At the beginning of my photography journey, there were a lot of things that I did not take as much time to study and understand. I simply wanted to make a ton of money from photography and make the best imagery imaginable. Therefore any information that I came across and felt that it did not achieve these two things, I simply tossed it aside and moved on. As I look back, I feel this was a wrong approach to have as a beginner. I carried forward so many misconceptions and mistakes in my process and realized this very late.  Amongst the things that I skipped over, was understanding camera modes.

One might assume that using the Manual Mode is all that you need to know. However, there are a number of modes if understood can make your shooting experience much easier, simpler and less frustrating. If you are a beginner, this article will go into the details of the various camera modes and how they work. In order to have a better understanding of what the various camera modes do with the various exposure settings first read this article on exposure and this article on the exposure triangle. If you are a seasoned photographer and have never even had the thought to explore some of these modes because you ‘only shoot manual” this is an opportunity for you to have a bit of a refresher course on the topic.

Different camera models will have different camera modes as shown.

What are camera modes?

Camera modes simply refer to the various combinations of exposure settings and controls that a DSLR or mirrorless camera will give to a user. Camera modes will come with almost similar naming from most manufacturers for ease of use when shifting between systems. In total there are five camera modes. These are Auto Mode, Aperture priority mode, Shutter priority mode, Program Mode and Manual mode. Let us dig into each of these modes a little deeper.

Auto Mode

As the name suggest Auto mode is also called Automatic mode. This mode is labelled by an A on the camera mode dial. It is usually labelled in different ways but most manufacturers label it green. When a user sets their camera to auto mode, the camera automatically picks exposure settings that it thinks best suit the current lighting scene that the camera user is in. In Auto mode, you will not have to take the time to think through all your exposure settings. The camera will set all of these for you. As a beginner photographer, my advice is to stay away from this mode. A photographer’s job is to think through their exposure settings to creatively capture moments. However, if you are just a hobbyist and you are not concerned with the technical workings of exposure this is a mode that you can use to quickly capture candid moments.

Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture Priority mode as the name suggests is a mode that gives the photographer priority control over the aperture setting. This mode is indicated by Av on the mode dial. This mode gives the photographer control over both the Aperture and ISO. This means that the photographer can manually set the aperture and the ISO as they wish. This mode also gives the photographer control over other features such as white balance, metering and focus control. These setting are not available to the photographer in Auto Mode.

This mode has recently become a personal favourite in the last year. I mostly use aperture priority for portraits, where I am going to pose the subjects or where the subjects are not moving too fast. It has been handy especially where light is consistently changing and I cannot manually adjust for the changes in exposure as quickly as the light changes. It may seem that using this semi-automated mode always gives a perfect exposure. This is not always the case. There are circumstances where after taking the first shot I will feel that I need to either brighten the image or darken it. In order to do this, manufacturers have installed a feature called Exposure Compensation within the DSLR or mirrorless camera. This is something I will expound on in another article.

With exposure compensation, I can always instruct the camera to brighten or darken the images I take by a certain number of Stops. This allows the photographer to always control the aperture and ISO but still have the ability to control how bright or dark the image is.

Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter priority mode gives the photographer control over the shutter speed and ISO while automatically determining the aperture. Shutter priority mode on the mode dial will be indicated by Tv. This is not a mode I use a lot. However, it has been a handy tool in certain situations. When I find myself shooting in fast-paced situations such as weddings. African weddings are characterized by a lot of dancing and movement. I find this is the perfect mode to use in such a scenario. I can quickly set a high shutter speed to ensure my subjects movements are captured sharp. The camera will automatically select the appropriate aperture to create a properly exposed image.

Just as in the aperture priority mode, in shutter priority mode the camera will grant the photographer control over other settings such as white balance, metering and focus control. The photographer will also have the ability to adjust the brightness or darkness of an image based on their preference using the exposure compensation settings.

Program Mode

This is a mode that even seasoned photographers like myself never understood for a long time. For quite a number of years, I heard photographers call it ‘Perfect mode’. Apparently it had a way of creating perfect exposures all the time. This was all hearsay.

Program mode as aperture and shutter priority is a semi-automated mode and works in a similar way as the other two modes do. This mode is indicated by P on the mode dial. In this case, program mode takes control of the aperture and shutter speed, selecting them automatically while letting the photographer manually control the ISO. In this case, think of the program mode as an ISO PRIORITY MODE. I like to think about program mode as Auto Mode’s bigger brother.

Program mode will give the photographer control over control over white balance, metering and focus control as well. When I had just bought my DSLR, this was the mode I shot in mostly because it gave me some understanding of the exposure settings. Though not the best way to learn exposure, I will encourage you to take the time and read a lot more on exposure in this article.

Manual Mode

Take your time to go through most photography resources, tutorials, websites, Instagram or Facebook. Every photographer talks about shooting in manual mode. Understanding and shooting in this mode puts you in the elite class of photographers (which I find hilarious). ‘Are you even a photographer if you don’t shoot manual” (I swear I saw this on a Facebook group I am in).  This happens to be the only way that current photographers will accept that you are actually a photographer.

Let this not pressure you in any way. Do not believe this. I have mentioned this before, photographers such as Dani Diamond have built their careers shooting in aperture priority mode. So no amount of woke talk should pressure you into fully understanding a specific camera model. With all that said, I believe it is still important to understand this particular mode because there are circumstances where you will not be able to take images in aperture priority mode. Semi-automated modes do not work well when using artificial lighting. One can only effectively use artificial lighting in manual mode.

Manual mode as the name suggests, lets the user take full manual control of all the exposure settings, aperture, shutters speed and ISO and still have full access to metering modes, focus modes and white balance. This mode is indicated by the letter M on the camera mode dial. In more advanced cameras users have control over the shutter in first curtain and second curtain sync systems, lower ISO setting and even the ability to expand on ISO. If you are looking for full control over exposure and the camera’s functionality then this is the mode that you will use.

I have been using manual mode for most of the years that I have been doing photography, especially for studio work. In-studio it is best to take manual control of exposure settings and determine what an exposure ends up looking like. Most studio work will involve mixed lighting setups. Letting your camera determine the exposure in such situations can actually result in unwanted results. It is, therefore, best to take control of the exposure settings and determine what the look of the images will be like. In order to have a proper understanding of the manual mode, it is best to have a proper grasp of the exposure triangle which is discussed in this article.

Camera modes can also be clearly explained in the manufacturers manual.

Camera modes are important to understand at the very beginning of your photography journey because in understanding them you are better equipped to use your camera to help you in a variety of lighting situations. When I started photography, the belief was that shooting in manual was the best way and the only way. When I was faced with a problematic situation I would then struggle to find the correct exposures because I was fighting mostly with natural light which I had no control over. Currently, with the knowledge that I have on camera modes, I am better placed to have my camera help me in such tricky situations.

The semi-automated modes, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Program Mode are installed by the camera manufacturer to make it easier for you to use the camera to help you in lighting situations that are slightly difficult to shoot in. Let no one tell you that shooting in Manual mode is the only way. That is an old way of thinking. If we were still in the age of shooting film I would not disagree with this line of thought but with today’s advancement in technology, I think this is something we have to shift away from and embrace the new ways that our tools are able to help us achieve and create impactful work.

This is all from me in today’s post. Please like and share the posts with others as well so that we all get insight into the workings of photography and grow the skill. That is all from me I will see you in another post.