Photo Tips: What Are All Those Camera Icons?

Illustration by Diego Aguirre
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
It's no surprise that Windows applications are filled with arcane icons, buttons, and menu options. But the dizzying array of esoteric symbols on digital cameras makes deciphering your computer icons seem like child's play. That's because digital cameras pack dozens of features into a miniature gadget. Complex concepts must be translated into single icons, such as an eyeball-shaped one that signifies automatic red-eye reduction. Here's a crib sheet for figuring out the meaning of the most common icons adorning your camera's settings dial.

A Key to Camera Icons: Making Sense of the Symbols

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Auto Mode: When you want to take snapshots without worrying about the mechanics of photography, leave this setting on Auto. This mode sets all exposure levels automatically, and it usually locks you out of making any minor adjustments manually.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Manual Mode: This mode gives you total control. You use buttons on the camera's body to set both shutter speed and aperture size. Remember, though, that you're working without a safety net--the camera won't protect you from under- or overexposure.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Aperture Mode: When you set the size of the aperture, your camera automatically provides the right shutter speed to deliver a correct exposure. Rely on this mode to blur the background or to keep the entire image in sharp focus.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Shutter Mode: This setting is your best option for taking action photography. Shutter priority allows you to freeze the scene or artistically blur the picture. All the while, the camera keeps the exposure matched to the aperture.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Program Mode: Like Auto mode on steroids, this mode automatically sets aperture size and shutter speed for a perfect exposure--but it also lets you tweak settings, giving you more creative control. You can change white balance and exposure compensation, for instance, and even nudge shutter speed up or down a bit.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Movie Mode: Many cameras let you record MPEG or QuickTime videos to the same memory card storing your photos. The videos aren't sharp enough for DVD, but they're great for e-mail.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Macro Mode: To focus on extremely close subjects--say, within a few inches of the lens--choose the tulip. You can take life-size pictures of insects, flowers, and other small subjects in this mode, but the focus range at such distances is very narrow.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Landscape Mode: In this mode, your camera picks the best aperture and shutter settings for the depth of field that you want when taking pictures of landscapes and other outdoor tableaux.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Sand and Snow: Brightly colored or glaring backgrounds can trick the camera into underexposing the subject. This mode overexposes the scene to gain details that would otherwise be lost.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Action: The Action (sometimes called Sports) mode sets the camera to the highest possible shutter speed, increasing your odds of getting a clear shot of squirming kids, for example.

Illustration by Diego Aguirre.
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Night: This mode lets you capture nighttime scenes by combining a flash, which freezes people in the foreground, with a slow shutter speed, which allows lights from buildings, cars, and other elements to show in the background.

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