Camera mode


The camera mode is the most basic setting, as it determines the entire camera behaviour. What happens automatically, what you can or have to do yourself – especially for aperture, exposure time, ISO sensitivity. The different camera modes are described and explained here.

Significance of the camera mode

The camera mode settles the question Who does what? between your camera and you. More precisely:

  • Who takes care of aperture, exposure time and ISO sensitivity?
  • Whether or not the camera lets you intervene in all camera settings yourself.
  • Plus: it is the best way to give the camera settings your personal favourite values and simplify their operation – provided your camera has a mode that you can assign yourself, more on this below.

So the camera mode influences the overall behaviour of your camera, can turn more elaborate models into a straightforward snapshot camera or a sophisticated tool.

I divide the camera modes into three groups:

Dials with fully automatic camera modes

Fully automatic modes | Straightforward, easy photography without having to think about technique and camera settings.

The price of convenience is that many camera settings cannot be influenced at all, you do not have full control over results.

dials for camera mode, with advanced modes highlighted

Advanced modes | They are called P, S, A, M or P, Tv, Av, M for Canon. These are the advanced modes, as only they allow full control over all camera settings. They differ in whether aperture and/or exposure time are set automatically or manually.

Dials for camera mode, with modes for individual settings

Personal camera settings | In these modes, one of the previously described can be stored together with other personal favourite settings for quick recall.

About handling: On most cameras, the camera mode can be selected by turning a wheel as in the examples shown.

button for camera mode on Nikon D300s

A few pro models have a mode button instead, which you have to hold down while turning a dial on the back. Simple compact cameras at the other end of the range may only have fully automatic modes. And if your camera is still different, please look it up yourself; it's impossible to go into all the camera specifics here. For example, Fujifilm system cameras have their own operating concept and I have seen a Canon model where you need to use a touch screen.

These operating modes do not apply to smartphones; they always have one mode for full automatic (e.g. called "Photo" at Samsung and Apple) and one that allows more settings (e.g. called "Pro" at Samsung and Apple).

Fully automatic mode

Dials for camera mode, in fully automatic mode

It does what its name promises  point and shoot, the simple to use option for beginners and those who want to shoot comfortably.

This is by no means meant in a negative way, the results can be good even with full automatic shooting. After all, image composition is more important than technique and there are many situations in which manual control of the camera is not advantageous.

icons for fully automatic camera mode

Manufacturers are creative with names, it can simply be called "AUTO" or "iA" (intelligent automatic), A+, have only a camera symbol as a name - or have some other creative name. If a setting is highlighted in green, that will be full auto.

It may also be that your camera has more than one such automatic, in which case one will be trying to be particularly clever, e.g. by the camera trying to automatically recognise the subject such as landscape, portrait, etc. If in doubt, please consult the manual of your camera. The results will be pretty similar.

icons for fully automatic camera mode without flash

If your camera offers a setting with a crossed-out flash symbol, this is a full automatic setting without flash. Suppressing the flash is part of basic camera settings.

Scene modes and effects

dials for camera mode, in scene mode

These settings also belong to the fully automatic modes. Different from the fully automatic mode, they are

  • optimised for specific shooting situations or
  • modify a photo with special effects.

They are hidden behind the designations ”SCENE“ or abbreviated ”SCN“, as well as a multitude of pictograms for portrait, landscape, etc.

icons for scene modes

There is a confusingly large variety of different programmes that tend to turn the original intention of making photography easier into the opposite. In addition, the various scene modes are only vaguely described in the manufacturers' instructions.

If you want to learn photography, leave these scene modes alone. There are no secret techniques behind them, only the automatic adjustment of a few camera settings that you can also make yourself.

The time it would take to get to know and try out all the scene modes is better invested in learning the basics. Then you will be able to decide for yourself what is best in all shooting situations, you will no longer miss these scene modes and you will achieve better results.

Two examples of common scene modes:

  • Portrait will open the aperture as wide as possible to create a blurred background, and maybe tweak the colour rendition a bit. Opening the aperture in an advanced mode will achieve the same thing.
  • Sports will mainly achieve a short exposure time, also with an open aperture and if necessary also turn up the ISO sensitivity. You can easily achieve this yourself in other modes, see the next heading.

In addition, scene modes for sports, which I looked at more closely, work without flash. If you are in a situation where you want to work with flash, you will reach the limits of the scene mode and will be better off in the advanced modes.

P, S, A, M resp. P, Tv, Av, M

dials for camera mode, in P

Die bevorzugten Kamera-Modi für Fortgeschrittene sind diese vier. Unter ihnen gibt es auch individuelle Vorlieben, keine starre und pauschale Empfehlung. Allen gemeinsam ist, dass du nur in diesen Betriebsarten den vollen Zugriff auf alle Kamera-Einstellungen hast.

Diese Betriebsarten haben sich in der analogen Fotografie entwickelt und Digitalkameras haben sie übernommen. Die beiden teuersten Profi-Spiegelreflexkameras von Nikon und Canon (D6 bzw. 1D X III) haben nur diese vier, sonst nix, keine Vollautomatik.

The preferred camera modes for advanced photographers are these four. Among them there are very individual preferences, there is no rigid and general recommendation. You can achieve identical results with all four modes. What they all have in common is that only in these modes do you have full access to all camera settings.

These modes have evolved in analogue photography and digital cameras have adopted them. The two most expensive professional SLR cameras from Nikon and Canon (D6 and 1D X III) only have these four modes, nothing else, no full automatic.

camera modemeaningexplanation
P (similar with Canon: Fv)programmed autoThe camera suggests aperture and exposure time. You can accept them or choose another combination.
S resp. Tv with Canonshutter priorityYou select an exposure time, the camera sets the corresponding aperture.
A resp .Av with Canonaperture priorityYou select an aperture, the camera sets the corresponding exposure time.
Mmanual controlYou choose both the aperture and exposure time yourself.

Fv is a clever, contemporary version from Canon, flexible automatic: the camera suggests aperture, exposure time and ISO. You can simply leave all three as they are and shoot comfortably as in full automatic  or pick any out of the three and set it yourself, the camera then adjusts the other two.

This is appropriate for modern times because the ISO sensitivity is treated in the same way as aperture and exposure time. Setting ISO separately is still a habit inherited from analogue photography.

In manual control M, your camera may have an indication whether the resulting exposure matches the automatically measured one or not; but it does not intervene if it disagrees.

About the naming: P, S, A, M are clear, abbreviations as you see in the table. Canon uses Av/Tv instead because you set an aperture value resp. time value in these modes.

Which of the four modes suits best is also a matter of personal preference, you can achieve same results with all of them. I recommend P or A/Av.

  • Programmed auto P has the advantage that you can shoot comfortably without paying attention to the exact time/aperture combination.

Nevertheless, you can have the same control over the selected time/aperture combination.

  • Aperture priority A/Av is my preference over shutter priority S/Tv, because the exposure time of the camera has more leeway. There is almost always a suitable exposure time for a given aperture. With a given exposure time, it is more likely that there is no suitable aperture that the lens can reach.
  • Manual control M has the disadvantage that you are responsible for the brightness of the image and have to think and pay attention even more. There is no reward in the form of more beautiful photos. If you want to deviate from the automatically measured exposure, it is a little easier to add exposure compensation in one of the other modes.

Manual control is useful, for example, if you want to take several photos with exactly the same exposure for panorama shots.

Those who use M mode will hopefully know why; if you don't miss it – no problem, you can get along without it.

There are some hints on the handling on the page Exposure control.

Fujifilm cameras are completely different to handle when they have a few wheels on the top.

  • One of the wheels on the top is for exposure time, another one for ISO sensitivity and the aperture is set with a ring on the lens.
  • Each of the two wheels and a switch on the lens allow you to set aperture, exposure time and ISO sensitivity individually to ”automatic“.
  • If you set all three to ”A“, you have full automatic. If you set one or two to a fixed value, you are left with automatic for the remaining one or two. The result is the same as with P, S, A, M of the other manufacturers.

Smartphones do not offer these modes. They (almost) all work with a fixed, always the same aperture.

Personal camera settings

dials for camera mode, with modes for individual settings

You can save your preferred camera mode together with other personal favourite settings as your own mode, if your camera offers it. This is the case if there are camera modes named as follows:

1 | 2 | 3 (for Sony)
C1 | C2 | C3 (C for ”custom“, with Canon)
U1 | U2 | U3 (U for ”user“, at Nikon)
MR (for some Sony models, for ”memory recall“).

If you keep switching back and forth between certain camera settings, these modes can make the camera handling a lot easier. Also resetting the camera to a well-defined set of settings get quicker and safer.

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