Understanding DSLR Camera Shooting Modes

Written by Dimitrios Zavos

On my last trip to London, a few days ago and while walking among some of the main tourist attractions, I couldn't help noticing how many people were carrying DSLR cameras. I thought this has to be proof that more and more people are showing an active interest in photography nowadays. But something just didn't look right in the way most of them were snapping away at everything without changing any kind of setting on their cameras...

And then it dawned on me... They must be shooting in Auto mode! I decided to approach some of the more friendly-looking ones and ask them what shooting mode they were using and, with one or two exceptions, all I got was bewildered looks... Most of the people I spoke to were totally unaware of the existence of different shooting modes other than Full-Auto...

Now that's what I call an absolute waste of money! Why do people spend large sums of their hard-earned cash to replace their point-and-shoot cameras with fancy DSLRs when all they will end up doing is use them as bulkier versions of the point-and-shoot ones they had in the first place is beyond me... So this is why I decided to quickly put some words together in an attempt to explain to beginners in digital photography the many different (and vastly superior to Full-Auto) camera mode choices available at their fingertips.

So let's start with the very basics: Where can one find the different camera shooting modes on a DSLR?

The majority of DSLR cameras have what is called a "Mode Dial", located at the top of the camera, to one side of the flash/viewfinder hump. An example of what the Mode Dial usually looks like can be seen in the image to the left. Please note that this layout is indicative only and can vary significantly between different DSLR models.

The camera's different shooting modes are shown as icons on the dial and can be changed by rotating the dial to select the desired mode.

So let's look into the different modes in more detail and explain which ones you should and shouldn't be using and why. I will start by separating them into Automatic and Manual Modes.

Automatic Modes

Auto (a.k.a. Full-Auto)

This option is usually shown in green color on the camera's mode dial so it stands out from the others. Unfortunately, this is the most commonly used mode, even by DSLR camera owners. There is no problem with the mode as such, since some great photos can be captured if one gets lucky, but with the total absence of user input to the shot. Shooting in Auto mode means the "photographer" relies on the camera to decide on every parameter (ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed, use of Flash, White Balance etc.) The main thing that separates the image quality one gets from shooting in Auto between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR camera is the quality of the lens attached to it. To me it really makes no sense to upgrade to a DSLR from a decent point-and-shoot if you'll be shooting in Auto all the time.

Portrait Mode

Post 8-4Post 8-4 When you select this option, all the camera does is select a larger aperture (smaller f-number) in an attempt to blur the background and create separation between the object and its surroundings. This can easily be achieved by a photographer with a DSLR by simply turning a dial, while allowing freedom with the other settings, thus rendering the use of Portrait Mode irrelevant.

Night Mode

Post 8-5Post 8-5 What this option does is apply a technique known as "Slow Shutter Sync". It keeps the shutter open for longer to allow more light to enter the sensor and capture a dark environment and also fires the flash to illuminate your object. The problem is that because the shutter remains open for so long, the background will suffer from camera shake if shooting handheld. Which in turn means that if you wish both the background and your object to be sharp you will need to use a tripod. There is a potential creative benefit to this mode though and this is that one can achieve a "fun" or "experimental" look by hand-holding the camera to purposefully blur the background, especially if it includes colored light sources.

Landscape Mode

This mode does the exact opposite to the Portrait mode above. It selects a small aperture (large f-number) in order to keep as much of the frame in focus as possible. Again, this can easily be achieved by a photographer with a DSLR by simply turning a dial, while allowing freedom with the other settings, thus rendering the use of Landscape Mode irrelevant as well.

Sports Mode (a.k.a. Action Mode)

This mode is used to "freeze" fast moving objects such as racing cars, people playing sports, wildlife etc. To achieve this the camera sets the shutter speed to a very high value and compensates by increasing the aperture and the ISO setting, thus decreasing image quality. It usually also changes the autofocus mode from Single Area to Continuous / AI Servo in an attempt to keep moving objects constantly in focus.

Macro Mode (a.k.a. Close-Up Mode)

Be warned: This "mode" is nothing more than a marketing attempt to fool the uninformed. The only thing this option does is to set up the camera to take photos of objects that are closer than usual. Nothing more. It will probably open-up the aperture as well to provide a more shallow Depth of Field, as seen in macro photography. But rest assured, this doesn't even come close to true macro and it will not let your lens focus any closer than it normally would. And to clear up any possible confusion, true macro is defined as "photography that produces an image on the sensor that is the same physical size as the subject or greater". To achieve this you need a dedicated macro lens or a more complicated setup with inverted lenses, extension tubes, bellows etc. which is not part of this article.

No Flash Mode

This is a pretty straightforward mode... All it does is it turns the flash off so you can use the camera wherever flash photography is not permitted (such as in theaters and museums) and spare you the embarrassment of having the flash go off when it shouldn't. Please be aware that there are places where photography is strictly prohibited (such as in or around military installations, in some museums, libraries etc.) and this mode does not make the use of photographic equipment permissible in any way. It could potentially put you in even more trouble if you're caught.

Video Mode (a.k.a. Movie Mode)

More and more DSLRs these days come equipped with a Video (or Movie) mode along all the other photography modes. This mode takes advantage of the superior optics of photography lenses compared to consumer-grade video cameras to produce high quality video. This is why more and more TV material is being shot using DSLR cameras in Video (or Movie) mode instead of video cameras. Moreover, most modern-day DSLRs can record video in High Definition (HD) which is an added bonus. Just keep in mind that you need plenty of storage space in your memory card(s) when shooting video with your DSLR (especially in HD) as the files produced tend to be huge.

This completes the description of the main Automatic Modes that are present on most, if not all, modern entry to mid-level DSLR cameras. I hope it is now clear that the use of any these modes significantly limits the creative options DSLR cameras give to the photographer and that's why they should be avoided in general. One more very important reason is that in 99% of cases, shooting in any of the camera's automatic modes disables the ability of the camera to shoot in RAW and defaults the output file to the JPEG format thus degrading image quality further. Take a look at our article on the RAW vs JPEG debate for an in-depth visual comparison of the two formats.

Now let's continue with the camera modes every self-respecting photographer should stick to:

Manual Modes

On all DSLRs, from Entry to Pro level, the following five manual shooting modes exist: Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual and Bulb. Let's examine them one by one:

Program Mode (P)

This is as close to an automatic mode as "manual" modes get. Its main difference from "Auto" is that it offers the photographer the option to manually input a number of settings such as the ISO value, use of Flash, White Balance etc. Then the camera automatically chooses the Aperture and Shutter Speed based on the amount of light that passes through the lens. This means that if you direct the camera towards a dark area, the camera's "brain" will increase the aperture (move to a smaller f-number, allow more light in) in order to maintain a reasonable shutter speed. On the contrary, if you point the camera to a brighter area it will reduce the aperture (move to a larger f-number) while still keeping a fast shutter speed. On some cameras the user is also allowed to override the selected aperture and shutter speed settings by rotating the control dial in order to either increase or decrease the desired depth of field. I do not recommend using this mode as it gives the photographer minimal control over the exposure.

Aperture Priority Mode (Av or A)

This is the mode which most photographers use for 90% of their shooting needs. It allows the photographer to manually input the desired aperture value (thus determining the depth of field in the final image) while the camera automatically calculates the right shutter speed to make sure the photo is not over or under exposed. This gives the photographer full control over subject isolation of course. The ISO setting can be set manually (recommended) or automatically (not recommended).

Shutter Priority Mode (Tv or S)

In Shutter Priority mode (or Time Value mode) the photographer manually selects the shutter speed while the camera calculates the lens aperture value in order to expose the image correctly. This mode is used when one intends to either freeze or blur motion. The downside obviously is that the photographer has no control over subject isolation since the depth of field is automatically established. This is one shooting mode that I prefer not to use since it can easily lead to an overexposed or underexposed image. Say for example you have set a very fast shutter speed to freeze a bird in flight, but the ambient light intensity is rather low. The camera will push the aperture to its highest value, which will be the lowest f-number of the lens, to allow as much light in as possible. This aperture though may not be enough to correctly expose the image in the very short time the shutter remains open, resulting in an underexposed photograph.

Manual Mode (M)

As the name indicates this mode gives the photographer full control over the camera's exposure controls. All parameters can be entered manually allowing maximum flexibility to set up any shot. I strongly suggest to every new photographer to master shooting in Manual mode before switching to any of the other available options. It is the only way to fully understand what kind of impact a change in one exposure parameter has on the others and eventually on the final image. Although you will end up not using it as much as Aperture Priority for example, it will prove very handy in tricky lighting conditions, when your camera will have a hard time correctly exposing the image or in creating panoramas where all settings must be the same between the pictures that will be stitched together. Moreover, it is pretty much the only way to shoot and expose correctly when using certain types of filters, such as Neutral Density ones.

Bulb Mode (B)

This mode is identical to the Manual mode above with the exception that it does not limit the shutter speed to a maximum of 30 seconds (as Manual usually does). In this mode the shutter remains open for as long as the shutter release button (or shutter release cable or remote) remains depressed. The use of such a mode comes handy when very long exposure times are required, such as when a photographer is trying to capture star trails in the night sky for example. The shutter might need to remain open for hours instead of seconds in such a case.

This completes our trip through the various shooting modes of modern-day DSLR cameras. I hope you found the information in this article complete, clear and helpful. Should you have any comments or suggestions please feel free to post them in the "Comments" section below and I will try to respond to or address them as soon as possible.

Until the next time, thanks for visiting!


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