The B&H Guide to Understanding Camera Shooting/Exposure Modes

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One of the wonderful things that modern electronic digital and film cameras give you is many high-tech options for your image making. One of the horrible things that modern electronic digital and film cameras give you is many high-tech options for your image making. Sometimes, confusion ensues. And, very often, confusion starts with the camera’s modes. Adding to the confusion, a little bit, is the fact that not all camera manufacturers agree on how to label similar modes. [Hi, Canon! Hi, Pentax!] Adding even more confusion, when some manufacturers say, “shooting modes,” they are referring to whether the camera is going to take one shot, multiple shots, or shoot continuously, instead of how the camera is exposing the image. Other manufacturers refer to these modes as “exposure modes,” a term also used for different “metering modes.” Confused now? Do you see why I had to write a confusing headline for this article? Can we not all get along and standardize this?

If you haven’t done so already, I recommend reading these articles on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. They should give you comprehensive background information on these functions and how a camera adjusts for exposure, and will help you understand why these camera modes work the way they do.

A final note: If you have been reading my articles on the B&H Photo website, you already know my thoughts on “proper, balanced, best,” or “correct” exposure. If you have not heard my soap box rant, here is my $0.02: The end goal of most of the camera modes (aside from Manual mode) is to create what camera companies refer to as a “proper” exposure. The computer inside your camera will strive to expose for the best balance between the dark and light areas of the photograph. However, photography is art and art is subjective. If you, the photographer, wish to produce a bright(er) or dark(er) image than what the camera wants to produce, in order to capture a specific mood or effect, then that is great by me. So, when you read below and see references to a camera-determined “correct” exposure, please know that the best exposure rests in the eye of the photographer taking the photograph.

Modes

Luckily for you, the photographer, and me, the writer, the modes are basically all the same, no matter what you choose to call them or how they are labeled on your camera.

The basic modes are: Programmed Automatic, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority, and Manual. They are usually abbreviated P, A, S, and M. Canon user? Try P, Av, Tv, and M on for size. These modes are generally selected on one dial, or cycled through using a “mode” button and a separate dial. In general, these modes control how the camera automatically sets the aperture or shutter speed, or allows the user to manually select aperture and shutter speed.

Many of today’s cameras have additional options on that dial, including Full Auto Mode, Landscape Mode, Sports Mode, Close-Up Mode, Portrait Mode, Night Portrait Mode, and more. Like the basic modes, selecting one of these options tells the camera how to set shutter speed and aperture, but it also may adjust ISO, set your white balance, pop your built-in flash, or change other picture settings internal to the camera. Some cameras also feature Custom Modes that allow you to specify any number of variables for different photographic situations that you may want to access on the fly.

We will discuss these specialty modes after we get the basic modes crystal clear. It is also worth noting that, in the modern camera, the engines driving these simple modes are extremely powerful and complex. Many of these camera modes have been around for decades, but the inner workings of the camera are much faster and more sophisticated now than ever before.

Programmed Auto / Program Mode (P)

When this mode is selected, the camera automatically sets the shutter speed and aperture to achieve what it believes is the best possible exposure for the metering information of whatever scene the photographer has framed. This is almost like using a simple point-and-shoot camera in that almost every setting on the camera is controlled by the camera itself. I say “almost” because this mode will not automatically deploy your built-in flash, nor will it change your ISO or color space or other more specific settings. Later we will discuss an even more comprehensive automatic mode that many cameras offer.

Also, many manufacturers offer a Program Flexible/Shift (P* or Ps) mode where the photographer can manually select a combination of shutter-speed and aperture options. You can use this shifted mode to tweak your aperture or shutter speed a predetermined amount while remaining in the Program mode. How you shift the aperture or shutter speed settings, or if you can shift them while in Program mode, is camera make/model specific.

Aperture Priority Mode (A / Av)

The Aperture Priority mode allows the photographer to set a specific aperture while allowing the camera to calculate the proper exposure and assign an appropriate shutter speed. This allows the photographer to change aperture, and therefore change the depth of field of the image, while the camera does the necessary calculations to automatically set your shutter speed. As you increase the opening of the aperture (lower f/stop numbers), you will get a higher shutter speed to compensate for the increase of light coming through the lens. Make the aperture smaller, the camera will give you a longer-duration shutter speed.

This is the preferred mode for a lot of photographers who want to not only maintain consistent depth of field, but who also might want the camera to shoot through their lens’s best-performing aperture(s).

Just like the Program Shift mode, the way you change your aperture is accomplished differently on cameras from different manufacturers. On some cameras, the aperture is selected through a dial on the camera. Some have you select the aperture by turning a ring on the lens. Grab your manual to find out how to make these adjustments on your camera, if you haven’t done so already.

Shutter Priority Mode (S / Tv)

This is the opposite of the Aperture Priority mode. When you select this mode, you control the shutter speed and the camera controls the aperture. Again, the end result is that the camera is looking for a balanced exposure by assigning an aperture to your chosen shutter speed.

This allows the photographer to reduce the duration that the shutter is open, to freeze fast-moving action, or conversely, leave the shutter open longer to allow blur and movement to appear in the frame. Sports photographers will often use Shutter Priority mode to let the camera know they are looking to freeze action.

Shutter speed is likely adjusted by a rotary dial on the camera, or via a dedicated shutter speed selector dial, depending on the type of camera you are using.

Manual Mode (M)

The camera’s manual mode takes you back to the early days of photography, before computer intervention, when the photographer selected a combination of shutter speed and aperture to get the desired exposure.

This is likely the most intimidating mode of the group and, therefore, likely used less than its sister modes. However, there are scenarios where having full control is necessary to get the image that you desire. When doing night photography, I am often shooting in Manual mode as the camera’s meter cannot always handle extreme darkness. And, yes, there are photographers who use this mode exclusively.

Mode Limits

One thing to note is that these modes have limitations. On a very bright day, you might want to make a photograph with shallow depth of field. You just finished the first half of this article and you select Aperture Priority mode because you want to open the aperture up to its maximum to get the shallowest depth of field possible. However, it is bright out and your camera’s shutter cannot open and close fast enough to produce a balanced exposure. You may get a flashing aperture value or blinking “Hi” warning that indicates that your image will be overexposed.

Contrarily, you want to freeze the action of a child blowing out the candles of a birthday cake. However, someone turned off the lights for the hearty rendition of “Happy Birthday” and you have dialed in 1/4000 of a second as your shutter speed on Shutter Priority mode. The camera reacts by opening the aperture to its maximum size, but it cannot simply let in sufficient light to get a proper exposure, leaving you with a “Lo” or “Low” warning, or flashing shutter speed value indicating a possible underexposure of the frame.

Again, refer to your owner’s manual to see how your camera indicates a possible over- or underexposure situation.

Special Modes

Depending on the make and model of your camera, there may be a host of additional modes from which you may choose. I will discuss them briefly here, but intentionally not get too far into the weeds, as these modes vary depending on the make and model of your camera. Some of these modes will change color settings, sharpness, noise reduction, image quality and more. Check your manual to see what is happening inside your particular camera if you are using these modes.

Full Automatic Mode (Green Rectangle / Camera Silhouette / AUTO/ iAUTO)

Do not be confused, but this mode differs greatly from the Program Auto mode described above. This is the mode that does everything automatically for you, aside from aiming the camera. You get all the computer power behind the Program Auto mode with automatic aperture and shutter speed selection, but you will also, depending on the make and model, get automatic pop-up flash (if the camera has a flash), automatic selection of the ISO setting, automatic white balance, and more. If you do not want to think of anything beyond where you are pointing your camera and your composition, this is the mode for you.

Flash Off / Auto Flash Off Mode

This is the same as the Full Automatic Mode, but the flash is disabled so that it will not fire in an environment where you would not want to pop off a flash bulb, such as a museum or other light-sensitive setting. Also, depending on the image, you simply might not want to have the stark lighting effect that a flash may produce.

Portrait Mode

This is similar to selecting Aperture Priority and opening your aperture to get shallower depth of field. However, depending on the camera, it may also enhance skin tones and soften skin texture automatically.

Night Portrait Mode

This mode should fire off the flash while keeping a slower shutter speed that allows background lighting to remain in the scene.

Landscape Mode

This mode generally maximizes your depth of field and it may even make the scene’s colors more vibrant.

Sports Mode

Sports mode cranks up your shutter speed in an attempt to freeze action. Usually, it will disable the flash as well.

Macro Mode

For close-up photography, the camera will either open the aperture to give the image very shallow depth of field or narrow the aperture for the opposite effect. Check your manual to see exactly what your camera does when you select this mode.

Custom Modes

Several manufacturers and cameras offer custom modes that allow you to pre-assign different shooting options to a custom mode setting. What is customizable varies widely between manufacturers, so, if interested in setting up a Custom Mode, break out your manual and see what variables your particular camera allows you to set.

Final Thoughts

Are you now asking, “What mode should I use?”

Well, that is entirely up to you. Some tutorials may give you specific instructions on when and how to use these camera modes. My thought is that you are the photographer and you can choose when to use these modes. Hopefully, this article helps you make a more informed decision as to what mode to select. Also, in my opinion, there is zero shame in using these modes while taking photos. Many “purists” and “pros” frown on using automatic modes, but if you and your camera are combining to get you the images you love, then keep shooting whatever mode works for you. Do not be afraid to change modes while shooting to see if one works better for you than another. This is a great area in which to experiment. No single mode will work for every photographic situation, so do not be afraid to change modes when you need to.

And, lastly, do not forget to double-check your mode selection before you go out shooting. You might not want to shoot the Grand Canyon while the camera is set to Night Portrait mode!

Discussion 22

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Hola magnifico documento, por favor compartanlo en español

Hola Luis! Gracias por leer! Usted puede tratar de cortar y pegar el artículo para translate.google.com.

Excellent article for understanding the exposure modes. It may be a bit counterintuitive, but Aperture Priority works also for sports when played outside at night. I was photographing an NCAA Baseball regional with an 80-205mm f4.5. I used Kodak Ektar 100 for the day game and Shutter Priority worked fine. But for the night games, I used Kodak Portra 800 and TMAX 3200 (I wish that film were still available); I set the aperture to wide open at f4.5 and just let the shutter speeds fall where they may.

For my first attempt at a panorame, I took my Canon A-1 over to Manual mode when I tooks photos; I figured that having the same shutter speed and aperture would make the photo merge easier.

Hey Ralph,

You are 100% correct. When I have photographed air shows in the past, I would shoot at Aperture Priority as well and open the lens to f/2.8 or f/4 and let the camera give me the fastest possible shutter speeds for the given light. Aperture Priority works unless you have depth of field considerations to make adjustments for.

For sports, sometimes the goal is to freeze the action, even at the risk of underexposing, so shutter priority might be best for some situations.

Thanks for reading and commenting! Keep shooting film!

Excellent Article!!!!!

Thank you, Mari! Thanks for reading!

Hey Todd....Thanks for this article and the link to your older article on using Auto modes. It eased my guilt although I do use Manual Mode more and more under the right circumstances. 

What mode do you suggest for capturing lightning at night? I know that a very long exposure is needed with the tripod mounted camera pointed toward a storm having frequent night lightning and adding a little luck for some strikes during shutter opening. That's fairly controllable. But then you have the dark, night time background with the brilliance of the bolts. The histogram will show lots of clipping, yes? Thanks in advance for your thoughts....and for your philosophy on telling students that Auto modes are OK to use.

Hey Tom! 

Good to see you again! I am mostly an Aperture Priority guy, FYI!

For lighting, your wish is my command. Click here.

Todd....Thanks for this link to your article on photographing lightning! I checked it out briefly and will be reading it in full shortly. I am in a good place for taking such photos from the confines of our covered balcony that has a 170 degree panoramic view of the distant sky from 25 floors up. Thunderstorm season is upon us in south China and we get some whoppers.

I purchased and downloaded Photoshop Elements 13 from B & H this week and look forward to editing photos with it and fighting with its' learning curve!

Hey Tom! No worries! Enjoy the article and let me know what you think! I am jealous of your views!

In the article, there is a photo I took from a containership in the South China Sea a few years ago. Spectacular show!

I am sure you will enjoy Photoshop Elements and thanks for shopping at B&H!

Hi Todd...I read the article on shooting lightning and it's full of great tips! Now I have to wait for the right storm which shouldn't be long. The "Bulb" method should work for me and experimentation with aperture will be in order as you said. I do need a remote release. The view is good from our condo although the foreground is and has been a construction zone...roads, trains, tunnels. Much of any Chinese city is under physical change in enormous ways, this country is moving forward. Lots of photo ops here: people, places and things. 

The South China Sea is about 140 miles from us, the Gulf of Tonkin a little closer. Spectacular photo you took from your ship! So is the "Road" photo, it's captivating, mesmerizing. Thanks!

Thanks, Tom! Good luck shooting the lightning! Stay safe and let us know if you capture anything cool!

I am not a total novice with an advanced capability camera. (Or I thought I wasn't) I started in the previous century with a Mamiya-Sekor 1000DTL and a Vivitar 90-230 Zoom lens, and had a wonderful time wasting film and learning my equipment. Then the shutter went bad and I had to revert to a much simpler camera. Over the years, I have slowly worked my way back up through more advanced cameras, still taking good photos, although now digital. Now I've bitten the bullet and bought a new Fujifilm XT-1 with the XF 18-135 lens. WOW! I'm a rookie again! Thanks for the de-confusing article (after you get past the first paragraph!) Remembering what affects what and how to get the effect I want was driving me insane-r. At least with "digital negatives" it's a lot faster and cheaper to make the old mistakes.

Hey C.H.!

Thanks for reading and commenting! On behalf of the world's camera manufacturers, I apologize for their creation of confusion! (Not sure that counts for anything!)

Excellent! Really helped me use my new Canon SL1. Thank you a million! 

Ivan,

No worries! Thank you for reading!

Nice article, I was hoping you'd touch on what AE and AE-L (or something like that) do. 

There's also a +/- button I use to adjust Aperture, but is it used for something else as well?

Hi Josue,

Thanks for your questions!

I did not want to get too far off topic in the article, but I can help you quickly here:

The AE-L button is for Auto-Exposure Lock. Basically, you can use the spot, center, or matrix metering on your camera to meter off of a specific portion of your frame (or an area outside of your frame), press and hold the button, recompose your image, and then take a photo with the "locked" exposure setting.

The +/- button will adjust either your aperture, shutter speed, or both. It is used to intentionally over or under-expose an image from the exposure that the camera calculated for the scene. Pressing and holding this button, while rolling a dial (usually), allows you to adjust your exposure darker or lighter than the original exposure.

I hope that helps you out. Please let me know if you have any follow-up questions.

Thanks!

Thanks, an excellent article both for novices and also a timely reminder for others.

Thanks, John! I appreciate your comments!

Hi Todd, I really enjoyed the article. Sometimes I will take a picture in P mode and then check out the histogram to get an idea of what the camera settings were. Then I switch to A and make adjustments to my taste. It particularly helps when the light is sort of tricky. Cheers, Tom

Hey Tom,

Good technique! One thing you can do to save yourself some time, depending on your camera type, is stay in P mode and then adjust the aperture while in P mode - shifting to the P* or Program Shift mode. Most cameras allow the photographer to override the P mode a certain amount and this will keep you from having to turn the dials to enter A mode.

Thanks for reading and sharing!