How to use a camera: exposure modes made simple

How to use a camera: exposure modes made simple

Buying a good camera and staying on auto settings is like buying a Porsche for the school run. In our latest Shoot Like A Pro series we show you how to use a camera in a more meaningful way that lets you take control of the picture-taking process.

In this series we’ll run through all of your camera’s exposure modes and explain when – and why – you should use them. This week we’ll start with Program Mode.

How to use a camera: exposure modes made simple

Your digital camera’s auto settings make it easier to just point and shoot, and often that’s enough to capture a moment in time. But what if your subject’s moving, if the light is constantly changing or you want to get creative with blur?

If you’ve started to feel as if you’re missing out on photo opportunities because you can’t work out how to take control, it’s time to master your camera’s creative shooting options.

Choosing and using the different exposure modes can transform the pictures you take, but venturing off fully automatic modes can be daunting, and even experienced photographers can find choosing the right settings tricky.

So here we’ve put together a guide to the four main exposure modes, covering everything from taking control in Program mode to mastering full manual operation. It will forever change the way you shoot!

Before we get started, in the infographic below we’ve highlighted the icons you’re likely to see on your digital camera’s top dial and what they mean. Click on the cheat sheet to see the larger version of this file.

How to use a camera: your top dial explained

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How to use Program mode

How to use Program mode

Program mode can easily be dismissed as just a point and shoot option, as, on the face of it, it doesn’t give you any instant control over shutter speed or aperture. However, it’s not that simple.

In Program mode the camera chooses both the shutter speed and aperture according to its computer program (hence the name), to decide on the correct exposure.

If you don’t want to think about these settings, Program mode is perfect, but it has actually got much more to offer than just full automation.

The first advantage of Program mode is that, unlike the Scene modes or fully automatic ‘green’ mode, it allows you to use Exposure Compensation.

This enables you to override the suggested exposure, which is particularly useful when shooting predominantly light or dark subjects that can fool the camera’s exposure meter.

Program mode also gives you control over several other key creative features, such as the flash and white balance modes, which aren’t available in many of your camera’s fully automatic modes.

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Program Mode Pros and Cons

Program Mode Pros and Cons

What’s it good for?

  • Situations where you don’t have time to select the aperture or shutter speed.
  • Shooting in changing lighting when you don’t need a specific shutter speed or aperture for creative effects.
  • Learning the basic relationship between the aperture and shutter speed.
  • Street photography and candids.

What’s it bad  for?

  • When you need full control over the shutter speed or aperture.
  • Learning to control the precise effects of blur and depth of field.

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Your camera display explained

In this photography cheat sheet we illustrate some of the key points on your camera’s display and explain what they’re telling you about the picture you’re trying to take.

To view the larger version of this cheat sheet, simply click on the infographic or drag it to your desktop.

Your camera display explained

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Using Program Shift / Flexible Program

Using Program Shift / Flexible Program

Your first step to controlling the shutter speed and aperture in Program mode is to use a feature called Program Shift.

This gives you some control over the combination of shutter speed and aperture that the camera will use, without having to switch to one of the other exposure modes.

To access this on most cameras you simply turn the main input dial to shift the combination of aperture and shutter speed that the camera will use.

The main disadvantage of using Program Shift compared to either Shutter- or Aperture Priority is that when the light changes or you alter the framing to include darker or lighter areas most cameras will change the shutter speed, aperture or both to alter the exposure.

This means it’s more difficult to use a specific aperture or shutter speed in this mode, but it’s a great way to expand the creativity of using Program mode.

Program Shift is also perfect for those new to changing shutter speeds and apertures, as under normal lighting conditions it won’t let you select a shutter speed or aperture that’s beyond the range available to give the correct exposure.

This safety net isn’t present in other modes, so they aren’t as beginner-friendly.

Why do different settings give the same exposure?

One of the most confusing aspects of choosing the settings for the correct exposure is that there isn’t just a single combination of shutter speed and aperture that will give you the correct exposure.

At one particular ISO, there are several combinations of shutter speed and aperture that will give you the correct exposure.

For example, if you have your camera set ISO200, 1/250 sec at f/5.6 will give exactly the same exposure as 1/15 sec at f/22.

But the effect of the different shutter speeds and apertures will alter the appearance of your images, and is the reason the different exposure modes exist, as they give you complete control over which combination you want to use for creative effect.

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