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What Mode do You Shoot In, or What do all Those Pictures and Letters Mean

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You don’t take a photograph, you make it.

Ansel Adams 

You have just bought a new camera and as you look through the manual (You do read the manual, don’t you?) and you come across a section, maybe more than one that talks about exposure mode or some similar wording.  Often this may be a bit confusing for the new photographer.  So, you ask yourself, what does it all mean, what does this do for me, and why should I learn about it?

To start at the beginning, when you took the camera out of the box it, the Mode dial, was probably set to some aspect of Program or Automatic mode (more to follow), but you also noticed that there were other letters or figures of some type on this dial.  If you are looking at what is commonly called a Point and Shot (P&S for short), then there are probably little pictures suggesting portraits, landscapes, close-ups and other types of pictures you might take and perhaps letters such as P, S, A and M.  If you purchased a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR for short), then you will find a dial with letters such as P, S, A, and M, or variations on this lettering, but probably no little pictures.  You should be aware that the actual way this is presented on your camera will depend on the make and model of the camera; there are no industry standards.  What does this all mean?  This collection of pictures and/or letters are all about exposure, setting the camera’s aperture and shutter speed to provide you with the best possible picture, at least that is what it is supposed to do.  In this column, I want to talk about the letters and what they mean and why you should seriously be using them.

If you look at the Mode dial on a P&S, you can think of it as being divided into two zones that I will refer to as the Basic Zone and the Creative Zone.  Actually, the term Creative zone was used originally by Canon to describe the shooting modes that give you, the photographer, the most control over your final image.

Typical Mode Selection dial on a Point and Shoot camera.  The left side of the dial contains the Basic Zone settings.  Note that these vary from camera to camera and from manufacturer to manufacturer.  There are no industry standards.

Typical Mode Selection dial on a Point and Shoot camera. The left side of the dial contains the Basic Zone settings. Note that these vary from camera to camera and from manufacturer to manufacturer. There are no industry standards.

The Basic Zone, on the left side of the dial,  contains a number of graphics to cover a number of different types of exposures.

  • Full Auto – This is the true “Point and Shoot” mode, camera makes all settings automatically including the flash.   This setting often shows up as a green square on some cameras.  After the green Auto button, the next five include:
  • Portrait – When you want to take pictures of people, this tries to give you sharp subject with blurred background
  • Landscape – You can use this for a lot of your travel photos -scenery, sunsets and open-sky photos
  • Close-up – When you want to get closeup shots of things like flowers and insects.
  • Sports – Out to shoot your kids soccer matches or baseball games, this will freeze fast-moving subjects with higher shutter speeds.
  • Night Scene – Shooting in the dark, this will give you long shutter speed plus fill flash.

The Creative Zone contains only letters and gives the photographer more control over the actual exposure and thus the outcome of the final image.

Typical Mode Selection dial on a DSLR camera.  Note that there are no dial settings for the Basic Zone.

Typical Mode Selection dial on a DSLR camera. Note that there are no dial settings for the Basic Zone.

  • P – Camera selects the optimum shutter speed and aperture for the      shooting conditions. You can change these.       If you change one, then the camera will automatically adjust the      other to compensate for the changes that you have made.
  • Tv – Shutter priority; you select shutter speed camera matches the  appropriate aperture.
  • Av – Aperture priority; you select aperture, camera matches the appropriate shutter speed.
  • M – Manual selection of both shutter speed and aperture.
  • C – Custom selection which you can set up for yourself.

You should know that in some cameras, the manufacturer has replaced the Mode dial with a push button that allows you to display the mode on the cameras LCD panel and change the mode using another dial on the camera.  This will be explained in your User manual, so read it carefully and find out how you can determine the mode setting for your model.

DSLRs only have what I have called the Creative Zone, one of a number of features that set them apart from the P&S models.  The exception as noted is the Green rectangle which is the fully Automatic selection where the camera determines both shutter speed and aperture, and the B setting (Bulb) which is used for long exposures.  Regardless, I want to look at the Creative Zone settings as they are the ones that will allow you to gain complete control over your photography.

Basic Zone controls give you absolutely no control over the outcome of your photography.  The results are based on somebody’s idea of how the image should look and the camera’s computer simply processes the images that you capture and gives you the final results.  This may produce acceptable results for most situations, but they will not always give you the best photo.  If you really want to determine the results, then you have to take control of the outcome, thus the Creative Zone.

Program, the P-mode is useful when you are shooting in quickly changing light conditions and want to change the ISO setting and have the camera quickly determine both shutter speed and aperture.  It is sort of a semi-automatic mode.

Aperture priority, AV – mode (A on some cameras), is used when you want to set the aperture and have the camera determine the required shutter speed.  This is my favourite mode, because it gives me control over the depth of field.  This determines how much of my picture is in focus.  If I want to isolate a subject, such as a flower or a portrait, then I can set a large aperture to keep the focus on my subject and make the background blurred.  If, on the other hand, I want to my entire scene in focus, such as a landscape, then I will set a small aperture to give me  a greater depth of focus.  I will also use this mode when doing macro or close-up photography.  In these situations, I am not really worried about the shutter speed.  If it is too low, then I will use a tripod.

Shutter priority, TV mode (T on some cameras), is used when you want to control the shutter speed and leave the aperture determination to the camera.  The shutter speed that you select will determine exactly how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to the light from the scene you are shooting.  I use this when I want to capture fast moving objects such as birds in flight.  I also use this setting when I want to blur a fast moving object by using a slow shutter speed.  Similarly, to capture the silky nature of a waterfalls, I use TV mode to set a slow shutter speed.  You do have to be a little careful, because if you set too slow a shutter speed, then any movement by you will show up as blur in your final image.  For this reason, I recommend using a tripod for any situations where the shutter speed is very slow.  The rule of thumb is that if your shutter speed is greater than the inverse of the lenses focal length then you should be using a tripod.  For example if you are shooting a scene with a 200mm lens and you need to use a shutter speed that is less than about 1/200th of a second, then you should be using a tripod to support your lens, otherwise you risk having a blurry result from handshake.

Manual mode, or M, gives you the most control over your final image.  It allows you to set both the shutter speed and the aperture value for your image’s exposure.  You do have to remember that setting the wrong combinations will results in images that are too bright (overexposed) or too dark (underexposed).  One way around this is to remember the sunny 16 rule.  This basically says that on a clear, sunny day, using an aperture of f/16, you will get a correct exposure if you use a shutter speed that is the inverse of the ISO rating that you are using – ISO rating – what is that.  Well, in the old days of film photography, it was a number assigned to represent the speed of the film, which was a technical way of saying the film’s sensitivity to light.  The greater the ISO rating, the more sensitive the film was to light.  In the same way, the ISO rating gives a measure of the sensitivity of the digital camera’s sensor to the light that falls on it when the shutter is opened.  For example, if you are shooting at an ISO of 200, then the sunny sixteen rule says that you should shoot at f/16 at 1/200th of a second.  If you maintain an aperture of f/16, then if you want to shoot, in manual mode, at a faster shutter speed, say 1/1000th of a second, then you will need to increase the ISO setting on your camera to 1000.  What do you do if the day is not sunny, herein lies the concern.  If you are shooting on overcast days, or even in the shade on sunny days, then the sunny 16 rule has to be modified.  Obviously, less light means that you have to make the aperture bigger.

Why then would you want to use Manual mode?  It is very handy when the lighting conditions can easily fool your in-camera light meter.  For example, when shooting on beaches or in snowy conditions, your meter will often tend to give results that are less than adequate.  Snow tends to reflect a lot of light, making your meter think that the scene is brighter than it is, resulting in underexposed images – the snow comes out grey or blue.  You will also find it useful when shooting silhouettes against the sky.

While I have not covered all of the intricacies of using the Creative Zone on your digital camera, you can always find more on the web by searching using an appropriate set of search criteria.  What you use is strictly up to you.  If you do not find what you are looking for the first time, then try a different set of search words.   I would recommend the following as places to start: Cameras Exposure Modes Simplified and The Creative Zone – Taking Your Photography to the Next Level.

If you are still shooting using an automatic or pre-programmed setting in the Basic Zone, I would encourage you to try the occasional photograph using the Creative Zone.  I will almost guarantee that you will find that a whole new world of potentially creative imagery just waiting to be discovered.


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