Friday Photo Tip: Understanding Your Camera’s Mode Dial

by Reads (825)

Today’s Friday Photo Tip focuses on the basics of your camera –learning what that shooting mode dial is all about. Don’t have a mode dial? Some camera manufacturers have these same functions hidden in the menu of the camera. You’ll have to take a dive into your menu to find out, but doing so will lead to a deeper knowledge of your camera and will help you take better pictures. 

Understanding your camera’s mode functions can be challenging and overwhelming if you are new to photography. But after a few short minutes of reading this article and little time playing with your camera’s settings we are confident the you can learn this information and become a better photographer. Shown below are two different mode dials. On the left is a Canon. On the right is a Nikon. Even though the companies choose to use different letters, they mean the same thing.

Canon G15                                                                     Nikon D600

Mode Dial Settings

P: Program mode. Program mode allows the camera to choose both the shutter speed and aperture. The user can choose the ISO. So what’s the difference between program mode and auto mode? In program mode, only the exposure is chosen by the camera. All other settings like exposure compensation, ISO and shooting mode can be changed manually. In auto mode, the camera chooses all of your settings.

A or Av: Aperture priority mode. Aperture mode allows you to control the lens’ aperture setting. The camera will calculate shutter speed. The camera’s aperture is defined as the opening of the lens in which light travels through to your camera. Every lens has an aperture range. For example, my Sigma 35mm prime lens has an aperture of f1.4. This means the opening becomes extremely large when stopped down to f1.4. This allows a lot of light to through the lens to my camera. An aperture set at f/16 means less light is able to come through the lens. The opening of the lens is much smaller at this aperture. The higher the aperture number is, the more parts your image remains in focus when shooting images that have depth or distance. See example below. When the camera is set for f/4 the background is defocused. When the camera is set to f/22 you can see the individual pieces of mulch.

 f/4                                                                                     f/22

S or Tv: Shutter priority mode. Shutter mode allows you to control the camera’s shutter speed. The camera will then calculates the necessary aperture. Cameras generally have a wide shutter range. The shutter speed determines how quickly a camera can take a picture. The faster the shutter speed, the more movement is stopped in an image. For example, using a faster shutter speed is important when photographing sports. The faster the sport, the higher the shutter speed needs to be in order to stop movement. But sometimes you want to show movement. The slower the shutter speed, the more movement is captured. For example, using a slower shutter speed is important when wanting to photograph a waterfall and show movement of  the water. 

1/2000 sec                                                                          1/30 sec

M: Manual Mode. Manual mode allows you to choose both the shutter speed and aperture. Using manual mode puts total control of the camera and your hands. This mode allows you to control all elements of your camera. This mode might take some time to get used to if you are new to photography. But it is well worth your time to learn how to use it. Being able to control your cameras functionality is an important part of becoming a better photographer.


Scene modes (shown on the right side of the mode dial with pictures): Many cameras are equipped with specialized scene modes. These modes will allow you to choose from a plethora of options like landscape mode, night mode, water mode, macro mode, and action mode to name a few. While in scene mode, the camera chooses the appropriate shutter speed and aperture (as well as other functions) for the chosen scene. For example, landscape mode is nothing more than the camera using a small aperture like f/16 to increase the depth of field of your image. This allows more of your image to be in focus which is the desired look of a landscape image. Action mode simply increases the camera’s ISO and shutter speed an order to stop movement. Finally, portrait mode tells the camera to use a wide open aperture in order to have the background defocused. This gives her portraits a more pleasing appearance because it separates the subject from the background. Once you understand how your camera functions, you’ll be less likely to use these modes as you will be able to make these adjustments yourself. 

Even though digital cameras have evolved tremendously over the last few years, your camera is nothing more than a tool that allows light to enter a chamber and record an image. Understanding your camera gives you the power of creativity. Have a great weekend and go grab that shot! 

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