Camera modes explained

If you are new to photography and want to learn a little more about your DSLR body, this article is perfect. I still see a lot of beginners using their DSLR in automatic mode or in the different auto modes of the body. People often believe that buying a DSLR makes you a better photographer or takes better pictures… So, let’s talk about the different camera modes in photography, especially semi-automatic modes and manual.

I’ve been wanting to write this article for a long time: simple, basic if I may say so about the different camera modes of your equipment. I will deliberately not talk about the automatic modes of a camera, such as portrait, night, macro modes, etc. You must recognize them, they are located on the control dial that allows you to select the different shooting modes. I will make a few reminders throughout the article but for those who are just starting out, I invite you to read the article on the exposure in photography in order to integrate and understand the connection between the three parameters that compose it: the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. I will only talk about the 4 main camera modes: aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, program mode and finally manual mode. Here we go!

begin in photography with different camera modes
Example of using the Av Mode to blur the background of the poppy

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semi-automatic modes in photos
av, tv, p, and M modes in photo
learn photography with semi automatic modes
av tv, P and M modes in photography

A little reminder

A few quick words before going into the explanations of the 4 modes. For those who are just starting out, using the semi-automatic camera modes (Av, Tv and P) will help you understand the connection between the 3 parameters that constitute the exposure. Remember that you cannot change one parameter without compensating by 1 or the 2 others.

Semi-automatic camera modes will help you understand these interactions because the camera automatically calculates the ideal compensation to ensure that your photo always has the “correct exposure”. Whether in Av or Tv mode, the camera will always balance to your first choice. The trick is to understand when to use one camera mode over another, quite simply.

A small example in figures

If you had f/11 – 1/500 – ISO 400 and you decide to open your diaphragm to f/8 for example, you have let in twice as much light towards your sensor. The camera will compensate (or you if you choose manual mode) either by taking the picture twice as fast (1/1000), or by reducing the ISOs by half (ISO 200). For now, semi-automatic camera modes will do its calculations for you, but it will be necessary to understand them eventually!

The Aperture Priority mode

How does it work?

Known according to the brands under the acronyms Av (at Canon) or A (at Nikon), this is the mode I recommend most often to begin. Today, it is the camera mode I use the most in my everyday photography and even when traveling.

This mode simply allows you to choose the aperture of the desired diaphragm, associated with the ISOs. The camera automatically calculates, with the first two previous parameters chosen, the shutter speed necessary to get a correct exposure of the scene in front of you.

Small particular point, you can decide to leave the ISOs in Auto or to set them yourself depending on the scene in front of you. The result is the same as the camera always tries to choose the ideal shutter speed according to the first two choices. In case you choose the ISOs in Auto, it is the camera that will evaluate whether or not it is necessary to increase the ISO.

Av or A camera mode
Av camera mode use on the field
mastering Aperture Priority mode in photography

Here are some examples using the Av mode during my travels in different domains of photography: proximity photography (insects in Madagascar) and focusing on a scene of life (Burma).

In what situation should it be used?

It can be used in a wide range of situations, but in general, it will be most useful when you want to control your depth of field. I find the camera mode most useful when you want to minimize the depth of field. You can refer to the article above, but as a reminder, the depth of field corresponds to the sharpness area of the image.

Concretely, as soon as you want to isolate a subject, whether it’s a person, an object, a detail of a scene, this is the camera mode to use. Let’s say you have an aperture that opens at f/2.8 maximum and you want to blur the background behind a person (for example on a portrait picture), you will set your aperture (f/2.8), choose the ISOs according to the scene (ISO 100 for example on a sunny day), and the camera will tell you the right shutter speed for a correct exposure.

For scenes where you want a very large depth of field (e.g. landscape photography), simply set your aperture to f/11 or f/14, the ISOs at the lowest, and the camera will display the appropriate speed. This shutter speed, in the case of landscape photography, doesn’t really matter since the subject is fixed (even more so if you have a tripod).

mastering Av mode to blur the background
Av mode is handy for enhancing a wildlife scene

This mode also allows you to realize the limits of your equipment. I take the example of a scene in the evening or a picture in undergrowth or if you want to isolate a subject. You will open your diaphragm to the maximum (let’s say f/4), set the ISOs to the maximum (or almost) to try and recover shutter speed (the two are connected). Despite everything, your camera displays a shutter speed of 1/100, although you have a 200mm telephoto lens. You have no other option and your shutter speed will probably not be enough to shoot a sharp picture. The limits of your equipment will be reached:

  • Maximum aperture too small for your lens,
  • ISO increase of your body is too low

The shutter priority mode

How does it work?

Also called “Tv” camera mode (at Canon) or S mode (at Nikon), you think of it as the opposite mode of the Av mode. I use it very little actually. You set the desired shutter speed, the associated ISOs, and the camera automatically calculates the aperture of the right diaphragm to correctly expose the scene.

In what situation is this interesting?

I would say that the only interesting case to use this camera mode is simply when you want to shoot a picture quickly, to freeze the movement of a subject. I’m particularly thinking about pictures of airplanes, insects in mid-air, people running, car racing, etc.

You will want to choose a very fast shutter speed (example: 1/4000), set the ISOs, and the camera will do the rest for you. Problems may also arise when you want to use a high shutter speed but the light is not bright (let’s say a hare running in the undergrowth… well yes, why not?). In this case, you will have chosen your maximum speed (1/4000 for example) and the camera will set the largest aperture possible and the ISOs at the highest, the idea being to let in as much light as possible. Nevertheless, your equipment may limit you and you may end up with underexposed photos.

when to us Tv camera mode
Tv or S camera mode when to use it

Examples of wildlife photos in mid-air where the use of the Tv mode can be interesting

I don’t use this semi-automatic camera mode too often, as I don’t see much interest in it. Even in a case like my safari in Tanzania with wildlife running in the savannah, I preferred to stay in Av mode because choosing my aperture was simply more important to me. I really wanted to isolate my subject, which you can’t really do in Tv Mode, as the Tv mode chooses the aperture itself. It seems easier to me to tell the camera that I choose f/4, IS0 800, show me what the shutter speed will be. If that’s not enough, I would double the ISO to simply double the shooting speed.

After thinking about it, as Alex mentioned, for wildlife you will often use a telephoto lens and at its focal lengths there, whether at f/2.8 or f/5.6, the depth of field will be very shallow. It could also be interesting to use this shutter priority camera mode with auto ISOs. You simply have to set the desired speed (say 1/4000), set the ISOs to auto, and very often the body will display the maximum aperture. If you want to use f/5.6, just double the ISOs and the camera will adjust accordingly.

The Program Mode

What is it?

Known as “P mode”, it can be considered as a quasi-automatic mode, but which will really be useful for beginners to understand how the 3 exposure parameters work together. I don’t use it at all to be honest, but it could be useful. You could almost think of it as a blind test to see if you understood the ISO/aperture/shutter speed connection.

Unlike the two other camera modes described above (AV / Tv), you just have to choose the ISOs and the camera offers several “shutter speed / aperture” couples that allow you to get a correctly exposed image.

what is the prupose of P camera mode

For example, you decide to set ISO 200, and the camera can offer:

  • ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/500
  • ISO 200, f/4, 1/1000
  • ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/200

The result in terms of scene exposure will be identical between these 3 examples. You will have to choose the couple that best matches the scene in front of you. Of course, you will have to adapt your choice according to the movement (shutter speed) of the subject of your scene but also the desired depth of field (aperture).

When do I use it?

I don’t think there is even an ideal field situation to use this mode. I recommend it to beginners, at home who do not yet understand the connections between the 3 parameters of the exposure. You can use it to visualize the connections and how they influence each other. Once you have more or less mastered this camera mode, drop it and switch to an Av or Tv mode.

The Manual mode (M mode)

How does it work?

It’s a bit like the holy grail, the ultimate goal of many photographers when they start out is to know how to control and shoot in manual camera mode. As its name suggests, everything here is manual, and depending on the scene in front of you and your photographic choices, you will have to determine the ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings that suit you, always implied, to a “correct” exposure of the scene.

This may seem quite complicated at first and frankly, as long as you do not fully master the 3 notions of the exposure triangle, their impacts and connection between them, I do not recommend trying it at the risk I think of pulling your hair out.

Because yes, the ultimate goal is to see a scene in front of you and say “I think ISO 800, at f/2.8 and 1/2000, that must be good, that must be about right”. As you go along, you will learn how to handle this mode without too much trouble.

You still have a little help from the camera. When you select the desired settings, the camera will tell you if the picture is likely to be underexposed or overexposed thanks to the exposure indicator. This is the little cursor you see in the center of your screen when you look through the viewfinder. If it is in the center “on the arrow”, the camera judges that the picture will be properly exposed. If the arrow shifts to the “minus”, the picture will be underexposed. If it shifts to the plus, it will be overexposed.

When do I use this mode?

manual camera mode
mastering M camera mode in photography

Examples of concrete cases with tricky lights where the use of the M mode can be useful

You probably won’t believe it, but it’s not the mode I use the most. I do use it, but I prefer the Av mode. You’ll always find people who will argue that Manual mode makes better pictures. Frankly, that’s not true. It’s not the chosen camera mode that will determine if a photo is good or not…

In the vast majority of cases, I use the Av mode, I set my aperture according to the scene in front of me. I look at the result and in the worst-case scenario, I adjust the parameters or I simply make an exposure correction.

On the other hand, there are some cases where the manual mode can come in handy. It’s hard to give you a concrete case, but I sometimes use it when the Av mode can’t do what I would like to do. After a few tries, I do better in manual mode… difficult to explain, but the idea would be to use it when you’re not happy with the automatic settings chosen by the Av and Tv camera modes, for example to force a slightly faster speed (even if it means having darker pictures) or conversely a slower shutter speed (even if it means being close to motion blur).

Between us, don’t insist on wanting to use the manual mode at all costs to pretend to be a pro or to believe that you will take better pictures. The semi-automatic Av and Tv modes will allow you in a great majority of situations to get out of it more easily. On the other hand, you’re bound to miss some scenes where you’ll want to try the manual mode in a case where fixing “f/2.8 and ISO 800” would have been enough to take a good picture.

That’s it, I’m coming to the end of this article on the different camera modes. I hope I have clarified things and that you now feel ready to use them. And remember one thing, I’m repeating myself, it is not this choice that will determine whether your photo is good or not. Very often, the composition of the photo will play a greater role on its final result. Speaking of basic composition rules, I invite you to come and understand the famous rule of thirds in photography!

See you soon,


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