperture.

The Aperture Priority Mode A / A

For simplicity, instead of saying “adjust the aperture” we will say “adjust the diaphragm »F

As a reminder, the diaphragm consists of a set of metal fins located in your lens.

By opening or closing this diaphragm you dose the amount of light that reaches the sensor (see previous article Understanding Exposure).

The main advantage of adjusting the iris yourself is that you can create a blurred or sharp background behind the subject – this is called Depth of Field.

Select this mode on your camera and press the shutter release button halfway down: the camera will display in the lower left viewfinder (and on your monitor, if necessary) the 2 numbers f-stop and shutter speed – in this order in principle – some marks will display an “F” in front of the f-stop number – which makes it possible to distinguish it from the shutter speed.

Now turn the knob on your device in one direction or the other: you see the numbers change?

So you have several possible options, several possible exposure pairs.

As long as one of the numbers does not blink (or change color), all these combinations are valid.

So to select a different iris diaphragm, just turn the knob.

Simple isn’t it?

The Numbers of the Diaphragm

Here are the most common diaphragm numbers: the “whole” or main values are in bold and red and the intermediate values in black.

F1,4 / F1,8 / F2 / F2,3 / F2,5 / F2,8 / F3,3 / F3,5 / F4 / F4,5 / F5 / F5,6 / F6,3 / F7,1 / F8 / F9 / F10 / F11 / F13 / F14 / F16 / F18 / F20 / F22 / F25 / F29 / F32 /

That’s a lot and since the numbers don’t come in a logical order, it’s a bit complicated.

This is due to the division of the diaphragm numbers into thirds of value.

This is of no interest in digital photography – a division by half value would be quite sufficient, so we will try to reduce this number.

On some cameras this incrementation can be changed:

  • for Nikon go to Menu / Setup (the pencil) / Metering / Exposure >

look for the line “Exposure increment” and select the value 1/2

  • for Canon go to Custom Functions >

search for “Exposure Adjustment Steps” and select the value 1/2

If your camera allows it, this will mean fewer numbers to remember and manage and will not change the accuracy of the exposure.

Here are the most common f-stop numbers with a step by 1/2 Values: the “whole” or main values are in bold and red inks exposure and intermediate values in black

F1,4 / F2 / F2,5 / F2,8 / F3,5 / F4 / F4,8 / F5,6 / F6,7 / F8 / F9,5 / F11 / F13 / F16 / F19 / F22 / F27 / F32

Well it is already easier to manage, finally here are the whole values: those which appeared on the rings of the old lenses: F2 / F2,8 / F4 / F5,6 / F8 / F11 / F16 / F22 / F32

The progression from one number to the other is geometric: it takes in twice as much light at F2 as at F2.8 and half as much at F4 as at F2.8, etc.

The smaller the number is (F2 / F2.8 / F4) the larger the circle formed by the blades of the diaphragm is large and more light enters through the lens.

The larger it is large (F16 / F22) and less light comes in.

You may be beginning to understand why some lenses with the same focal length are much more expensive than others: a 50 MM lens opening at an F1.4 diaphragm lets in twice as much light, which can be very useful.

This most open diaphragm (we talk about maximum aperture) is also marked on your lens.

You will sometimes have in the case of 2-digit zooms >diaphragm on your lens

Ex a zoom 18 / 55 MM opening at F3.5 – 4.5 – which means F3.5 for the focal length of 18 MM and F4.5 for the 55MM focal length.

As you can see, creative photo exposure modes are not so complicated to set your own exposure.

Beware of coupling limits

It can happen that the f-stop number flashes or on some Nikon cameras the words “high” (too much light) or “low” (not enough light) or – with bridges and hybrids in particular – that a number changes color from green or yellow to red (we will talk later about flashing for brevity).

mode-A coupling limit

This means that you are outside the coupling zones, or less barbaric than the diaphragm/speed torque you have chosen is impossible.

I see some of them stalling …

don’t expect anything complicated but it’s important.

The camera has measured the light and proposed you a torque, you decided to choose another one, so far so good, but remember our table …

slide cutter2

there are only 5 possibilities.

In other words, you can’t choose any combination, but only among the possible ones and that’s why your device warns you by displaying this flashing (or High, Low, etc)

mode-A- indication of underexposure

mode-A overexposure inidcation

Why is it impossible? Simple, if you shoot anyway, the camera will take the picture but it will be either too dark (underexposed) or too bright (overexposed).

The chosen couple does not respect the balance necessary for a good exposure.

In short, when it blinks or displays low or high, you must choose another diaphragm.

In practice: let’s look at what happens: you are outside and there is a blue sky and a beautiful sun.

You press your shutter button and the camera shows you a measurement of F16 – 1/500° sec.

– so an F16 diaphragm for a speed of 1/500° of second (for ISO 400).

But you absolutely want to make a portrait with a blurred background of your boyfriend/girlfriend.

You choose a diaphragm of F2.8 – the camera indicates a shutter speed of 1/16 000° – but your camera (let’s suppose) does not have this shutter speed and so it blinks to warn you that it will not produce a quality exposure …

What will happen if you press anyway: the camera will do the picture obediently, but it will be too bright because it will have received twice too much light.

In short in this case, reverse, you just have to turn your wheel until the flashing stops.

Well, now let’s take a look at the second of the creative photo exposure modes: the Shutter Speed Priority mode.

S / Tv speed priority mode

For simplicity instead of saying set the shutter speed we will say set the speed simply.

The main interest of setting the speed yourself is to be able to freeze fast scenes (sports, shows), to avoid motion blur by adopting a minimum safety speed – as explained in a previous article.

It will also be used for long exposures, yarns, etc…

The field of application is very wide.

The shutter speed is controlled by the shutter, a metal curtain made of slats, which opens and closes like a door.

Select this S or Tv mode on your camera and press halfway down on the shutter release: the camera displays in the viewfinder at the bottom left (and on your monitor if necessary) the 2 digits Speed and Diaphragm.

This order is the reverse of the Aperture priority mode in principle.

Some markings show an “F” in front of the aperture number – which helps to distinguish it from the shutter speed number.

Now, turn the knob on your device in either direction: you see the numbers change.

So you have several possible options, several possible exposure pairs.

As long as one of the numbers doesn’t blink (or change color), all these combinations are valid.

So to select a different speed, simply turn the speed dial.

Here are the main figures of Speed – as their progression is linear, I don’t mark the intermediaries – we start with the fastest speeds.

Most devices display the number this way without the fraction: 8000 – what you have to understand by 1/8000° of a second

8000 – 4000 – 2000 – 1000 – 500 – 250 – 125 – 60 – 30 – 15 – 8 – 4 – 2 – 1″ – 2″ – 4″ – 8″ – 15″ – 30″

From One Second, the camera displays a “sixteenth note” or a quotation mark if you prefer, after the number in order to distinguish it: 8 means 1/8° of a second and 8″ means eight seconds.

Some boxes will show 0.25 instead of 1/4 of a second, but this should not disturb you too much because once again the numbers follow each other and logically this time.

Finally, if you have an exposure step (or increment) in 1/2 value you will have between 2 main speeds the following values for example : 60 – 45 – 30 (1/60 – 1/45° – 1/30° of second)

If you have an exposure step (or increment) in 1/3 value you will have between 2 main speeds the following values for example: 60 – 50 – 40 – 30

See above how to change this incrementation.

The progression from one digit to the other is linear; therefore it takes in half as much light at the speed of 1 second as at the speed of 2 seconds and 4 times less than at 4 seconds – in the same way it takes in half as much light at the speed of 8000 as at the speed of 4000 and 4 times less than at 2000 (we are in fraction of a second).

Attention: in shutter priority mode as well as in aperture priority mode, it can also happen that the number flashes or on some Nikon cameras that the words “high” (too much light) or “low” (not enough light) are displayed or sometimes – with bridges and hybrids in particular – changes color from green or yellow to red.

(we will talk about flashing later for a shorter explanation).

This means that you are outside the coupling limits, or less barbaric than the diaphragm/speed couple you have chosen is impossible.

Well, I refer you to the Aperture Priority section for details.

The principle is the same.

In short, in the case of a blink, reverse, you just have to turn your knob until the blink stops.

mode-S – speed priority – coupling limit

Arrived there, some of you may wonder what difference it makes to be in one mode rather than the other …

if any of you are following 🙂 Indeed since if I change the speed, the camera automatically adjusts the diaphragm, I can turn my wheel until I have the diaphragm number I want.

It’s TRUE.

And a lot of photographers don’t bother to switch from one mode to another.

You can always stay in A / Av or S / Tv mode.

There’s still a difference: if you do an exposure correction (we’ll see that in another article) or an exposure bracketting for example, then the camera will not change the value you’ve chosen, but the other one.

If you are in shutter speed priority, in case of exposure compensation, the camera will not change your shutter speed setting, but the aperture, hence the term shutter speed priority or aperture…

and then everything lights up as the other one would say.

Well, we just have to approach the manual mode, the most basic and technical of the photo exposure modes.

The Manual exposure mode – Mmode-manual

The manual mode has long been the only one used by professionals, but I rarely recommend it in my courses for beginners.

It requires not only a perfect understanding of the exposure mechanism, but also a lot of concentration in the field.

For more experienced photographers, it can sometimes be faster.

Finally, there are cases where it is indispensable.

Well, start by looking at your camera and see how many knobs it has.

If it has only one you can forget about Manual mode, because it has 2 parameters to set; it needs 2 wheels, otherwise you’ll waste a lot of time setting up your single wheel for each shot.

Most brands don’t offer 2 knobs on their entry-level cameras.

Well, do you have 2 knobs? Ok, let’s go

As the device does not adjust anything anymore, it is obviously up to you to adjust the 2 values.

One of the knobs will be used to adjust the aperture and the other one will be used to adjust the shutter speed.

However the camera still gives you a measure to follow that it displays via a small scale that appears in the viewfinder / on the monitor.

To have a correct exposure, just put the slider in the middle (to zero).

Easy to do.

Note that the manual mode imposes a light metering in the same way as in the A/Av and S/Tv modes.

You are equally dependent on the amount of light available in this mode and if you choose speed and aperture without taking into account the scale, all your pictures will be missed.

I insist because I often see this idea in my workshops.

The advantage of the manual mode over other photo exposure modes is that you can correct very quickly an over or underexposed photo, by changing speed and / or aperture.

The disadvantage is that it only tells you its measure, via the scale.

It does not warn you if you are outside the coupling area (no blinking …).

Select this M mode on your camera and press halfway down the shutter release button: the camera will display in the viewfinder at the bottom left (and on your monitor, if applicable) the 2 digits Speed and Diaphragm.

Some markings show an “F” in front of the iris number – to distinguish it from the shutter speed number.

The device also displays the small scale we have already mentioned.

To ensure your photo is properly exposed, simply turn either of your thumbwheels to bring the slider to the middle of the scale (to zero).

The interesting thing is that you can change the speed and/or the iris to do this.

If you want to correct your exposure, just move the slider on the scale :

if the image is too dark place the cursor on a positive value (+1 for example)


if the image is too light, place the cursor on a negative value (-1 for example)


When to use the manual mode?

In your daily practice, you have little interest in using this mode, because you will waste a lot of time adjusting your exposure where the camera will do it instantly.

This is especially true if you work in Raw mode because the post-processing recovery possibilities with this type of file, associated with Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed priority exposure modes, allow you to get out of most common exposure cases.

So in which cases should you use Manual mode: when you need to control everything as you would with an external flash or for certain types of shooting such as thunderstorm photography, fireworks, etc.?

Here’s a practical example: you’re waiting for the arrival of the Tour de France, you plan to use the burst mode to take as many pictures as possible.

In Manual mode, make a first picture, correct if necessary after checking on your monitor by adjusting the slider on the scale.

Then you can make as many pictures as you want, if the sun doesn’t suddenly fade, all your pictures will be perfect.

In auto mode, the various colors of the jerseys will influence your camera and change the rendering.

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Diaphragm, the why of how it holds up in the air

You don’t have to read the following, but it may help you understand.

If at the 3° aspirin tablet the evil of the modes of photo expsosition – the diaphragm head does not pass useless to call the SAMU, you make an allergy to the technician technique, nothing serious.

What do the diaphragm numbers mean: the diaphragm number is obtained by dividing the focal length of a lens by the actual value of the diaphragm opening of that lens – i.e.

the measurable diameter of the diaphragm opening.

Let’s take a 100 MM lens – once fully opened its diaphragm, we measure it and we find a real aperture of 25 MM – the most open diaphragm of this lens (also called the relative aperture) of this lens will be 100 divided by 25 = 4 or F4

to have an aperture of F2 on such a focal length, it would be necessary to double the real aperture: thus with an aperture of 50 MM one would have 100 divided by 50 = 2 or F2

the F preceding the diaphragm numbers therefore represents the focal length.

Knowing the real aperture of a lens is of no use in practice, but helps to understand why telephoto lenses (long focal lengths) must have a very large physical diameter.

(which also explains the weight and the price, which is soaring for 1 or 2 additional openings).

More important is the fact that the relative aperture (F2 / F8 / , etc) is a constant.

At F8, it enters the same amount of light in a 50 MM or a 300 MM, regardless of the type of device too.

This is what makes it possible to use an independent cell or a light meter for example.


Additionnal Information :


Best Books to understand Camera Modes


In the A / Av modes you adjust the iris and the camera adjusts the shutter speed.

In the S / Tv modes you set the speed and the camera adjusts the iris.

In M mode you set the speed and the iris diaphragm

In A/Av and S/Tv photo exposure modes when a number is blinking or changing color or when the camera displays “Low” or “High” > this means that the shutter speed/stop combination you have selected is not possible > turn the dial until it stops

You can’t make it? If need be, you can always reuse the All Auto mode or better the Scene modes – if you don’t feel like getting into trouble or are in a situation you can’t get out of.

Did you like this article on photo exposure modes? Share it on your favorite social networks, subscribe (in the sidebar on the right) if you want to be kept informed of new topics and feel free to leave comments, ask questions …

For those who are interested, these topics are covered in the course Introduction to photography for the Auto Aperture and Speed modes and Advanced photography for the Manual mode.

Now Your Turn

Now I would like to know, do you have any question ?

Or maybe do you have some information to add ?

Either way, let me know in the comments below

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