Usually the first option in your camera's scene mode menu, Portrait mode is built for one of the most common photos you'll take: the head-and-shoulders shot. In most Portrait modes, the camera recognizes the presence of faces in your scene, focuses on them, and adjusts the color in the image to enhance skin tones. In many recent cameras, Auto mode even defaults to Portrait mode settings if it detects a face (or faces) in the shot.
In Portrait mode the camera also tries to narrow the depth of field behind the subject: It keeps the person's face in focus and slightly blurs the background, drawing the viewer's attention to the face and away from distant objects.
Unless you're shooting in broad daylight or a bright indoor setting, Portrait mode usually fires the flash. It does this to bring out detail in the subject's face, but it often reduces the intensity of the flash to avoid overexposing the foreground.
In our three test portraits, the flash was too intense in Auto mode, making our subjects' faces a bit too bright for our liking. Portrait mode was much better at properly exposing the image and enhancing our subjects' skin tone.
In our manually composed shot, we turned off the flash and tried to harness natural light by using a wide aperture with a slow shutter speed. The result is a portrait that's a little more subtle and natural-looking. Nevertheless, Portrait mode generally does a great job on this kind of photo.
In Macro mode, the camera uses its minimum focus distance to keep small objects or details that are close to the lens in sharp focus. Our test pictures provide some clear-cut examples of why you should delve deeper into your camera's settings when taking up-close shots. We used a tripod for all of our macro photos.
In Auto mode, the camera keyed in on the clasp and band behind the watch face instead of focusing on the watch face in the extreme foreground. As a result, much of the image's foreground detail was out of focus. Auto mode also boosted the ISO equivalency to 640, used an aperture setting of f/4.9, and set the shutter speed to 1/250 of a second. The mode boosted the ISO in order to use a faster shutter speed, which would have come in handy if we hadn't been using a tripod or had been trying to shoot a moving subject. The faster shutter and higher ISO also meant, however, that we would see less detail in our shot if we tried to crop and resize it.
The camera's Macro mode improved the shot dramatically. Our S90 adjusted its focus properly and kept the same aperture setting, but it reduced the ISO setting to 320 and slowed the shutter speed to 1/125 of a second. The results looked far better than what we saw in the shot taken in Auto mode.
We then attempted to outdo the Macro mode results using manual settings. In our full-manual shot, we used the focus controls to lock in more sharply on the brushed-metal faceplate. We were able to close the aperture to f/8.0 and shoot with a much lower ISO sensitivity setting of 80; that allowed us to slow our shutter speed to 1/13 of a second.
The combination of a low ISO setting, a narrow aperture, and a slow shutter speed let us capture a more detailed, evenly exposed shot with less visible noise in case we wanted to resize the image. It's important to note, though, that the manual settings we used here are appropriate only for still-life macro shots. Since we used a relatively slow shutter speed, any objects in motion would have appeared blurry. If we had been shooting a moving subject, the Macro mode's settings would have done a better job than our manual choices.
Next: Night Scene and Night Portrait Modes