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Crucial Facts About Shooting Modes and Scene Modes In Digital Cameras

Now that we have learnt about the exposure triangle and how the light meter is crucial to the whole process, let's explore some of the shooting modes with which you can actually take pictures. We'll look at the main 4 - maual, aperture priority, shutter priority and program - before also seeing what some of the common 'scene modes' in compact/bridge cameras do.

Is there a 'best' shooting mode?

Ok, first a quick prefix to this tutorial: there is no such thing as the 'best' mode to shoot in. Sometimes full manual control of the settings is prefereble to the totally automatic program mode, and sometimes the reverse is true.

Avoid falling into the trap (as I did when I was first learning photography) that everything you've learnt how to do should be put into use as often as possible; i.e. the more you "do" in taking a picture the better.

This is nonsense (and the same rule applies with Photoshop). Choose the best option for the situation at hand, depending on your priorities for the shoot. Sometimes less is more.

shooting modes and scene modes guide

1. Manual mode (M)

Manual mode gives you full control of all points on the exposure triangle. Having set aperture or shutter speed - to give the desired depth of field/appearance of motion - it's down to you to balance the exposure with the other setting. You can also, of course, increase or decrease the ISO to make your life easier in this task.

When it's useful: Manual mode is great when you have lots of time to enjoy creating the perfect exposure. A typical example would be a landscape photo, where your camera is on a tripod and you can experiment to your heart's content within the 1/3 hour or so period you have available.

When it's not useful: A nightmare scenario to have to shoot in manual mode would be at a big press event, or a street carnival, or perhaps a sports game. You don't have the time to fiddle with the settings and you're happy to trust the camera's judgement on exposure, perhaps with a bit of exposure compensation thrown in.


2. Aperture priority mode (A or AV)

Aperture priority is the favoured default mode of many photographers. Why? Because depth of field is the basic image characteristic that most needs to be controlled in the majority of shots. Essentially, aperture priority gives you manual control of the aperture, whilst the camer automatically chooses a shutter speed to create a balanced exposure.

shooting modes and scene modes guide

Image by Thomas Leuthard

When it's useful: Aperture priority is great in any situation where depth of field is important (lots!), but you'd also like to have a speed advantage over full manual mode. A classic example would be during a portrait shoot, where you need to grab the moment quickly, but have total control of depth of field. If your camera's light meter is struggling in a given situation, exposure compensation can always be used to help out.

When it's not useful: Aperture priority is of no use when your chief concern is shutter speed. For example, when creating long exposures of a waterfall or beach waves, you would not want to leave it to the camera to choose the setting that will have the most impact on the effect you are trying to achieve.


3. Shutter priority mode (S or TV)

Shutter priority is the reverse of aperture priority: it gives you manual control of the shutter speed, whilst leaving aperture size up to the camera. This tends to be useful less often than aperture priority, but it's extremely handy when it is called for.

shooting modes and scene modes guide

Image by

When it's useful: There are plenty of situations when controlling the shutter speed is important, but you don't have the time to shoot in manual mode. For example, at sports games or when photographing wildlife, the opportunity for a picture comes and goes quickly and the most important thing is that you freeze the action.

When it's not useful: Shutter priority is not worth using when the depth of field is the most important feature of a shot. For example, when you want to achieve soft, 'bokeh' effect in the background of a portrait picture, aperture priority would be a more suitable mode.


4. Program mode

Program mode is the fully automatic mode, in which the camera chooses both aperture and shutter speed settings to produce a balanced exposure. Neither the appearance of motion nor the depth of field are under your control in program mode.

When it's useful: Whilst the 2 semi-manual modes decribed above are often good time savers, also offering creative control, program mode is the ultimate option for speed and simplicity. For some shoots, you really don't want to have to think about the settings at all. This might be because the pictures are for some practical use an image quality is not crucial, or because you are in a challenging environment (like a political street protest) and you don't have much time to think.

When it's not useful: Program mode is not useful when either a specific shutter speed or depth of field is essential to the effect you are hoping to achieve. For most of us, who enjoy photography and wnat to create great pictures, this will be most of the time.


Compact/bridge camera scene modes

There are a range of different shooting modes available with compact and bridge cameras. These are all fully automatic, as you have no control over the points on the exposure triangle when you are shooting with them. But by selecting one of these modes in the first place you are, effectively, taking partial control of aperture or shutter speed because of the how they impact these settings.

shooting modes and scene modes guide

1. Landscape mode: This mode selects a small aperture, providing a large depth of field. Landscape pictures usually feature points of interest in the foreground, middle and background, so as much of the scene as possible needs to be in sharp focus.

By reducing the aperture size, the camera will compensate by slowing shutter speed, making a tripod a worthwhile accessory when using this mode.

shooting modes and scene modes guide

2. Portrait mode: This mode opens up the aperture really wide, the opposite of landscape mode. The purpose of this is to throw the background in a portait photo out of focus with a narrow depth of field.

This, in turn, enables a fast shutter speed and low ISO which is good for sharpness and image quality. The closer you are to a subject, the more exaggerated the narrow depth of field becomes. So this mode works really well with quite close-up, tightly cropped portraits.

shooting modes and scene modes guide

3. Sports mode: This mode selects a fast shutter speed for freezing sporting action. In turn the aperture will usually be pretty wide.

The challenge of this mode (or using a fast shutter and wide aperture to capture action in any mode) is to focus accurately on the fast-moving subject, without it slipping out of the area in sharp focus (which is small). Pre-focusing on the right spot before your subject arrives is a good technique to try.

shooting modes and scene modes guide

4. Macro mode: This mode allows you to get really close to a subject and capture its details and textures. You can move to well within 10cm of your subject before focusing.

Macro mode makes use of a very wide aperture, which produces a tiny depth of field. So it's really important to keep your camera very steady otherwise the subject will not fall within the area of sharpness.



There are infinite different situations that we take pictures in, and each one has its own challenges. The range of shooting modes is there to help you, and there is no one size fits all mode. It's good to keep your options open and decide which mode on your camera offers the best balance of speed, control and ease in any given situation. For lots of photographers, aperture priority comes up trumps a lot of the time, because it's speedy and provides total control of depth of field.

The Photography Crash Course: 17 Short Lessons To Camera Mastery

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