How to Choose the Right Camera Mode to Get the Shot You Want (I)

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When starting out in photography, one of the scariest and most confusing things for a beginner is deciding which camera mode to use. While the automatic modes provide a bit of a safety net for those just starting out, there will come a time when you either want to or have to, take greater control of your camera to get the results you desire. But how do you know what camera mode to use?

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First off, I won’t discuss any of the automatic modes here. A full discussion of what those do can be found here: Camera Modes Explained for Newbies. What I’d like to do here is discuss specific situations and the appropriate mode for each. Before we dive into that, I’ll explain the basics before we move forward.

Aperture

The aperture is the opening of the lens, which determines exactly how much light enters the camera and strikes the imaging sensor. The aperture also affects the field of focus from foreground to background, otherwise known as depth of field. A shallow depth of field is one that has a sharp focus on the subject, while objects in front of or behind the subject are out of focus. Deep depth of field is when the entire image is in sharp focus from foreground to background. And of course, you can have a depth of field that is somewhere in between those two.

Aperture is shown as a number on your lens, usually as a ratio. For instance, lenses with a maximum (widest) aperture of f/1.8 will have a very shallow depth of field. That same lens set to f/16 will have a deeper depth of field. An easy way to remember this is smaller numbers give you less and higher numbers give you greater depth of field.

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Shutter Speed

Shutter speed determines the amount of time light strikes the sensor when it enters the camera. The faster the shutter speed, the less light strikes the sensor. In addition, shutter speed is directly responsible for how movement is rendered in an image. Shutter speeds are referred to in fractions of a second, such as 1/125th, 1/60th, or 1/1000th. Faster shutter speeds, such as 1/500th, freeze motion, while slower shutter speeds, such as ½, 1 second, or even 30 seconds, will show motion as more of a blur. The longer the shutter speed, the more blur motion will create.

ISO

Your camera’s ISO determines how sensitive it is to light. Lower numbers such as ISO 100 or 200 mean your camera is less sensitive to light and are used in bright situations, such as in direct sunlight. When there is less light, such as in shade, or indoors, you might use a higher ISO such as 800, 1600, or 3200 to make your camera more sensitive to light. ISO plays an important part in the various situations I will discuss going forward, so always keep in mind that you can change this setting, and don’t be afraid to raise your ISO if needed.

Camera Modes

Before going any further, I want to clarify that there are multiple ways to get a specific desired result with your camera, using any of these modes. Once you understand the relationship between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, you’ll be able to do whatever you like in any of these modes.

But which mode is best for which situation? You’ll have to visualize your image to decide.

Program Mode

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Program Mode resides on the advanced side of the camera mode dial, usually denoted by a P. In this mode, the camera will set the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed for you. So when should you use Program Mode?

Program Mode is good when you’re not looking for any effect in particular. Your camera, when set to Program Mode, will attempt to give you a proper exposure that can be handheld, meaning you won’t be required to use a tripod to steady your camera. This is a good mode for when you’re just casually photographing and just want to be sure your exposures are right.

It is a lot like Automatic Mode in that regard, except that you have the ability to override, or shift, the exposure the camera sets, as well as many other settings such as white balance and picture style. In addition, while in Auto mode, the camera will pop your flash up when it thinks it needs more light. But in Program Mode the flash will not pop up unless you tell it to.

Aperture Priority

On some cameras, this mode is simply denoted by an A on the mode dial, while on Canon cameras it is denoted as Av, meaning Aperture Value. In any case, in this mode, you set the aperture and ISO you want and the camera will set the appropriate shutter speed for you. So when should you use Aperture Priority mode?

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To determine the answer, visualize your finished image in your mind’s eye. What do you want it to look like? Generally speaking, if you’ve decided that the most important factor in your image is a specific depth of field, you’ll want to use Aperture Priority Mode so that you can force your camera to give you the depth of field that you want. For instance, if you’re making a portrait, you probably want your subject in sharp focus, but you may also want the background to be a little blurred, to keep your viewer’s focus on the subject. An out of focus background can create a setting without distractions for the viewer. So you might decide you want to use a fairly wide aperture such as f/4, to create enough depth of field to keep your subject sharp, but let the background blur nicely.

But watch your shutter speed too

It’s important to note, however, that you also need to keep an eye on the shutter speed setting. While the camera will set this for you, unlike in Program Mode, the camera is not going to try and give you a fast enough shutter speed to handhold. If there isn’t enough light, this will result in a slower shutter speed that may not be fast enough to freeze any subject movement. This could result in a slight blur due to unsteady hands or slight movement by your subject. If the shutter speed chosen by the camera (based on the aperture you’ve set) isn’t fast enough to freeze motion in this situation, you’ll need to raise your ISO. Raising your ISO will effectively increase the shutter speed given for the aperture you’ve set.

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For landscape photography

Another situation for Aperture Priority would be a landscape photo, where you may want greater depth of field to keep the entire scene in focus. In this situation, your primary goal is to get lots of depth of field to keep the entire scene in focus, so you’d set an aperture of f/11 or even f/16 to capture a greater amount of the scene sharply. In this situation, if you’re using a tripod, the shutter speed may not be as big of a factor for you.

But if you’re handholding the camera, you will want to pay attention to the shutter speed the camera sets to ensure it’s fast enough to avoid camera shake. In addition, if there is moving water or clouds, or the wind is blowing the trees or grass, you’ll want to ensure that the shutter speed the camera sets is appropriately stopping that movement to your liking. If not, you’ll want to adjust your ISO so the camera sets a more appropriate shutter speed.

Shutter Priority