Master the Hidden Power of Your Camera's Program Mode

I occasionally teach digital photography workshops, and one of the first questions I ask my students is what exposure mode they use. Often, I'll hear, "I usually set it on auto and leave it there." But when I look at their camera, I find it's set on Program mode, not Auto. Those two settings (usually indicated by an A for Auto and a P for Program) sound similar, but they do different things. Since I recently wrote about the rules of photographic composition and how you can experiment with camera settings to learn exposure basics, this week I thought we should take a look at your camera's Program mode, and how you can use it to take better photos.

Program Is Not Auto

First things first: Your camera's Program and Auto modes are different. That's probably obvious in the sense that Nikon or Canon (or whoever made your camera) would be unlikely to put two modes on your camera that do the exact same thing. Many people, though, don't know how they're different--and tend to think of both of them as "the camera's automatic mode."

Camera models may vary, but in general, Auto truly means "automatic." When you dial in the big A, your camera takes care of pretty much everything except where you point the camera and how much you choose to zoom. The flash, ISO (which is the camera's sensitivity to light), white balance, shutter speed, and aperture are all set automatically.

Program mode (sometimes referred to more formally as the "Programmed Exposure" or "Programmed Automatic" mode) is a bit more flexible. When you dial in the P, the camera might look like it's in the same sort of autopilot mode as Auto, but you have full control over a surprising number of settings, including ISO and white balance.

For example, you can crank up the ISO higher than the camera might ordinarily choose to freeze the action in extremely low-light situations. Or you might keep the ISO low to minimize digital noise. If you intentionally want to get motion blur or light trails at sunset, Auto mode will generally make that impossible because the camera tries to crank up the ISO automatically. In Program mode, you can step in and use the right setting depending upon the situation.

Take Command of the Flash

Another camera feature that operates differently depending upon whether you've chosen P or A is the flash. In Auto, the flash is completely automatic and will fire whenever the camera thinks there isn't enough light to otherwise capture a good photo. In fact, if you have a pop-up flash, it'll snap into position as soon as you put a little pressure on the shutter release.

You can probably see where this is going. In Program mode, your camera might make some gentle recommendations--like showing a flash icon or shake warning in the viewfinder--but you can choose whether the flash will fire, and in what mode (red eye, rear curtain, and so on). That makes the Program mode handy for locations in which flash photography is not allowed. Leave your camera in Auto mode at a museum and you might get thrown out, but Program mode will save the day.

Use Program Mode to Control Action and Depth of Field

I've saved the best for last. The "program" in Program mode refers to the fact that you can fiddle with the shutter speed and aperture combo.

No matter whether you choose Auto or Program, the camera chooses an aperture and shutter speed combination that will give you a good exposure. Depending upon the particular camera you have, that might be the fastest available shutter speed based on the ambient light, or a somewhat slower shutter speed.

But if you're in Program mode, by turning the dial or pressing an arrow button on your camera, you can choose from among other valid shutter speed/aperture combinations. If you want to slow the shutter speed to introduce motion blur, there's no need to switch to Shutter Priority; just spin the dial (or press the arrows or rocker switch) in Program mode. Likewise, if you want to increase the depth of field, move the controls in the opposite direction. If you're not sure how to tweak the Program mode on your camera, check your user guide for details. As you might surmise, you don't necessarily need to use Aperture or Shutter Priority modes as long as you remember that Program mode works this way.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "River of Dreams" by Neil R. Shapiro, Niskayuna, New York

Neil writes: "The Mohawk River, near Niskayuna, reflects a very dramatic cloudscape around sunset. I captured this with a Nikon D90 and a HiTech Graduated neutral density filter, mounted in a Cokin filter holder."

This week's runner-up: "Cooling Off" by Russell Smith, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Russell writes: "I took this picture while waiting in line to get into the New Jersey Aquarium. It was an unseasonably hot day on the Camden Waterfront."

He used a Pentax Optio M20.

To see last month's winners, visit our June Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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