Choosing the Best Camera Modes

How to Select the Correct Camera Modes

choosing the best camera modes


After learning about how apertures and shutter speeds affect your photos, you may still have questions about which of the many camera modes is the right one for the situation you are shooting.  This lesson will explain each of the common modes and guide you to choosing the best setting.

Many cameras have what I call a “SPAM” dial.  This allows you to choose between Shutter Speed Priority, Program, Aperture Priority, and Manual.  Consumer cameras will also have a dozen more ‘scene modes’ that let you select an automatic mode for a variety of special situations like night shooting, action, portrait and others.  If you are on a quest for better photos and learning how to ‘make’ photos and not rely on the camera, then I’ll suggest you ignore these bonus modes and concentrate on the SPAM options.

Before starting, make sure you know how to change the shooting mode on your camera as well as your shutter speed and aperture. Refer to your manual if you’re not sure.

chosing modes in photography Program ModeProgram Mode

If you look at the image of the camera dial above, you’ll see that there is a “P” (Program) as well as a “Green Camera” setting.  The Green Camera is an Auto-everything mode and doesn’t allow you to change anything.  If you’re camera has this option, check the manual and learn the difference between this mode and the P mode.  Most Program modes will allow you to adjust some settings.

We’ll leave the green auto-everything mode alone and concentrate on the Program mode for now.  When you set a camera to Program, the camera will select the aperture, shutter speed and ISO for your shots based on the available light and other data like subject distance, contrast and possibly more depending upon your camera’s capabilities. This is the “point and shoot” mode.

When to use this mode: Use the Program setting when you are not concerned about the shutter speed or aperture.  There may be times in tricky lighting or maybe your just don’t want to “mess up” and you fall back on the camera to take the shot for you. Consider this mode ‘insurance’ when you are still learning.

I know some people will frown upon this setting, but there are times when it comes in useful for any photographer.   If I’m taking snapshots at a social gathering and know these images won’t be used for much than some Facebook shares, I’ll snap away and hand the camera to someone else for photos and not worry about it.  Sometimes it’s good to relax and not worry about apertures – just enjoy the moment. It’s not to say that photos taken on a Program setting won’t be good, it’s just that for any tricky lighting situation, they might have some problem that can possibly be fixed while editing.

If you are new to photography, you might be intimidated by ‘all those settings’ and be in a situation that you’re not comfortable making the settings yourself.  Maybe you’re shooting 5 generations of your family that will never gather together again.  It might be best to let the camera take the shot, rather than mess up this opportunity.

With that said, you might still have some control.  You might be able to turn a dial to control the shutter speed, while the camera is still in Program mode. If so, you now have ‘some’ control over the shot. Maybe you can adjust the aperture?  Check your manual to see what options you have in Program mode.  Can you control the ISO? Perhaps you can dial in Exposure Compensation (below).

As you learn more about photography and your camera, the less you will need to rely on this mode.  If you are in a situation when you think you need it, try to take the time to shoot some images in Program and some images in another mode.

chosing modes in photography Aperture Priority ModeAperture Priority Mode

If you have already covered the earlier lesson about Aperture Priority Mode, then you’ll know what this is all about. For those that haven’t or want a review, I’ll discuss it here, but return to the other lesson for more detail.

Aperture Priority Mode allows you to set the lens aperture while the camera selects the best shutter speed based on available light, scene contrast and possibly other considerations (depending upon your camera).  You will also have to select an appropriate ISO or use Auto ISO.

The lens aperture controls how much light enters the camera.  A small aperture (high f/stop number) lets in less light than a large aperture (small f/stop number).  The aperture size also controls your depth of field, which is the amount of the scene that is in sharp focus in front and behind your main point of focus.   I’ve mentioned in other lessons that of the many camera modes, aperture priority gives you the most creative control.  Using depth of field to convey a specific look is a great tool to have.

When to use this mode: If you subject is not moving, then your shutter speed won’t have much effect on the photo.  Use Aperture Priority Mode for portraits (low depth of field) or landscapes (high depth of field) and any other situation when you want to achieve a certain look by have more (or less) of the scene in focus.

Portrait with narrow depth of field

If you’ve seen a portrait and the background is soft and blurry, that’s because the aperture was set to a low f/stop to produce minimal depth of field.  It’s one of the many creative choices you have when using Aperture Priority.

Maybe you’re shooting an epic landscape and want all of it in sharp focus?  Then you would stop down to a small aperture like f/16 or f/22 and try to get everything from the foreground to the distant mountains in focus. You also have the choice of isolating a single flower in a meadow with minimal depth of field.  You’re in control!

Remember, if you subject is not moving, it’s a great opportunity to try out Aperture Priority Mode and make some creative choices.  You also need to be aware of what shutter speed your camera is setting while you select the aperture as the slower speeds can bring camera shake into the equation.

Shutter Priority Mode

chosing modes in photography Shutter Priority Mode

If Aperture Priority Mode is great for when your subject is still, then you would be right to think that Shutter Priority Mode is for subjects in motion. This is also covered in an earlier lesson.

Shutter Speed controls how long the shutter is open and the longer the shutter is open, the more movement that is recorded.  Think of a race horse and how you could use shutter speed to either freeze the horse in mid stride (fast shutter speed) or show a blur of legs (slower shutter speed).   Maybe you’ll use a panning technique to blur the background as you follow the horse with a slow shutter speed.

Of the many camera modes, Shutter Speed Priority can be the toughest to get right the first time.  I will usually be making a few test shots before settling on a shutter speed to use. Variables like the speed of the subject, the distance to the subject and the available apertures on your lens all come into consideration when picking the best shutter speed.

When to use this mode: You want to set your camera to Shutter Speed Priority when you subject is in motion.  This will give you creative control over how much motion is shown in the image.  A fast shutter speed will freeze the action, while a slower one shows motion.

When selecting a shutter speed, you need to be aware that you might be dealing with camera shake.  As a rule you want a shutter speed that is faster than 1/(lens length).  Many digital cameras have image stabilization technology that helps with this, but you should always be careful when using slow shutter speeds.

When shooting in Shutter Speed mode, review your images and zoom in to check for blurriness.  What might look good in your viewfinder might not look as good when you view it full size.  If you have time, try different settings and experiment.  The more you shoot, the more familiar you’ll become with the relationship between shutter speed and subject motion.

chosing modes in photography Manual ModeManual Mode

You’ll often hears professionals brag how they “only shoot in manual mode“. That’s all fine and dandy, but for most photographers, myself included, there’s a time and a place for every mode.  I use Manual Mode a lot, but there are times that I’ll use the other modes as they have very specific uses and do a great job.  With manual settings, you will set the aperture and shutter speed – as well as the ISO. Your settings will be based on the camera’s meter (or what you see in the review screen) unless you use an external light meter.

Manual Mode is used when you want complete control over your exposure.  In many cases you will take the time to set up a great composition, wait for some excellent lighting, set the perfect aperture and shutter speed and capture a great image of your making. This is the difference between taking a snapshot and making a photo.

When to use this mode: Use Manual settings when you need critical exposure settings and your light is not changing much (or quickly).  With a manual setting you can also make subtle adjustments and concentrate on focus and composition.

When you are in manual mode, it’s very simple to try different exposures for tricky lighting situations.  You can adjust your settings to what your meter recommends, then change the aperture or shutter speed to make your image brighter or darker.  You want to review the histogram while shooting to see how your exposure is looking, but you might not know the ‘best’ setting until you review the images on your computer.

If I am working with flash, I will usually use manual exposure and then adjust the flash settings, especially in the studio where I can control the lighting.  My shutter speed will be the flash sync speed (1/320s) and the aperture will depend on the depth of field I need.  Then I can adjust the power, distance and direction of my flash for the best photo.

A lot of times the camera won’t make a good exposure with dark scenes.  For example, if you’re shooting a sunset, the camera may try to brighten the dark, rich colours.  In this case, just switch to manual, get your exposure close and make adjustments after reviewing the shots and histogram.   The same approach applies to overly bright scenes like a winter snow-filled landscape.

If you are still learning, work in Manual mode when you have time to relax and really pay attention to what you’re doing.  If you are in the middle of a special scene and don’t have to ‘mess with the buttons’, then work in aperture or priority mode so you don’t miss the shot.

chosing modes-in photography Exposure ComponsationExposure Compensation

Many cameras will have an exposure compensation dial that allows you to set a + or – 3 stop exposure adjustment to your automatic modes.  For example, if you’re shooting in shutter priority and your shots are consistently coming out dark you can dial in a +1 stop of exposure compensation to brighten your shots, yet still use a semi-automatic shooting mode.

This is a great way of working in the mode you want, but adjusting for the situation.  Even in Program mode, you can usually dial in some exposure compensation. If you images are too bright, dial in a minus exposure (to underexpose) and if they are too dark, dial in a plus exposure (to overexpose).

If you are shooting a scene and find that they are consistently over or under exposed by about the same amount, then you’ll want to consider using exposure compensation.  This allows you to concentrate on the composition, posing and other aspects of your photography.

When to use this setting: Use exposure compensation when you want to use an automatic mode, but know that the camera will under or over expose the scene.  If your subject is markedly lighter or darker than your background, you might need to use exposure compensation to adjust for your camera’s meter.

Remember that your camera’s meter will look at an overall scene and try to create a good average exposure.  Be aware of which metering (overall, centre weighted, spot) you have selected.  Even today’s remarkable technology doesn’t always get it right.  A single person against a bright or dark background will ‘trick’ most meters, so you can simply use exposure compensation to fix this issue.

The amount of exposure compensation needed will vary for every scene, but you will soon learn that it’s a great tool to have.  The more you shoot, the more you’ll be able to quickly estimate how much compensation is needed.

chosing modes in photography Auto ISOAuto ISO

A great tool to keep in mind when shooting is Auto ISO.  You can set any of the camera modes listed above and use Auto ISO to let the camera adjust the ISO as needed.  I use this a lot with wildlife when I driving down back roads and don’t know where or when I will see a nice deer to shoot.  I’ll be set in shutter priority to make sure I can hand hold the camera based on the lens I’m using, but the next deer I see could be in bright daylight or deep shadow.  In many cases I’ll only have a few seconds to shoot before my subject going running off, so Auto ISO will help me get the shot.

Every camera can use high ISO, but not all high ISO settings produce acceptable photos.  Practice with varying ISO settings and find out what you find will work with your camera and your expectations.  Then you can set your Auto ISO to max out at that setting.  I will usually not shoot over 1600 ISO (on a D850) unless I really need the shot otherwise.

When to use this mode: Use Auto ISO when you lighting is changing quickly. This allows you to keep your settings the way you want them, but slight to large fluctuations in light can be compensated for with Auto ISO.

If you have time to make the best settings, then you may not need Auto ISO. I know that when I use it, it’s because I’ll have just a few seconds to get the camera to my eye, frame the shot, focus and make the image.


As you have read, each mode has its benefits.  It’s takes practice and the ability to analyze a scene to make these setting quickly, but unless you’re rushed to get the shot relax and concentrate on what you are viewing.  There is no ‘perfect mode for every situation’, but there are modes that work best for some situations.  Learn to identify those situations and when to change your camera mode.

Every photographer will have bad shots, but the best photographers learn from their errors and move on.  You can only gain experience when you try new things and the thing I love about photography is that there is ALWAYS something new to try.

If you have questions, please leave a comment below or email me:   Thanks for reading – Art

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