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Introduction

Shooting modes aren’t often well understood by camera users, particularly after the purchase of their first SLR. Because of this, the quality of work can suffer.

There are a lot of misconceptions concerning which mode you should be using when, as well as a lot of bias towards people not using manual mode. When you understand what exactly each mode does, it becomes a lot clearer which one you should be using.

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What the Camera Controls

This may seem like a silly point to talk about because we all know that the camera covers exposure, namely aperture, shutter speed and ISO. What we don’t often consider is that it also covers a lot more.

You have the ability to alter the way your camera looks at the scene with the metering modes and focus points; how it takes a photo with the burst mode, focus points and focus mode; and also how much light it lets in with the exposure compensation.

Different modes allow you different options, so it’s up to you to decide how much control you want.

Full Auto

What it controls:

  • Shutter Speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • White Balance
  • Focus Mode
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Focus Points
  • Metering Mode
  • Flash Exposure Compensation

What you’re allowed to control:

  • Choose between RAW or JPEG
  • Burst Fire Mode

Why you’d use it

This mode is most commonly used by people who don’t know what they’re doing but simply want to take photos of what they see through the viewfinder.

I can understand the frustration but, unless you’ve just taken the camera out of the box, you need to learn how to use the camera to produce the best results. It’s a common misconception that, because it’s an intelligent camera, it will set things as you would have anyway… but this is far from true.

You’ll end up taking bright photos with harsh pop-up flash that look like you used your phone to take them.

Why you wouldn’t want to use it

As I said above, it does a pretty lousy job of making your photos appear as you want them to. It’s still much better than using a pocket camera on full auto but won’t produce the best photos.

When you can’t control the aperture, shutter speed and ISO, the camera has to guess what you’re doing and will often get it wrong. Exposure is one thing but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Full Auto doesn’t allow you to meter the photo the way you would like, resulting in certain areas appearing darker or brighter than you would have liked. I quite often use spot metering because the extra direction of where my camera should expose can make a huge difference to the end result.

This is just one of the factors – I strongly suggest avoiding this mode.

Program Mode

What it controls for you:

  • Shutter Speed
  • Aperture

What you’re allowed to control:

  • ISO
  • White Balance
  • Focus Mode
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Focus Points
  • Metering Mode
  • Flash Exposure Compensation
  • Choose between RAW or JPEG
  • Burst Fire Mode

Why you’d use it

This is similar to Full Auto in that it takes control of the exposure (or most of it here) but allows the user a lot more control at the same time.

If you’re ever considering using Full Auto, I would suggest that you forget it and switch to program mode instead.

This is typically used by people who know a little bit more about their cameras and want to be able to take control of features such as ISO and WB. All of this extra control CAN make for much better photos, so long as you know what you’re doing.

As this mode is really only one step away from using a priority mode, you’ll often find people who know what they’re doing with a camera using it but can’t operate it fast enough.

I may switch between aperture priority and shutter speed priority at a blink of an eye, and the same goes for flash and no flash but, because I’m experienced with my camera, it’s second nature to me. I can choose my settings at speed.

Someone with less experience might be tempted to use program mode instead.

Why you wouldn’t want to use it

The camera will only ever guess at the correct settings for your camera; you may find that your photos are coming out blurry or noisy because it doesn’t know what to do.

For the best results, control the exposure yourself and tell the camera what it should be doing.

I used to use this mode when I first started and found that, when I was taking photos of still life, it worked fine. As soon as I took photos of moving objects, or indoors without a flash, it would stop working so well and produce blurred results.

Shutter Speed Priority

What it controls for you:

  • Aperture

What you’re allowed to control:

  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO
  • White Balance
  • Focus Mode
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Focus Points
  • Metering Mode
  • Flash Exposure Compensation
  • Choose between RAW or JPEG
  • Burst Fire Mode

Why you’d use it

I said before in An Insight Into How I Use My Camera that I use this as much as aperture priority and manual mode and that’s still very true because of the type and amount of photography I do.

A lot of photographers will tell you that they only ever shoot on manual mode but I would disagree.

Shooting in suitable light on a priority mode takes away the extra effort of setting the other parameters (such as aperture when you’re shooting on shutter speed priority) which are determined by the exposure compensation.

You can fix an underexposed photo in post production but there’s nothing you can do about a blurry one; when I’m shooting a fast moving object, I switch to shutter speed priority.

Why you wouldn’t want to use it

If there’s plenty of light and no fast moving objects, shutter speed becomes somewhat irrelevant. You’re much better off setting the camera to aperture priority and choosing a setting which would effect your depth of field or sharpness.

Shooting fast moving objects or long exposures are the only reasons for which I use shutter speed priority.

Aperture Priority

What is controls for you:

  • Shutter Speed

What you’re allowed to control:

  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • White Balance
  • Focus Mode
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Focus Points
  • Metering Mode
  • Flash Exposure Compensation
  • Choose between RAW or JPEG
  • Burst Fire Mode

Why you’d use it

When you have lots of available light, you can choose an aperture that will allow you to use the depth of field for creative effect, producing more interesting results. You can also set your lens to it’s sweet spot – usually around f/8 to f/11, which is where it will be at it’s sharpest.

If there’s a lot of light available and I’m not trying to creatively control my DoF, I usually have my aperture set to around f/8 – I’ll even increase the ISO if I have to, so long as it’s not producing too much noise.

Why you wouldn’t want to use it

For the same reason that you would use shutter speed priority mode.

Also, if the lighting is dark or inconsistent, you would want to use manual so that you can constantly adjust your exposure to best suit what you’re shooting and where.

Manual

What is controls for you:

  • Exposure Compensation

What you’re allowed to control:

  • Shutter Speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • White Balance
  • Focus Mode
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Focus Points
  • Metering Mode
  • Flash Exposure Compensation
  • Choose between RAW or JPEG
  • Burst Fire Mode

Why you’d use it

Manual gives you all the control you could possibly want over your camera; it leaves everything up to you. This is great if you know what you’re doing.

More often than not, if I’m using a flash, I set my camera to manual as I like to be able to control the amount of ambient light in my photos. Also, when it’s dark out and I’m using longer exposures on a tripod, the additional control allows you to decide exactly how you want your photos to expose.

The same is true when you’re shooting landscapes and have plenty of time to take the photo exactly as you want it.

There are many uses for manual mode, perhaps more than any other mode. Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll see just how much your photos improve.

Why you wouldn’t want to use it

There aren’t many reasons not to use it but there are reasons why other modes would work just as well.

If you’re shooting in sunny daylight, you know that your aperture is going to take priority over your shutter speed and can set it accordingly. If you’re using manual mode, you then set the shutter speed so that the exposure compensation meets in the middle.

This is basically doing exactly the same as aperture priority; in my opinion, you may as well use that instead.

Your Free Quick-Start Photography Cheatsheet

In order to simplify the process of learning photography, I’ve created a free download called The Quick Start Photography Cheatsheet and you can download it below.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A downloadable cheatsheet to carry with you as you shoot
  • Detailed summaries of each section of this post
  • External links to relevant articles and blog posts
  • At-A-Glace Images that will explain how each exposure works
  • And much, much more…

Your Free Quick-Start

Photography Cheatsheet

This downloadable cheatsheet gives you detailed summaries of every section of this post, as well as links to relevant articles, and at-a-glace images that will explain how exposure works.

Everything You Need to Know About Shooting Modes

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Hey I'm Josh, I'm Photographer in Chief here at ExpertPhotography, and I'm in charge of making sure that we provide you with the best content from the most knowledgeable photographers in the world. Enjoy the site :)

  • Luke

    love your tips and tutorials because you make everything simple and clear. I’d love to see an article about how properly calibrate your computer screen to edit photos. I put so much care into fixing my photos in lightroom only to see they look different on another screen. Thanks again!

  • Dave

    In a way, aren’t S and A modes just M mode using different controls?

    In A or S mode, even in good light,(unless you happen to be metering directly off a mid tone after you frame your shot) you still need to use exposure lock if you move the camera to meter off a mid-tone before you frame the shot or exposure compensation if you first frame the shot and are not metering off a mid-tone.

    So is it more cumbersome to adjust both shutter speed and aperture in M mode or to adjust one of them and then press the exposure compensation button and turn a dial at the same time in A or S mode? For me it is the former.

    • The trouble is that you’re not going to know whether the exposure needs turning up or down until after you’ve taken the photo, so if you assume that no exposure compensation needs to take place then a priority mode is a good choice. I use evaluative or spot metering mostly so if I don’t often need to fix the exposure, but If I do, I find that it’s easy enough to do in post.

  • Dave

    I hope this post isn’t too long winded. I think your article is very well written and I don’t want to be nit picky.

    Let me first say that my main point was simply that, for me, A and S mode take just as much dial/button fiddling as M mode so you aren’t really saving much time using them. The only time you can just point and shoot in A or S mode is if you are metering off a midtone as you push the shutter.

    Let me repond to one thing you wrote:

    “The trouble is that you’re not going to know whether the exposure needs turning up or down until after you’ve taken the photo”

    You should always be fairly close to knowing your exposure is “correct” or close to correct before taking a shot.

    As you know, your camera thinks the tone you meter off of is always a midtone. In manual, all you have to do is meter off a mid tone, like green grass, and then zero out your meter and you have “correct” exposure. Or you can meter off any tone if you can recognize where that tone falls on the zone scale and adjust accordingly.

    In A or S mode, you can point the camera at a mid tone, press the shutter half way, and hit the exposure lock key. Then when you reframe, the camera will expose for the mid tone you took the reading off of.

    Or you can meter off any tone and, if you can recognize where that tone falls on the zone scale, you can change your exposure compensation to expose correctly for that tone.

    For example, if I were shooting a white lighthouse in A mode, I know that I want to put the lighthouse in zone 7 (white with detail). The camera will always think you are metering off zone 5 so you need +2 exposure compensation.

    If this were a photography message board, someone would remind me that I am wrong because I should expose to the right (overexpose without blowing out highlights)to capture more tonal variation and then reduce exposure in post. Some engineer would also start a discussion of ISO and how it really isn’t part of exposure in digital cameras that it is just a form of analog post processing that amplifies the exposure.

  • James Pulliam

    I use manual mode almost all the time now. (It only took me 2 or 3 years to get there.) I use Live View and adjust Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO and it gives me instant feedback on the Live View screen. I also use the X5 and X 10 zoom with live view to get the best focus. Of course, all of this is done on a tripod, but it does give me a feeling of being in control of most aspects of the shot. Another setting is setting the info button for Shooting. func. and then adjusting the parameters with Live View on. I hope this contributes something to the discussion.

  • zrenee

    Under Manual, 
    What is controls for you:
    Exposure Compensation
    What you’re allowed to control:
    Shutter Speed,Aperture,ISO,White Balance,Focus Mode,Exposure Compensation
    Do you mean to take the Exposure Compensation out of What you’re allowed to control, since the top What is controls for you already has already showed Exposure Compensation?
    Thanks for all of these wonderful lessons, I’m a beginner, I’m so glad to find this site.