Photography Lessons 5: Camera Modes and their Usage

by Puru


Nov 26, 2011

DSLRs come with different modes, some auto and some semi auto with one Manual mode. I will try to explain the different camera modes and their popular usage here based on my experience with a Nikon DSLR. However not much difference exists in case of other brands. You may also want to check out online photography classes that can teach you how to better understand different camera modes, when it should be used and under what circumstances.

Lets look at the way Nikon and Cannon denote their camera modes:


photo modes

Nikon Camera Modes

  • Auto : Auto (Green)
  • Auto w/o Flash: Flash sign crossed
  • Portrait: Lady
  • Landscape: Mountain
  • Kid: Child
  • Action: Man running
  • Marco: Flower
  • Night: Person with star
  • Aperture Priority: A
  • Shutter Priority: S
  • Program: P
  • Manual: M


Photography Lessons 5: Camera Modes and their Usage 1

Canon Camera Modes

  • Auto : Green
  • Auto w/o Flash: Flash crossed
  • Portrait: Lady
  • Landscape: Mountain
  • Macro: Flower
  • Action: Man running
  • Night: Person with star
  • Aperture Priority: Av
  • Shutter (Time) Priority: Tv
  • Program Mode: P
  • Manual: M


Automatic Modes

Auto Mode

As evident by the name, it is the fully automatic mode. This is the easiest of all the modes and the quickest when it comes to getting the optimum image. But, Optimum does not necessarily mean good. Here, the camera does all the thinking and all you do is just point and shoot. So, although this mode gives nice photographs usually, you need to move beyond it in due course of time.

Auto with Flash Off

This is another variation of the Auto mode with the only difference is that the Flash is turned off in this case. This mode is useful for the situations where use of a flash is not desirable (we will get down to the use of inbuilt flash sometime later). My advise is, if you want to go Auto and want natural looking colors, better keep your hands steady, stick to this mode and give rest to your flash.

Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode makes the camera select a large aperture, thus creating a shallow Depth of Field. This blurs the backgrounds and makes the person in the foreground of the picture appear more prominent. A few tips, have a single point of interest, keep the focal length of the lens above 50mm, move closer to the subject and try to capture the head and shoulder. Use flash if its a bright sunny day and the person is wearing a hat or something which casts a shade on his/her face.

Landscape Mode

The opposite of the Portrait Mode. In this mode, the aperture is smaller thus increasing the Depth of Field. This gives ample sharpness to the background as well as the foreground which is desired for landscape photography. This mode is ideal for multiple points of interests spread over a wide frame, consider using wide lenses and a tripod for better photographs.

Kid Mode

This mode is useful for taking photographs of children. The colors come vibrant and their skins look livelier, thus making it look all goody good. Thats all this mode is about.

Action Mode

This Mode is used to freeze the subjects in motion. The shutter speed is pumped up and the camera tries to freeze the motion with the help of this. Can be for photographing vehicles, sports persons, naughty kids and animals in the wild while minimizing blur.

Macro Mode

This mode is used for photographing subjects up close, like flowers, insects, miniatures etc. The depth of field becomes shallow and the camera allows you to go up close to the subject (subject to the minimum focal length of the lens). Focusing is a bit tricky and the use of a tripod is advised. However if you want real macro images, you may need to buy macro lenses, macro rings or macro adapters depending on how much are you willing to spend.

Night Mode

Perhaps the most interesting among the Automatic Modes, used mainly for taking photographs in the dark. It uses the flash in the slow shutter sync mode, in which the flash fires at the end of the taking of photograph. While the foreground is illuminated by the flash, the background gets it due with the help of long shutter speed. So you will not get those black backgrounds with washed out faces which otherwise come in the Auto flash modes. Very useful for taking portraits. Use of a tripod strongly recommended.

Semi Automatic Modes

Aperture Priority Mode

In this mode you select the aperture and the camera decides the other settings as per your selection to render a balanced photograph. Aperture priority mode is useful when you are capturing stationary subjects with varying depth of field. Choosing a large aperture means the amount of light coming to the sensor will be more and hence Camera will increase the Shutter speed. The opposite will happen in the case of a lower aperture. I have found Aperture priority mode particularly useful in travel photography when the only thing I need to check is the depth of field, shallow for people and deep for landscapes etc. Know more about Depth of Field here.

Shutter Priority Mode

In this mode, you choose the shutter speed and let the camera decide everything else. This mode is used when trying to capture subjects with varying speeds or the inclusion of a deliberate blur in the photograph. Thus Shutter Priority Mode comes handy in capturing both the high speed situations as well as the other situations like a dance or a waterfall.

Program Mode

This is one confusing mode! It is very similar to the Auto Mode but supposedly gives you some control over some of the features (again, depends on the type of camera you are using). Frankly speaking I have never tried it and can’t think of a situation where it can be useful.

Manual Mode

Manual Mode is the big daddy of all the camera modes. You have full control over all the camera settings and its you who thinks and decides how a given photograph should come up. However, Manual Mode is like Test Cricket, although the best but not the most fun thing. You cannot go on changing the settings for each shot especially if you are a travel/sports/war/wedding etc etc photographer. So most people either stick to the Auto modes of the one of the priority modes.

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About the Author


Puru is an IT Project Manager from Pune, India and an avid blogger. He is passionate about travel, photography, cinema and books. He blogs on Shadows Galore, Art House Cinema, The Mutinous Indian and Antarnaad.

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1 Comment

  1. The Fool

    Thanks for the tips. Going through all the lessons. Your blog is a good start – nice and simple before I go and read something more technical


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