If you're lucky enough to get a clear shot of a breathtaking sunset, the last thing you want is a boring photo. The Sunset scene mode is a Landscape scene mode (it sets the focus to infinity and uses a smaller aperture to create a wide-angle view that's completely in focus), with one key difference: It boosts the warm red tones, making the vivid colors of a sunset practically jump out of the photo. That kind of color enhancement is sort of cheating, but the results can be even more stunning than the sunset itself.
Auto mode properly identified our test scene as a landscape, and because it didn't tweak the colors, it snapped the most true-to-life representation of the sunset. If you want accurate colors and more detail in your sunset shots, use Auto mode.
The test shot we took with Sunset mode made the sky's colors appear deeper, with a somewhat artificial-looking red tint. If it's drama you're seeking in your end-of-the-day photos, you should definitely use Sunset mode for the occasion.
In manual mode, we tried to outdo Sunset mode's dramatic flair by using color filters; we also closed the aperture to f/8.0 to create a deep depth of field, and used medium to fast shutter speeds. We boosted the blues, reds, greens, and contrast, and came up with an even-more-surreal result. Depending on our choices, the image looked dramatically different: Sometimes everything had a warm yellow tint, other times we enhanced the light blue in the sky, and still other times everything was pinkish-red.
Colleagues who viewed all of the photos tended to prefer the shots we took in Sunset mode. The colors seemed fake in both our Sunset and manual shots, but they looked more realistically fake in Sunset mode (if that makes any sense). We give the victory to Sunset mode here--but depending on the sunset you're shooting, we suggest taking extra photos using any color-accent modes your camera may have. That way, you can see how the scene looks with different filters.
The mode for fast-action shooting varies in name and function. For capturing fleeting moments, your best option is a fast continuous-shooting or burst mode, which breaks the action into split-second, frame-by-frame sequences--the more shots you can take in a second, the better chance you'll have of ending up with a keeper.
Unfortunately, such rapid-fire shooting isn't available in many point-and-shoots. Most low-end cameras have a scene mode that boosts the ISO to harness a lot of light and uses the fastest shutter speed to catch a speedy subject. This tactic produces noisier images--and gives you only one chance at the perfect picture. The mode is usually called "Sports" or "Action" mode, and sometimes "Anti-Blur," "High Sensitivity," or "Kids and Pets" mode. Some cameras also have motion-tracking autofocus, which locks on to a moving subject; such a function generally works best if your subject is wearing a bright color that's distinguishable from the surroundings.
In our action test shot, we finally found a shooting environment in which Auto mode performed about as well as a scene mode or manual settings did. Auto mode picked a fast shutter speed of 1/500 of a second and set an f/6.3 aperture to keep the background sharp. Although our subject's T-shirt and shoes had a bit of blur, Auto mode froze her in place.
For some reason, the "Kids and Pets" mode on the PowerShot S90 selected a slower shutter speed of 1/320 of a second; and in comparison with our Auto-mode shot, the resulting image exhibits a little more blur. It isn't as sharp when viewed at a larger size, suggesting that the camera's autofocus had a hard time locking in.
As for our manual selections, we concentrated on using the fastest possible shutter speed. We shot at 1/1250 of a second, freezing our subject in place. Because of the fast shutter speed, our manual shot looks a touch darker--even underexposed--but it has no visible blur, and we would be able to crop or enlarge the image without seeing any ISO-related noise.
When shooting action, however, freeze-framing a moving subject isn't always the best look; in our test shots here, you can't tell how fast our subject was moving. With that in mind, you can use some alternative methods for capturing creative action shots. If your camera has adjustable shutter speeds, you can use them to make subjects in motion look like they're moving fast. By slowing the shutter speed and then panning the camera to follow a subject's movement, you can create evocative "blur trails" behind the subject.
Placing your camera on a tripod, pointing it at a moving scene, and using a very slow shutter speed is great for shooting nighttime traffic scenes or cityscapes: The background appears sharp and in focus, while moving cars are reduced to bright beams created by their head- and taillights. Using a slow shutter and a tripod is also a popular technique for capturing flowing water, as it smooths out the surface of the water in your photos while conveying a sense of motion.
Photographs by Robert Cardin, Tony Leung, and Tim Moynihan
This story, "Take Your Best Shot" was originally published by PCWorld.