Mastering Your Camera's Many Exposure Modes

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I have friends who seek out my advice when buying a new camera. They want to know which ones "take the best photos." But after they get their new camera, they never take it out of Auto mode, and are ultimately disappointed with the results. In reality, cameras don't take great photos--but they come with controls that allow people to do so. Unfortunately, it isn't always obvious how to use those settings. In recent weeks, I've explained how to use shutter speed to take action photos and how to dial in great depth of field with the aperture. This week, let's look at the most common exposure modes in popular cameras and talk about why you would use each one.


I probably don't need to say a lot about your camera's Auto mode. If you're new to photography, or just a snapshooter who doesn't want to spend a lot of time thinking about options, then you probably leave your camera in this mode most of the time--after all, this setting is great for snapshots. In Auto, your camera chooses the shutter speed and aperture, and it probably automatically increases the ISO in low-light situations. This mode is easy to find--look for "Auto" or a green icon of a camera.


Program mode--almost always identified with a P--is a big step up in flexibility. In Program mode, your camera still chooses the shutter speed and aperture automatically, but you usually have the ability to control the ISO yourself, which lets you choose when to optimize for higher shutter speeds and when to reduce the digital noise that comes with high ISOs. You can also make small adjustments to the shutter speed and aperture without leaving the comfort of a mode that's "mostly automatic." For more details on this mode, check out "Master the Hidden Power of Your Camera's Program Mode."

Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority

If you're enthusiastic about improving your photography and taking more creative photos, these are the modes that I recommend you spend most of your time exploring. They let you experiment with exposure settings without going all the way to Manual mode.

Aperture Priority (indicated by an A or, on Canon cameras, Av) varies the shutter speed automatically as you set the aperture. Shutter Priority (S or, on Canon cameras, Tv) changes the aperture when you set the shutter speed.

Interestingly, you can see that both of these modes do almost exactly the same thing, so you can choose the one you like best and never mess with the other one. Or you can switch between them depending upon the kind of shooting you're doing. You might want to go with Shutter Priority when shutter speed is critical, such as when shooting action photos (see "Choosing the Right Shutter Speed") and Aperture Priority when you want to control for the depth of field (see "Use the Aperture to Control the Background in a Photo").

Either way, these modes let you vary the shutter speed and aperture without worrying about accidentally under- or overexposing your photo.


For the ultimate in control, switch to the big M. Manual exposure mode isn't terribly complicated, really--it simply lets you set both shutter speed and aperture independently. Why would you want to do this? Well, you generally don't. The priority modes are what you want at least 90 percent of the time. Despite what you might think, many pros don't even shoot in Manual mode a lot of the time. But Manual mode really shines in what engineers call the "edge cases"--rare situations in which the camera's exposure meter would tend to get the settings completely wrong. Take nighttime, for example. If you're trying to capture city lights at dusk, ignore the camera's exposure recommendations. Instead, switch to Manual and start experimenting with very slow shutter speeds.

Scene Modes

Finally, many cameras--especially point-and-shoot models, as well as some entry-level digital SLRs--come equipped with anywhere from a handful to dozens of "scene" modes. Dial in the appropriate scene and it'll set the camera's shutter speed and aperture for your specific photographic situation.

Some scene modes do more than that; they might change the flash setting, ISO, and activate other special effects. Check your camera's user guide for details. There are a lot of scene modes to choose from, and many do very specific things. For example, Portrait mode sets the aperture to minimize depth of field, while Night mode might kick in a very long shutter speed. Sand and Snow automatically overexposes the photo to prevent the sand or snow from causing your subject from getting underexposed.

Hot Pic of the Week

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

Great news! For a limited time (from March 1 till August 31, 2012), Hot Pic of the Week winners will receive one free downloadable copy of Corel PaintShop Pro X4.

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: "Sunrise in Venice" by Deborah Kolb, Woodland Hills, California

Deborah writes: "I shot this with my Canon EOS 5D Mark II while in Venice, Italy. As it was sunrise, I dialed the ISO up to 1000 and shot on a tripod. I also decided to use the self-timer to avoid camera shake."

This week's runner-up: "Leaves" by Eric Hoar, Springvale, Maine

Eric writes: "I like to find ordinary things and make them special through photography. This is a cluster of rather drab reddish-brown dead leaves. Using Photoshop Elements, I adjusted the lighting and saturation. To the background, I applied noise reduction and the 'plastic wrap' filter to accentuate the bokeh."

Eric used a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS8.

To see winners for May, visit last month's 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.

This story, "Mastering Your Camera's Many Exposure Modes" was originally published by PCWorld.

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