Digital Camera Modes Explained – Auto, Manual, Aperture and Shutter Priority

digital camera dial

A good understanding of various digital camera modes is the secret to click great images. Using the correct camera mode lets you take control of the exposure being recorded on your photo. Owning a great camera without proper understanding of camera modes is of no use, one day you will have to get out of your comfort zone of using the full automatic mode.

Before click a photo, the first thing a photographer should consider is to set the apt camera mode so as to capture the perfectly exposed photo along with his/her creativity.

One cannot simply move from automatic mode to manual mode, there are multiple modes in between them which you need to get good understanding of in order to learn how the exposure can be controlled using specific mode.

The digital camera mode dial can be easily spotted on the top left side of majority of digital cameras. The rotatable mode dial has markings of all the modes such as ‘M’, ‘Tv’, ‘Av’ (in Canon) and ‘M’, ‘S’, ‘A’ (in Nikon).

Types of Digital Camera Modes

The camera mode dial on your digital camera is further categorized into:

  1. Automatic mode
  2. Scene modes
  3. Program mode (P)
  4. Shutter Priority (Tv) or (S)
  5. Aperture Priority (Av) or (A)
  6. Manual mode (M)

Automatic Mode

As the name says, the automatic mode let’s your camera take charge of everything – from shutter speed and aperture to ISO and white balance. Full auto mode is ideal for the beginners who have no clue about the technical aspects of a camera. All you need to do is point your camera towards your subject, set the frame and click the shutter release button. This mode also automatically pops-up the in-built flash as per the requirement.

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In automatic mode, you cannot change the aperture value, shutter speed, ISO or the white balance manually as all the settings are decided by your camera. Using the available light, the camera will decide the exposure and try to capture the best image possible.

Scene Modes

Portrait mode:

This mode is ideal for clicking portraits in a well lit situation and if the camera detects that there is low light, the built-in flash will pop-up. Your camera will assume that there is a human subject in the foreground and will choose a wide aperture (small f/number) to achieve shallow depth of field and blur the background.

Landscape mode:

This mode is most suited for clicking wide angle landscapes and buildings, as the camera uses a small aperture (high f/number) to achieve deep depth of field. This results in a image which has everything present in the frame in focus.

Macro mode:

This mode comes handy when you plan to click a close-up view of flowers, insects or any small item by taking the lens closer to the subject. The minimum focusing distance depends on lens you are using. What the camera does is, it uses a wide aperture to only keep the subject in focus and everything in the background to be blurred.

Sports mode:

This mode lets you freeze the moment by using a fast shutter speed. You can use the sports mode to capture a moving subject, such as a fast pacing car or a water splash. One can capture multiple shots using the burst mode.

Night portrait mode:

In the Night Portrait mode, the camera will use a wide aperture (low aperture value) to capture the background as well as the foreground which will be lit up using the in-built flash.

Program Mode

Program Mode is basically a semi-automatic mode which allows you to control the ISO, white balance and exposure compensation manually, but the exposure is automatically decided by the camera. You also have the control over selecting the image output format, i.e. JPEG or RAW. The Program Mode allows you to prevent the camera flash from firing.

digital camera dial

This mode is great for beginners as you can easily focus on learning how ISO and white balance works without worrying about the aperture value or the shutter speed. Using the Program Shift, a great mode within the Program Mode, you can choose various sets of exposures (shutter speed and aperture value).

Assume that you are at a concert and want to click photos of the artists in action. The light keeps changing in a concert, so you might miss the shot by the time you set the exposure on your camera. The program mode comes to rescue, as all you need to do is change the ISO and your camera will set the exposure automatically.

Aperture Priority Mode

The Aperture Mode let’s you take the control of the aperture, which means that you can directly take charge of the amount of light that enters through your camera lens. This mode allows you to set the desired aperture value (f-stop) and have command over the depth of field.

digital camera dial

This mode is ideal if you want to control the depth of field, and the camera will set the shutter speed accordingly. Let’s consider two scenarios:

  1. While clicking portrait or close up shots, you would love to keep the subject in focus and blur the background by choosing large aperture (small aperture value). Using the Program Mode, you can define the required aperture value to achieve shallow depth of field.
  1. While shooting landscapes, you might want to have both the foreground and the background well in focus by using small aperture (high aperture value). The Program Mode gives you the freedom to select desired aperture value to get deep depth of field, while your camera takes care of the shutter speed.

Shutter Priority Mode

The Shutter Mode let’s you take charge of the camera shutter, which acts as a door that defines the duration for which the light enters the camera. This mode allows you to define required shutter speed, which can either freeze a moment or capture long exposure shots.

digital camera dial

Once you define the required shutter speed, your camera will automatically select the aperture and ISO value as per the required light.

Let’s consider both the scenarios:

  1. When capturing birds or animals in motion or fast moving cars, all you need to do is simply increase your shutter speed in order to freeze the moving objects. Shutter speed of anything above 1/500 seconds is considered ideal for freezing the objects.
  1. To capture star trails, light trails or blue hour photos you would need to slow down the shutter speed so that the camera sensor is exposed with all the activity you wish to capture in a single frame. To capture long exposure photos it is mandatory that you carry a tripod along to avoid any kind of shake.

Manual Mode 

Once you have mastered the shutter priority and aperture priority modes, move on to the manual mode to further sharpen your skills. In manual mode, the photographer has complete command over the camera as everything from shutter speed to aperture and ISO to white balance is managed by him/her.

Shooting in manual mode requires better understanding of lighting conditions and the relation between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. One must practice well to know as to how a change in the shutter speed will affect the aperture value or the ISO.

Once you get a fair knowledge about shooting in the manual mode, you would never switch back to automatic mode or shutter/aperture priority mode knowing that those modes would somehow hamper your creativity.

Which is your favorite digital camera mode and why? Comment down below.

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About Author

Kunal Malhotra
Kunal Malhotra, a photography enthusiast whose passion for photography started 6 years back during his college days. Kunal is also a photography blogger, based out of Delhi. He loves sharing his knowledge about photography with fellow aspiring photographers by writing regular posts on his blog: The Photography Blogger. Some of his favourite genres of photography are Product, Street, Fitness and Architecture.