If you haven’t noticed, we’re in an age of all things being “ready made” and the same applies to digital photography. Pick any point and shoot camera or even a professional SLR camera and you will find pre-defined shooting modes that help you automatically adjust the camera’s focal length and exposure limits, depending on the picture you want to take. That could either be close ups, landscapes, night shooting or even dawn and dusk shooting. Or, even when shooting against a bright backdrop.
Most photographers, including professionals, are known to shoot in the Auto mode, while very few rarely shoot in the full manual mode. There’s no right or wrong answer to this, but below is an outline you can follow for what shooting modes can do to a specific kind of photography. Here we go!
For SLR and DSLR Cameras
Aperture Priority Mode (A or AV)
This mode is a semi-manual mode where you choose the aperture while your camera chooses other settings, such as the shutter speed, white balance and ISO. It is put in place to ensure a balanced exposure level, thereby avoiding either under-exposed or over-exposed photographs. This mode is particularly useful to control a stationary object where you don’t need to control the shutter speed. Choosing a larger aperture level means the lens will get smaller and it will let less light in. That means you’ll have a larger depth of field (more of the area in focus), but your camera will choose a faster shutter speed.
Shutter Priority Mode (S or TV)
With this one, you choose the shutter speed and the camera chooses the rest of the settings. You can use this mode when you want to control the shutter speed. For example, when photographing moving subjects, such as some sporting action, you might want to choose a faster shutter speed to freeze the motion. On the flip side, you might want to capture the movement as a blur of the subject, like a waterfall, and choose a slower shutter speed. You may also want to use a slower shutter speed in low light conditions to get a better picture.
Program Mode (P)
Some digital cameras have this priority mode, in addition to the auto mode. With the cameras that have both, the Program mode is similar to the Auto mode, but it gives you a little more control over some of the other features, including flash, white balance and ISO. Check your digital camera’s manual on how the Program mode differs from the Auto mode in your particular model.
The name says it all. With this, you have complete control over all of the settings and you’re least dependent on any auto function of the camera. You set the shutter speed, aperture level, ISO, white balance and flash. This mode gives you the flexibility to set your shots the way you want them to be. This mode is essentially used by those photographers who are either experts or are willing to error in order to learn. If you don’t belong to either of those types, it’s best you stick to one or the other for better results.
For Point and Shoot Compact Cameras
This is the mode used by most photographers. Although it works in most conditions, it’s really bad for indoor photography and some forms of outdoor photography as well. Indoors, a camera set on Auto would use the flash, blasting nearby subjects with light, while the background and subjects farther back are lost in darkness. If you master the various shooting modes, you could be using less and less of this mode, which is perfect for beginners, but not for those who are climbing up the learning ladder.
Represented by an icon of a sprinter, this is perfect for taking pictures of moving objects. This mode is also good for shooting children or pets in action. This mode can give you higher shutter speeds to stop action, along with a smaller aperture so that more of the action will be in focus. Raising the shutter speed and narrowing the aperture both decrease the amount of light coming through the lens. Some cameras then raise the so-called ISO sensitivity to compensate, while others keep the ISO unchanged to minimize picture noise.
The Portrait mode is perfect for capturing solo subjects and taking passport photos. This mode sets a wide aperture of the lens so that the background behind your subject is softly focused. Here again, some cameras have modes within this mode, such as Portrait Right, if the subject is stationed on the right or Portrait Left. Similarly, there are sub-modes for Portrait Close-up, Portrait Couple (if there are two subjects) or Portrait Figure (if you want a waist upwards shot). However, with its deliberately shallow depth of field, this mode is not a good choice for group photos where members are at different distances from the lens. The Landscape Portrait mode or even just the Landscape mode would do better in that situation. Of course, there are some face detection features in some cameras, like Canon, that solve this problem, but it’s not found in most other cameras.
This is represented with an icon showing a picture of a mountain range. This mode narrows the aperture, so both the subject and background stay sharp, but might zoom out to a wide angle to fit more of the background in. This mode also works well if you want to just capture nature without any subject in the foreground. You could also use this mode to showcase the architectural wonders of a building. Plus, if you have two people standing in the foreground against a mountain backdrop, some cameras have sub-modes, like Group Right or Group Left, to help you with that as well.
This mode is usually symbolized by a figure against a dark sky with a star. This mode fires the flash to illuminate a nearby subject and then holds the shutter open long enough for the background to be exposed. Scene modes for indoor photography typically turn the flash off to expose the whole scene equally. You can open the aperture to let more light in and turn on a stabilizing feature, given that longer shutter speeds are needed. For shooting after a sunset, night modes turn the flash off, hold the shutter open (use a tripod) and change the ISO sensitivity (not always raising it, as high ISO and long shutter speeds both commonly add noise to a picture).
There are at least a dozen different scene modes in any average compact camera. Flower icons set the camera for close up shots and some cameras, like Nikons, also have macro close up features that allow you to take shots of buds, petals, bugs and insects in a way that will leave you bowled. The Night Landscape mode (represented by a Manhattan-like skyline at night with bright dots in the building and a crescent in the sky) allows you to take great shots of stationery objects, whether they’re people, places or things during nighttime. But, remember to take the shot using a tripod, because it will expose the scene for a longer time. Any shake of the hand or camera could blur the picture.
Similarly, the fireworks, beach and underwater modes are self-explanatory. Without these modes, such bright scenes would look dingy, because the auto exposure system, made for scenes of average brightness, dims brilliant scenes. Sunset modes emphasize reds, while the autumn modes often emphasize both reds and yellows.
All of these modes are meant to equip you with a basic knowledge of what you can do in each of the different scene modes. The best way to learn photography is intense practice. Don’t shy away from experimenting one bit. The best way to know the difference between auto and the other scene modes is to shoot the same subject in both the settings and note the shutter speed, ISO level and aperture. The difference will be dramatic in some cases. Tweaking the various functions of the camera can result in some fantastic results that even textbooks can’t teach you. Go on and trial and error your way to better photography!
~ Zahid H Javali