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DCR Workshop: Making the most of scene presets
by David Rasnake -  7/4/2008

Lurking just beneath the surface of your seemingly unassuming compact camera's mode dial are some surprisingly powerful options that, for whatever reason, often seem to go unnoticed by many casual photographers: I'm talking about scene presets. With their often-cheesy icons, these supposedly user-friendly modes don't get a lot of respect from "serious" photographers. But on cameras without the standard range of exposure controls, scene presets are often as much control as you get. Thankfully, making the most of them isn't hard with a little understanding of how the most common preset options work and what they do.


The Basics

Before we can unravel what's going on with scene modes, a basic working knowledge of the fundamentals of image capture is a must. (If you're already familiar with the basic concepts of exposure control and camera operation - shutter speed, aperture, auto focus modes and the like - jump on down to the next section.)

When capturing an image, whether the capture medium is film or a digital camera sensor, there are three fundamental, interrelated concept that dictate a correct exposure: sensitivity, aperture, and shutter speed. The ten second version of how these concepts relate says that to make a correctly exposed image (that is, one that's neither too dark nor too light, which is dictated by the selected sensitivity), your digicam has to let in a precise amount of light (which is controlled by the camera's aperture) for a precisely specified amount of time (the shutter speed) through its lens.

Digging a little deeper, in some shooting modes at least, your digital camera likely lets you adjust a setting known as "ISO." In spite of the odd acronym (look it up if you want to know why it's called ISO), this adjustment is nothing more than the sensitivity setting referred to above, dictating how much light the camera's sensor needs to capture an image: a higher number (like ISO 1600) means the sensor is more sensitive, which means in turn that it requires less light - which makes a higher sensitivity useful for shooting indoors, at dusk, or anywhere else where light is at a premium. The trade-off for using a higher sensitivity, though, is decreased image quality. The higher you go up the sensitivity scale, the more grainy and speckled (what photographers call "noise") your images will look.

At any given sensitivity, a camera needs a specified amount of light to capture a correctly exposed image. How much light enters the camera is controlled by two more concepts: aperture and shutter speed. As the name implies, "aperture" refers to an opening on the inside of the camera's lens that can be made larger or smaller ("opened up" or "stopped down" in photographic terms) as the situation dictates. Aperture values are specified as f-numbers (f/2.8, f/5.6, etc.), with, somewhat confusingly, a smaller number referring to a larger, more wide-open aperture. More importantly for our purposes, know that while a larger aperture (something like f/2.8, for instance) lets in more light, it also limits what's called "depth of field," or how much of the shot is in focus.

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Notice how in the wide-aperture shot above, only the foreground subject is in focus; the same shot with a narrower aperture would have put the shed in background into focus as well. Photographers use depth of field to their advantage in composing shots: sometimes you want the soft, subject-only look that a wide aperture offers. If you were shooting a sweeping landscape, though, you'll want as much of the shot in focus as possible, and hence you'd be smart to opt for a narrower aperture offering more depth of field.

Of course, the narrower the aperture, the less the amount of light that hits the camera's sensor. So how to make a correct exposure with less light? Increase the amount of time the sensor is exposed, of course, and this is where the idea of shutter speed comes in. In the days of film, all cameras had a physical shutter that covered the film; when the photographer pressed the button to capture an image, this shutter was whisked out of the way for a fraction of a second in most cases, allowing light to hit the film and expose the image. Most compact digicams work slightly differently, but the concept is still the same: in order to capture a correctly exposed image, the sensor has to be exposed (that is, allowed to "see" the shot through the lens) for a certain amount of time.

Astute readers will have already discerned that this amount of time depends on the selected sensitivity as well as the amount of light coming into the camera through the aperture. A lower sensitivity and/or a narrower aperture increase the amount of time the sensor has to be exposed; a higher sensitivity and/or a wider aperture have just the opposite effect. Typical exposure times are less than a second, and for this reason shutter speed is usually expressed as a fraction of a second: 1/30, 1/200, 1/1000, etc. The larger the bottom number, the faster the shutter speed (that is, 1/1000 is several times faster than 1/30).

As with aperture, there are considerations beyond how much light you need to capture for why you might prefer a faster or slower shutter speed: it may be obvious that a faster shutter speed (those over 1/200, especially) is required if you want to freeze the action of moving subjects. Leave the shutter open too long with a fast-moving subject, and what you'll get is blur.

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Of course, not all blur is bad. As in the shot above, slow shutter speeds (sometimes speeds of several seconds or longer) can be used to get these kinds motion effects, and if you're photographing still scenes at night (a cityscape for instance), you may use shutter speeds measured in minutes rather than seconds. With longer shutter speeds, holding the camera absolutely still also becomes critical, however. Many photograhers have trouble consistently getting sharp hand-held shots at shutter speeds below 1/60, though with image stabilization in the latest cameras, it's possible to hand-hold shots at speeds of 1/15 or less - you just may want to make several captures to get a really sharp one. For long exposures, using a tripod to stabilize the camera becomes essential.


Scene Presets: A control work-around

If your camera doesn't come with aperture and shutter priority modes, or a manual mode, why should you care about any of this? With an auto-only camera, the shooter has no way of controlling the specific values used for each of these three parameters in most cases, but different scene modes might be more inclined to use a longer shutter speed, for instance, or a narrower aperture, depending on what the mode is intended to do. Hence, understanding the basics of photographic control - even if your camera doesn't let you adjust them directly - is the key to maximizing the usefulness of your scene modes.

Most auto-exposure cameras these days come with more scene presets (you know: Landscape mode, Portrait mode, Pets/Kids mode, and so on) than most of us know what to do with. While many of the options in these long and growing lists - it seems that the average compact camera has somewhere around twenty these days - suggest narrowly focused uses (when was the last time you took pictures of your food?), a few of the more basic scene presets provide a simple solution for taking some control over your camera's aperture and shutter speed, if not directly. Here's why it works:

At their core, scene presets are nothing more than auto-exposure settings that are created with a specific bias. For instance, although it doesn't let you control the aperture setting directly, a landscape preset is likely to be set up to use a slower shutter speed and a narrower aperture whenever possible, allowing for that wide depth of field discussed above that's so important for landscapes. By understanding what each preset's bias is, you can use certain scene presets beyond their specified purposes: if you know you want a wide aperture, or if you need a fast shutter speed, there's almost certainly a scene preset that's biased to provide just that, even if there's not one designed for your specific shooting situation.

With all of that in mind, let's take a look at a few of the most common presets to see what's going on with each one and how they can be used to their full potential.


Gaining Depth: The "Landscape" preset

Your camera's landscape shooting mode is, in many ways, the "Swiss Army Knife" of your scene presets list, providing basic depth of field control for maximizing the amount of in-focus area in a scene. The landscape setting on most cameras is built around a simple rule: narrow the aperture as much as possible, at the expense of shutter speed. After all, landscapes aren't moving subjects, so a faster shutter speed is less important than making sure that as much of the scene is in focus as possible.

So what else (besides landscapes, of course) can the landscape mode do? If you're doing general snapshooting and don't want to worry too much with precise focus points - which can be finicky to control on a compact camera anyway - the landscape mode is your best friend. So long as your subjects aren't moving too fast, you'll get maximum in-focus area with minimum involvement. Likewise, any artistic use of wide depth of field can benefit from the landscape mode, and the fact that many cameras default to an "infinity focus" setting in landscape mode (focusing at the maximum distance) further simplifies camera operation in this mode.

As a rule, sensitivity is user-selectable in the landscape preset on most cameras (again, look for a menu option or button that says "ISO"), so you'll want to select one that's appropriate for the situation (low sensitivity for best image quality in bright light, higher sensitivity - ISO 800 or 1600 - for shooting indoors or late in the day). Likewise, more advanced cameras tend to specify the use of a more vibrant color and sharpness rendering than the default setting in landscape mode, helping to make outdoor pictures pop. While this can be great for lots of shots, extremely vivid color modes can do weird things to skin tones, so a little testing before you deploy your landscape preset on human subjects is probably in order.


So Shallow: The "Portrait" preset

On many compact cameras, the landscape and portrait presets are designed to function as complementary opposites. Whereas landscape mode is all about narrower apertures, lots of in-focus area, and maximum sharpness, portrait modes tend to use wide aperture, slightly faster shutter speeds, and a softer overall approach to making images.

In composing a typical portrait, the focus is tightly on one area (the subject's face). In order to minimize background distractions, a portrait photographer will often use an extremely wide aperture setting, leaving the focus point in focus while softening the background. Wider apertures also tend to produce images that are somewhat less sharp, which can actually be ideal for pictures of people (capturing every fine detail of skin texture is rarely the most flattering approach to taking people shots). All of this, combined with the standard practice of substituting in a more neutral color rendering that further emphasizes natural skin tones makes the portrait preset versatile for lots of other subjects beyond the human ones.

If your camera has face detection technology, it's likely that the portrait preset will turn it on by default. If you're shooting pictures of non-human subjects, however, most cameras are adept enough to disengage the face detection system and revert to normal AF when no faces are detected. With face detection out of the way, the portrait mode's neutral-color, shallow-field images can work great for a variety of situations where small depth of field is preferred. On compact cameras, I often use the portrait mode for urban photography, where the blurred backgrounds and limited in-focus area allow me to bring out subjects. If an image needs more "pop" than the portrait mode's color settings provide, it can easily be added back in later in post-processing.


Up to Speed: The "Sports" preset

If landscape and portrait modes are usually built more around using a certain aperture value, sports modes are all about shutter speed. As a rule, sports modes tend to set shutter speeds in excess of 1/200 if at all possible, with 1/500 to 1/1000 being the norm for high-speed sports shooting. Aperture tends to be locked down at the maximum in this mode as depth of field is less important: when tracking a moving subject, the background is likely to be blurred no matter what.

Some cameras with more advanced auto focus systems also add another nifty touch in their sports mode: continuous AF. With this setting engaged, rather than locking AF with a half-press of the shutter button, the camera will continue to adjust focus to track a moving subject right up to the instant the button is fully pressed. If your camera doesn't support continuous AF, pre-focusing the camera with a half-press of the shutter button for maximum capture speed isn't a bad idea, but be aware that the shallow depth of field dictated by wide apertures in this mode makes focus fairly precise: if your subject moves too much between when you focus and when you fire the shot, you may end up with some out-of-focus captures.

On some camera models, ISO remains user-selectable in sports mode, though other cameras will default to an auto ISO setting - usually with an expanded range of sensitivity options allowing for faster shutter speeds as required. Just be aware that while sports mode may be giving you sharp, high-speed captures, depending on how high up the ISO ladder your camera works with this setting engaged, you may be losing some image quality in the process.

If your camera doesn't come with a separate kids/pets mode for capturing shots of these often fast-moving subjects, the sports mode can handle the task with no difficulties (often kids/pets modes are built almost identically). Likewise, for concert shooting, nature shooting, or anywhere else that you'll be using lots of zoom, the sports mode can help make sure that those shots taken at the long end of the lens (which are more susceptible to motion blur anyway) come out razor sharp. Just make sure the sensitivity is set high enough for the amount of light you're working in and you should be good to go.


Bringing It In: The "Indoor/Party" and "Museum" modes

While I find portrait mode to work well for social shooting, many camera provide a wider range of options these days. Designed for this purpose, indoor/party modes can be especially useful for social shooting - though they're not always the best choice. Like the portrait mode, party modes tend to use wide apertures for maximum light, but balance moderate shutter speeds as well for sharp captures of moving subjects. All of this is usually accomplished by upping the ISO automatically; usually, the shooter has no sensitivity control in this mode.

One thing that party modes tend to do well is set up the white balance (which controls how a camera reproduces colors) for indoor shooting, eliminating the artificial warmth that many auto-mode shots show under incandescent light. Conversely, what can be irritating about these modes is that they sometimes rely heavily on the flash rather than ambient light - which can make you the most irritating person at the party if you're not careful. What to do in this situation?

If you can't manually disable the flash as desired, a second, often equally good option for social shooting is often your camera's museum or courtesy mode. Designed exclusively for shooting indoors (and often white-balanced accordingly), these modes suppress the flash and bump sensitivity up to compensate, allowing you to shoot sharp shots indoors without the incessant and attention-drawing flash-firing. As with other boosted-ISO modes, however, the trade-off comes in image quality: if your camera isn't fairly clean at higher ISOs, you may find that the shots, while alright for small prints, aren't suitable for big enlargements.


Wrapping Up

Your camera probably features at least a dozen scene presets not mentioned in this list, and with all of the variants between camera makes and approaches to presets, there are simply too many options to attempt to define the operation of each one in detail. Of course, the obvious first resource for figuring out everything your camera's scene modes are capable of is your user's manual, followed closely by a little old-fashion trial and error.

Often, the best way to figure out what's going on with a preset is simply to do a little shooting with it, analyze the shots, and look at the EXIF data (which tells you important info like shutter speed and aperture). With a little bit of time spent in this way, you can probably begin to discern what's going on with a particular preset, and better still, how it might be useful in ways beyond its stated purpose.

In short, just because your camera doesn't have manual exposure control, that doesn't mean you don't have ways of taking some control over the exposure. Exploring scene presets can help you get the most out of your camera, make you more conscious of what goes into getting a particular look for a particular shot, and improve the quality of your images. And that's what we're all working toward, after all.


Published at the beginning of each month, DCR Workshop provides tips, tools, and tricks for taking better pictures and using digital photo technology. If there's a how-to topic you would like to see covered in a future DCR Workshop installment, send your suggestions to editor@digitalcamerareview.com.