​Camera Modes

Camera Modes

Camera settings, modes and how they affect your photography

Most modern “prosumer” DSLR’s have as many as 12 modes on their main exposure dial…far too many. I use 3 maybe 4 maximum but let’s run through them whilst giving alternatives for better photography.

Flash Off Symbol (Jagged arrow with line through it)​

This allows you to switch off the cameras on board flash to stop it annoyingly firing when you don’t want it. In auto mode, if there is not enough light, the camera will pop up the flash and fire automatically.

My advice would be to switch this off permanently. If you want to really progress with your photography, learn to use other light sources such as a dedicated, external speedlight or flashgun…the difference is amazing.

Another important thing to remember if you do decide to use the built in flash. Because it is so close to the lens, if you use a telephoto lens, you may get shadows from the flash where the light cannot “bend” around the length of the lens…an external flash on the hotshoe would correct this.

Camera Hotshoe

Night Shooting (Person with Star)

This will set the camera to the best settings for night photography, i.e. slow flash synch will allow a slow shutter speed to illuminate the subject and allow some background to “burn in”. A slow shutter speed will always allow “ambient” light or background light to show up more on your images…one of the benefits of being in control of the shutter speed.

For example, if you were set to auto and then shot a portrait at night using flash, the chances are that the background would be completely black. If you set the shutter yourself to a much slower speed (using a tripod if necessary), you will get more of the background detail in.

A couple of important things to remember before you watch this next video are that when using flash, the aperture determines the amount of light falling onto the subject from the flash and the shutter speed determines the amount of ambient light (background light) that is allowed to “burn” into the image.

Sports Mode (Running Man)​

The camera sets a fast shutter speed to capture movement. Many sports will need a fast shutter speed of 250th/sec or faster to freeze the action, this mode errs towards those settings.

Once again, if you use this setting you are trusting the camera to make the right choice. The chances are it will do well but do you want to risk it or would you rather learn how to do it properly yourself. It is easy with digital but when I was paying “per photo” with film photography, I wanted to learn how to get it right myself.

You need to practice enough so that you get a good idea of what movement requires what sort of shutter speed. A person walking for example would need around 60th/sec to freeze the action but for splashing water you are looking at more like 1000th/sec.

Once you have an idea of which shutter speed you need, you then set the aperture accordingly to get the correct exposure. If you are in TV or shutter priority mode, the camera does this for you but what if the aperture blinks as if you say not enough light?

Yep, you guessed it, increase the sensitivity of the sensor…increase the ISO until you get the correct exposure and no blinking! Go out and practice this…it is great fun shooting fast subjects!

Close up Mode (Flower)

The camera allows for close focussing and can give a small aperture to give a larger depth of field (or depth of vision). Macro work requires precision focussing as even with a small aperture (which normally gives good depth of field) you get barely anything in focus.

Macro Photography Flower

Rather than use this mode, learn about macro photography by doing it. You will find that the aperture and focussing play a large part in macro work unless the subject is moving in which case you have to factor in faster shutter speeds and that can be tough…you need light.

Note: ​​If you get to that point, a ring flash can help your work enormously! Read up on it.

​To really get into proper macro work, get hold of a macro lens at some point. I don’t mean a lens with macro capabilities like many have these days, I mean a truly dedicated macro lens such as the 50mm macro, 100mm macro or the cheaper Sigma 105mm macro.

Close up photography opens up a whole new world and you will never get bored looking for ideas. I watched a program recently where a “very expensive” camera recorded (very close up) a machine that fired millions of atoms per second so quickly onto a human hair (like miniature sand blasting) it could spell out the person’s name across its middle….the “i” was a mere 1000 atoms wide.

Now THAT is close!

For the macro setting to be of any use, you will need some form of macro lens attached to your camera. We will cover the macro in more detail in the lens section a little later on and show the difference between a normal lens with macro capability and a dedicated macro lens.

Landscape Mode (Mountain Range)

Again, a small aperture to allow for more of the image to be in focus. Shutter speed can “take a back seat” so use a tripod if unsure.

A small aperture with a normal/wide angle lens will ensure you get most if not all of the image in focus (unless you have an object very close to the camera when shooting).

However, don’t be afraid to break these rules. Landscapes don’t have to be typically landscape orientation using a wide angle lens with everything in focus. Break the mould and use a telephoto, use shallow depth of field and get your thinking cap on.

Portrait Mode (Face)

Camera gives best settings (according to the designer) for portrait shots. Wide aperture for good background blur or Bokeh to enhance the model. Again, a wide aperture will render pretty much only what you focus on to be sharp…great for making people and objects really “pop”.

Portrait Mode Photography

Rather than use this mode, learn about macro photography by doing it. You will find that the aperture and focussing play a large part in macro work unless the subject is moving in which case you have to factor in faster shutter speeds and that can be tough…you need light.

Try using the widest aperture you can and try my focussing technique to hone in on just one eye. If you don’t yet have one, at the very least get hold of a 50mm 1.8 or 50mm 1.4. Those apertures will give you the most incredible bokeh (background blur) and really make your subjects stand out.

To try and illustrate this, I ​sat my son on the window ledge and took a series of portraits. Look at the difference it make by switching off the flash and using natural light.

Portrait Mode Photography

In the first image, it is obvious that flash has been used and there is little you can do to enhance the photo, and using an aperture of f8 has meant that the curtain, Dillon and much of the background is in focus.

By switching the flash off and using natural light we have a much more pleasing effect.

The aperture has opened to f2.8 meaning we have a much shallower depth of field and just Dillon is in focus giving us a portrait with more impact. Converting to black and white has also helped to set the mood.

Now if we change lenses to a 50mm f1.4 and use the aperture wide open at 1.4, not only do we get a much faster shutter speed and pleasing effect, the wider aperture has lowered the depth of field even more meaning just Dillon’s eye is in focus making the shot even more dramatic…

Portrait Mode Photography

​Lens: 50mm, Shutter: 250th/sec, Aperture: f1.4, ISO: 250, No ​Flash

When using wide apertures and shallow depth of field, try using just the central focussing point, focus on the point of the subject you want sharp (i.e. the eye), hold down the shutter button to lock in focus, recompose and shoot…practice makes perfect!

Full Auto (Green Square)​

Safety mode which will allow the camera to assess the scene and set “safe” settings such as good shutter speed to stop camera shake, reasonable aperture to allow good focus, auto white balance, ISO, metering and so on…no control whatsoever.

You cannot shoot RAW in this mode. Try not to use this and you will soon improve!

I really don’t know why anybody would shell out for a decent DSLR and then use it like a digital point and shoot all of the time…what a waste of money. Even if I didn’t have time to think and just wanted to fire away without worrying about settings, I would use P (program) mode.

P or Program (Green P) ​

​Pretty much the same as full auto except that RAW shooting is available. Good setting for “when all else fails” or if you find yourself panicking…set to P and fire away.

Neither of these modes are completely failsafe so do not rely on them.

Tv (Shutter Priority)​

Coming out of full auto or program, this setting allows you to set the shutter speed that you want or need and the camera will set the aperture accordingly.

This is one of my favourite modes and is good for sports or low light situations as you are in control of the speed and therefore controlling and blur. If the light is too poor and the aperture flashes telling you it is too dark, you can either increase the ISO (sensitivity) or slow the shutter speed a bit.

This is also where modern DSLR’s come in handy that have Auto ISO. If the aperture cannot open further in shutter priority mode and you need more light, the camera will automatically increase the ISO…great stuff!

If your camera has auto ISO, read up on it and test it out.

Av (Aperture Priority)​

Now you have control over the aperture allowing the camera to set the corresponding shutter speed. Good for controlling depth of field or how much you want to be in focus.

If it is bright and you want a wide aperture to kill the background, you will need a faster shutter speed or lower ISO to compensate.

When using this mode and allowing the camera to set the shutter speed, you need to teach yourself to always be aware of what shutter speed is set. It can be dangerous shooting weddings in this mode for example as you may turn from a sunny, bright area to a darker area where the camera will slow the shutter right down to compensate…you don’t want to take blurry wedding photos!

Auto ISO won’t be as effective here:

When in TV mode, the widest aperture is reached fairly quickly and once it is wide open, the camera alters the ISO a lot sooner.

When in AV or aperture priority mode, the camera has way more shutter speed stops to use before worrying about the ISO. For example, it can slow the shutter down from 125th/sec to 60th/sec, 50th, 40, 30th, 15th, 8th, 1/4, 1/2, 1 second, 2 seconds…and so on. Before you know it you are shooting blurred images.

Of course, if your camera allows it, you can fix the lowest possible shutter speed to around 60th/sec as a failsafe if you like, I do. This means that if your aperture is wide open and you reach 60th/sec with still more light needed, the auto ISO will then kick in and save your butt! ; )

Many modern DSLR’s have a safety shift mode whereby the shutter in any auto/semi auto mode will not go any slower than the focal length of the lens, i.e. 50th/sec for a 50mm lens or 100th/sec for a 100mm lens.

I use this on the EOS ​5D Mark IV at weddings. I sometimes fix the widest aperture to f4 to ensure some depth of field is achieved, and a slowest shutter speed of 60th/sec to ensure I don’t get camera shake. I then let the camera adjust the ISO according to whatever the light does…brilliant!

Please note that ​older DSLR’s may not have auto ISO. This was a feature introduced into many cameras in around 2007. Check to make sure your camera has this. If not, and you are planning to shoot professionally, this may be a good enough reason (in my opinion) to think about upgrading!

If you want a small aperture to keep everything in focus, you need a slower shutter speed or higher ISO (sensitivity) to compensate and allow more light in. Again, this is where you may need a tripod to counter the slower shutter speeds. Increasing the ISO too much could introduce noise or grain in some cameras.

E.g. Shooting milky waterfalls. You need a slow shutter speed for this, over a second maybe, so once the aperture is fully closed at say f22, the ISO is at 100 (least sensitive) and it is STILL too bright to slow the shutter, what can you do?

Well, you can either wait for the light to fade or add a neutral density, or polarizer filter. Both will decrease the amount of light getting in without affecting the colours, sharpness or anything else come to that.

​The only difference is that the polarizer filter will also reduce glare on the water making a more pleasing photo.

Manual (M)​

This really isn’t as scary as it appears. You control everything using all settings to get the desired result. You know you have the correct exposure by using the cameras metering system (as in the experiment right at the beginning). This is found on the top LCD panel or through the viewfinder and is simple to use.

Camera Metering Panel

When the indicator is in the middle, you have the settings to give a correct exposure. Whether or not you have the correct settings to deal with what you are shooting is a different matter!

Shutter too slow with no tripod and you could get blurry shots. Wide aperture = no depth of field, small aperture = good depth of field (generally).

Reasons to shoot manual

I find that if I am in a “constant lighting environment” where the output of the light source (sun, studio lights, ambient lights etc) is not changing, I can set the desired settings and leave them alone knowing nothing will change. A great time saver and also leaves you safe in the knowledge that the camera will not take over and do something silly.

Example 1.

Water sports on a clear sunny day.

If the action is swift and you don’t want to be constantly checking your settings, shoot manual. Take a meter reading (using the camera’s meter or separate light meter, if you are that far ahead), take a couple of test shots to make sure exposure is correct (check histogram too*) and then you should be set for the next couple of hours or until the light changes.

This way, you can concentrate on the action and not your camera. Shooting RAW helps too as it is easier to adjust any minor fluctuations in exposure during post processing with RAW images.

* Histogram - This is the chart that shows exposure more accurately. If you are just going by the rear LCD screen, you may not notice any fluctuations so much especially if looking at it in bright sunlight.

Lets just touch on the histogram here. You shouldn’t let it rule you but be aware that it can be a useful tool for checking exposure “in the field”. Here is a typical example of a very slightly underexposed image as seen on the rear LCD screen of a DSLR…

Histogram and Exposure

So what does this mean and how can we “fix” it? Watch the video below.

Example 2.

Studio shots using strobes or continuous lighting.

If you are in a studio environment where you are using your own light source which you are in full control of, there should be no reason for any fluctuations once everything is set.

When I do a studio set up for still life stock photography, I get the lighting and exposure right, lock it in using manual settings and then just fire away. I can work a lot quicker this way.

Example 3.

Indoors using bounced flash (wedding reception)

Another time I use full manual is at weddings but only at certain times. The reception for example is normally held in just one place with continuous lighting…even if it is disco lights, it is still continuous in that the ambient light stays the same.

I normally do a reccie visit and set everything up in advance but even if that is not possible, it only takes a minute to test. I generally find that for a hall or room with an average height, white ceiling, I can use the following settings:

ISO 250-400, Shutter Speed 80th/sec, Aperture f5.6-6.3

That usually allows a fast enough shutter to capture the action but slow enough to allow ambient light to “burn in” and the aperture is small enough to allow fairly good depth of field. If I want shallower depth, I just make the necessary adjustments to say…

ISO 250-400, Shutter Speed 250th/sec (- 2 stops) and Aperture f1.4 (+ 2 stops)

The speedlight is bounced from the ceiling therefore it has to travel twice as far. To combat this, I increase the FEC (flash exposure compensation) to +2 to double the output.

Either way, once these settings are made, I generally know that I can shoot away all night and get the same results and again, shooting RAW gives me a little more latitude for error.