Digital camera modes explained: choose the best shooting mode for your subject

Digital camera modes explained: choose the best shooting mode for your subject

On most DSLRs, the Mode dial is split into three sections: Scene modes (for doing point-and-shoot photography in specific conditions); full point-and-shoot Auto mode and the Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes, which give varying degrees of control over your shots. In our latest beginner photography tutorial we explain how your digital camera modes work and when to use them.

Digital camera modes explained: choose the best shooting mode for your subject

Program exposure mode


Do you want your camera to set exposures automatically or would you rather have control over the lens aperture and shutter speed? This is what your camera’s Mode dial is for.

The green Auto setting, the P setting and the Scene modes all adjust the aperture and shutter speed automatically. This is ideal if you don’t have time to make adjustments.

We’ll cover the Aperture Priority (A), Shutter Priority (S) and Manual (M) modes in subsequent sections. For now, we’ll take a closer look at the fully automatic camera modes, the differences between them and which ones to use in specific shooting conditions.

Digital camera modes explained: Program Exposure mode

Below we’ll explain how to set these modes and the differences between Full Auto and P modes. But what about Scene modes? They go further than simple exposure adjustments and will typically include the following:

Portrait mode: This sets a lens aperture that’s wider than normal to blur backgrounds, and adjusts the image processing for a softer, more flattering result.

Landscape mode: Using this mode will boost colours, contrast and outlines.

No flash mode: This disables the flash so it won’t fire, even in dim lighting. This avoids embarrassment in theatres and museums.

Sports mode: This mode’s high shutter speeds will freeze action. The focusing is usually switched to Continuous mode or Predictive Autofocus, where available.

Close-up mode: The settings in this mode depend on the camera. Some will switch to Centre-spot focussing.

Night portrait mode: This mode uses flash to illuminate your subject, but this is balanced against the background lighting to produce a natural looking result.

These scene modes change the camera’s focusing and image processing settings, as well as the lens aperture and shutter speed combinations. The differences are often subtle, though, and many photographers prefer to make adjustments manually.

Choosing between P and Auto camera modes


Choosing between P and Auto camera modes

The green Auto mode really is completely automatic – it even pops up the flash if the camera calculates that additional lighting is needed and it automatically increases the ISO (sensitivity) in poor light to cut the risk of camera shake.

The P mode also sets the lens aperture and shutter speed, but it doesn’t change the ISO or automatically fire the flash – these are controlled manually by you.

There’s another important difference: in P mode, rotating the camera’s command dial adjusts the relationship between the lens aperture and shutter speed, while maintaining the correct exposure, so you can select a faster shutter speed or a smaller lens aperture without having to leave the P mode. This is usually referred to as Program Shift. That just leaves the various Scene modes.

PAGE 1: Digital camera modes explained – Program Exposure mode
PAGE 2: Digital camera modes explained – Aperture Priority mode
PAGE 3: Digital camera modes explained – Shutter Priority mode
PAGE 4: Digital camera modes explained – Manual mode


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