Camera Modes Explained: What to Use & WhenCamera Modes Explained: What to Use & When

Camera Modes Explained: What to Use & When

Get the most out of your camera.

Learn how different camera modes can control exposure settings, and how your understanding of each mode can improve your photography.

How to set camera modes

Before we get started, let’s take a quick look at how to set your camera mode. Nearly all cameras include a range of different dials on the body to allow for quick transitions between various settings. The most prominent dial is the one that features a bunch of different letters and strange markings. Av, Tv, P, M… Look familiar? These are your camera modes and they refer to how your camera will control exposure settings.
Setting your camera mode is as simple as rotating the dial to your desired function, which can change depending on your subject matter or how creative you’re feeling. Some smaller cameras may not have the large dial on the body and instead, will require you to access the menu on your LCD display.
Let’s take a look at the most common camera modes on this dial, and how and when to use them.
PS: Under each mode title is the relevant dial marking you’ll find on the three main camera manufacturers in Canon, Nikon and Sony.

What are the three semi-automatic settings on a digital camera?

The four most common semi-automatic camera modes are Program (P), Shutter Priority (Tv) or (S) and Aperture Priority (Av) or (A). These modes allow you to focus mainly on subject and composition while leaving most of the technical settings up to the on board computer. Read on to learn more about the three semi-automatic modes as well as the other usual suspects on the dial.

Camera Modes Explained

Auto camera mode
Canon — Green rectangle with A
Nikon — Green camera symbol with AUTO
Sony — Green AUTO
Pretty self-explanatory. Auto Mode is the most basic mode to utilise as it gives the camera and its technology complete control over all exposure settings. If you point your camera at an open field on a sunny day, the camera may decide you need a narrow aperture of f/11, a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, and an ISO rating of 400. Point your camera in the opposite direction and who knows what your camera will decide is best for the situation.
Although Auto Mode is great for beginners, it’s suggested that you try and graduate from this mode as soon as possible. Having the exposure settings decided for you removes any creativity from you as the author of the image. And more often than not, when a reasonably challenging lighting situation presents itself, your camera will not have the slightest idea what to do. Relying on Auto Mode can majorly inhibit your progress in photography.
Aperture priority mode
Canon — Av
Nikon & Sony — A
Aperture Priority Mode means that you’re at the helm of aperture (you can read more on this in our guide to aperture). Aperture controls how wide or narrow your lens opening becomes, and therefore how shallow or large your depth of field becomes. This is perhaps the most commonly used camera mode.
Setting your camera to Aperture Priority Mode is helpful when depth of field is a priority. For example, when photographing flowers close-up or any other style of macro photo and you want an extremely shallow depth of field. You decide how wide an aperture you need while the camera decides the appropriate shutter speed and ISO.
Related: A Complete Guide to Aperture: Examples & Photos
Shutter priority mode
Canon — Tv
Nikon & Sony — S
Shutter Priority Mode inscription on camera dials varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Frequently you’ll find it’s denoted by a T or a Tv, which is confusing when shutter speed clearly starts with an ‘s’. In fact, Tv stands for Time Value and similarly, T stands for time to indicate the length of time you’re exposing the image.
Shutter Priority Mode prioritises shutter speed on your camera (more on this in our guide to shutter speed). Use this mode when you’re trying to either freeze action, or oppositely, trying to blur action.
For example, if you're photographing race cars or fast animals, set your shutter speed in Tv (or S) Mode to a fast 1/2000th of a second. Depending on the lighting of the raceway or the landscape, your camera will decide which aperture and ISO is best for this situation.
And when trying to create movement within the frame, using Shutter Priority Mode can be extremely helpful. We’ve talked a lot about waterfall or star photography in previous articles. This camera mode will allow you to arrive at a waterfall and quickly capture a 5-second exposure of the blurred water, without having to play tug-of-war in compensating the other exposure settings.
RELATED: ​​A Complete Guide to Shutter Speed: Examples & Photos
Manual camera mode
Canon, Nikon & Sony — M
The problem with Priority Modes is that the camera will always expose the image evenly according to how the camera reads light. But what if you want to underexpose the image slightly to give it a little more grit? This is why Manual Mode is favoured by intermediate and professional photographers, because full creative control is at your fingertips.
The leap from Auto or other Priority Modes to full Manual Mode can seem daunting when beginning photography. The best way to make this leap is to use the Priority Modes as a guide of what settings to use in Manual Mode.
Let’s say you arrive at the albatross lookout where you’ve come to capture albatrosses in flight (bear with us through this obscure example). Set your camera to Shutter Priority Mode and your shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second or quicker to ensure you will freeze the action. Take note of the aperture and ISO settings decided for you by the camera. Then, copy these settings and input them into Manual Mode. Now you’re in the correct exposure ballpark and you can tinker with the camera settings bit by bit to regain some creative control. This is a great way to dip your toes in the Manual Mode deep end without having to dive in.
Program camera mode
Canon, Nikon & Sony — P
Program Mode more or less sits between Auto and Manual Modes. It still chooses the correct exposure based on aperture and shutter speed but you have the advantage of setting your ISO.
It may be easier to think of Program Mode as ISO Mode. Set your desired ISO and your camera will figure out the required aperture and shutter speed for the scene.
Bulb mode
Canon — B
Nikon & Sony — M (Set camera to Manual Mode, and then toggle shutter speed to find “BULB”)
Bulb Mode is very similar to Manual Mode but has the functionality of creating extremely long exposures. Most cameras in Manual Mode only allow up to 30-second exposures. But if you’re wanting to open your shutter for a few hours under the light of the moon only, switch over to Bulb Mode.
In Bulb Mode, your shutter will remain open so long as the shutter release button is depressed. Of course you can’t keep your finger on the trigger for a few hours so get yourself a remote cable release.

What camera mode should I use?

Your choice of camera mode should always be unique to your photographic needs and shooting style. There are some general guidelines manufacturers like to tout when it comes to which mode to pick, although most photographers agree that one’s favourite go-to camera settings are often a result of years of practice, refinement and experimentation.
Here’s a quick rundown on the most common modes you can use and when you might use them:
Auto, short for automatic, means the camera does all the heavy lifting when it comes to settings, allowing you to focus on composition and subject rather than technical considerations.
P, for Program or Program Auto, is the mode to use when you want your camera to automatically calculate for the best exposure but leave the rest of the settings up to you.
Tv or S, for shutter priority, is the best mode to use when you wish to control your shutter speed while letting the camera think up the best combination of aperture and sensitivity to get a well-exposed shot. This is great for ensuring you’re always shooting at a quick enough speed to capture motion, and is also useful for producing effects such as motion blur or long exposures.
Av or A, for aperture priority, is the best mode to use when you wish to control your lens’ aperture while letting the camera think up the best blend of shutter speed and achieve a properly exposed image. The purpose of this is mainly to control depth of field, allowing for pin sharp landscapes or beautifully soft images that allow subjects to shine and stand out from their environments.

Which mode is best for a DSLR camera?

There is no single correct answer to this question as the different modes are designed to best control various shooting situations. DSLR cameras nowadays have become highly sophisticated and often include on-board computer systems imbued with constantly updated algorithms and machine learning, taking the headache out of learning the nitty gritty technicals.
It’s always best to try out the modes yourself on the camera of your choosing as it’s usually the case that you’ll find your favourite mode relatively quickly after trying them all out. When using an unfamiliar camera it’s often easiest to simply use Auto (or Program Auto) so that you get to start shooting as quickly as possible.

What mode do professional photographers shoot in?

This is a hotly debated topic with purists evangelising the benefits of going fully manual and more contemporary shooters choosing to throw old-fashioned ideas out and simply pick a working style that suits the subject matter at hand.
Commercial photographers tend to shoot in manual mode, as more often than not, they are working to a brief that requires them to take control over everything seen in the final image. Street, wedding, documentary, and sports photographers often prefer a semi-automatic setting, allowing them to maintain a unified and cohesive perspective without sacrificing the ability to capture images quickly if needed.
As with most questions in this vein there is unfortunately no short and easy answer other than what might work best on an individual basis.

Camera modes: wrapping up

This has been a basic introduction to camera modes. Hopefully you’ve learnt a few tricks of the trade and can apply some of those learnings in the field. Everyone always says you have to shoot in Manual Mode, and it’s for good reason — once you gain complete creative control over your image, you’ll never look back. Use your priority settings as a guide and take the leap.

Want to learn more about photography basics?

    A Quick Guide to Aperture
    A Complete Guide to Shutter Speed
    How to Master ISO in Your Camera
    A Quick Guide to F-Stops: Examples & Photos
    The 3 Best DSLR Cameras for Beginners
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