By Geoff Harris

Understanding the cameras exposure modes and what they do, is at the very heart of photography. 

Most new photographers start out using the the Fully Automatic Mode and may occasionally digress to one of the cameras Program Modes such as the Landscape Mode or Close Up Mode.

But then you have a little more experience and you want to have more control over the images you create, then consider using exposure modes such as Aperture Priority Mode or Shutter priority Mode.

Most digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras have a dial with which to set the exposure mode but may point and click cameras put this function into the menu instead


The full automatic mode on almost all digital SLR cameras is the mode where the camera chooses all of the settings: focus, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, among many others.

This mode is for every level of photographers, if you are just starting out and learning about your camera and looking through the lens, or if you are a professional and you need to take a quick picture without having the time to play with any of the other modes.

The automatic mode will choose the settings for you based on the scene that is being photographed, if there is low light, it will choose to open the aperture and slow down the shutter speed, if it is bright outside it will close the aperture and speed up the shutter.

The automatic setting also requires you to use automatic focus, so the camera will pick the focus and depth of field to be used. The automatic mode will also use the on-camera flash when more light is needed.


If you would like to choose some of the settings, but not all of them, use the Program Mode. While on the P mode the camera chooses the correct shutter speed and aperture for your chosen frame.

This mode is good for when you want to do something creative with your images and get different variations of light and depth of field, but still want the camera to help you with the settings.

You still have control of the flash and focus in this mode. You can keep the correct exposure and set a lower aperture or shutter speed by toggling the aperture or shutter speed dials while keeping the shutter button half clicked. Make sure that if your shutter speed gets below 1/250, displayed as 250, to use a tripod.


If you would like to choose your aperture, allowing you to choose your depth of field, aperture priority is a good choice. Aperture priority will allow you to set the aperture, again with your dials, and will choose the best matching shutter speed for you.

This will allow you to change your depth of field manually, so you can increase or decrease the focus on your background details, as well as let you bring both into focus if you would like.

To increase your depth of field and allow more things to be in focus, make sure you change your aperture to a larger number, this creates a smaller aperture hole.

To decrease your depth of field, and cause some objects to be out of focus, make sure to set your aperture to a smaller number, this creates a larger aperture hole.


Shutter priority is the exact opposite of aperture priority, it allows you to select if you want a fast or slow shutter speed while the camera chooses the best aperture for the shot.

You are able to use this for stop-action shots as well as blur motion images. If you slow down the shutter speed on a moving subject you can blur the action, illustrating the motion in the photograph. Both the aperture and shutter priority modes allow you to get out of the box with your images and experiment with what you can do with your camera.


The manual setting is one of the ‘creative mode' settings on a canon, where you can choose your shutter speed and your aperture to create any match of the two that you desire. You will be able to choose

if you want the image to be a little darker, a little lighter, or even a slower shutter speed, and you can interchange the two as needed. In this mode you will see the aperture and shutter speed numbers through the viewfinder called the exposure level indicator.

You can use dials on your digital SLR to change these settings. In this mode you can have auto focus turned on or off, and you can choose which selectors to use for your focus if automatic focus is turned on.

This setting is recommended for more experienced photographers. If you are just getting started with your camera, and you want to use this mode, start off experimenting with the settings and seeing what works, your goal is the get the smaller bars on the indicator as close to zero as your are able to. As zero is the ‘‘correct" exposure. Using of this mode may require a tripod and flash.

No Flash

The no flash mode is perfect for those locations that flash photography is prohibited, like museums and plays. If the scene is low light, but flash is prohibited, trying using a tripod or a flat surface to prevent blurring.

This mode is also good for taking automatic pictures of other scenes that do not require flash, or when you know you do not want to use the flash. I prefer to not use the flash if it is not necessary, so I recommend this mode over full automatic so that you still get the camera choosing your settings, but you get to use the natural light.

Night Portrait Mode

The automatic night portrait mode will help you take a better portrait in low light or at night. This mode will help to make your background more natural looking.

If you are able to use a tripod or flat surface with this mode it will help, though it is not required.

Since the on-camera flash is used in this mode, your subject will be frozen, but hand movement may blur the background if it can not be reached by the flash.

Sports Mode

The automatic sport mode setting will help you to take stop-action photographs of sports, running children, or other fast speed objects.

Sports mode makes your shutter speed very fast allowing for items in the scene to be frozen. This is great if you are wanting to get stop-action photographs of any sports game, or to even try out during a firework or water-work show to freeze the water and light flares in motion.

The on-camera flash does not automatically get used in this mode. To get closer to the field or to the show, use a telephoto lens. If your camera has the ability to do continuous shooting, hold down your shutter button continuously to take multiple photos.

Close Up Mode

This automatic close up mode is for anything that you want to get close to, such as flowers, bugs or butterflies, and any other miscellaneous small objects.

It is highly recommended to use a tripod while using this mode since it is possible that any hand movement may blur the image. If you do not have a tripod, try to rest your camera on a flat surface during the shot.

If your image is still coming out not in focus, try taking the image a little further away; the standard lenses are only able to get so close. If you would like to take pictures even closer, look into getting a macro lens.

The flash will go off if you are in a low light setting with this mode, sometimes this will throw off the balance, so try to make sure to move yourself out of any shadows and use as much light as possible.


This automatic landscape mode setting is for landscapes and scenery images. This setting is perfect for when you want to take a picture of something farther away to get "the big picture," even if it is not just a landscape, as well as for wide shots, to have everything from near to far in focus.

This mode will also increase the blues and greens in your scene to make your image more vivid. The on-camera flash will not be used in this mode so that you will not accidentally illuminate your foreground.

Since the flash will not automatically go. this is a good scene for night landscapes as well. If you are not able to get close enough to the scene that you would like to get a photograph of. use a telephoto lens.

Portrait Mode

This automatic portrait mode setting is for when you want to take portraits or group shots. Along with softening skin tones, this mode will blur background tones.

The blurring of the background details will allow your subject to pull away from the background more. Great for when taking portraits in front of any scenery or landscapes


In this mode, the camera makes backgrounds and clothing of children and babies colourful but keeps skin tones soft and natural looking.

C1, C2, C1 Modes

The C series modes are Custom User modes. You can set your favourite camera settings to these modes. You can register these settings by configuring all of your settings, including what mode you are in. your menu settings and any custom function settings, and registering the mode by following your cameras instruction manual.

These are for those settings that you change a lot of configurations for, and you wish you could save them so you didn't have to enter them in manually every time.


A special feature on some Nikon cameras that tells you what to do as you are taking the photo. An on-board instruction manual if you like.


The automatic depth of field mode will set the aperture for you. It will choose a higher aperture number, which is a smaller aperture hole, to allow the foreground and background to be in an acceptable focus.

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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