Beyond Auto: Shooting Modes


Going Beyond Auto - Shooting Modes

You’ve got a fancy camera, it takes great pictures, so why would you want to use anything other the Auto setting?

The answer is simple…your pictures could be better!

If you find yourself wanting to get more out of your camera then you will end up on sites like this one to figure out what you need to do to make that happen.  The problem is, most sites and professional photographers tell you that you have to shoot in Manual mode and nothing else!  That can be scary to somebody who has never switched their camera to manual mode.  You turn the dial from Auto to M and all of a sudden your pictures don’t look so good any more.  They are too dark, too light, out of focus, everything is in focus, or maybe they are blurry!  There is a 1 over some big number, there is an f in front of a number with a decimal, there is something called ISO with a number, and there is a zero with numbers going both ways…I don’t get it! That’s enough to make you wonder why anybody would ever want to not be in Auto mode.

All I want to do is point the camera at the subject, push the button, and get a great picture!

Well, it doesn’t have to be that intimidating.  I mainly shoot in Manual mode, but I also shoot in some of the Semi-Automatic modes and that is where I think you should begin.  The Semi-Automatic modes allow the camera to do a lot of the math for you, but give you some creative control of your picture.  This is how you can begin to get the most out of your camera.  There are some professionals out there that use these Semi-Automatic modes exclusively…and they get paid for it!  If they can do it and not go full manual, then so can you!

I’m a Canon guy, but you may be a Nikon, Sony or some other brand kind of person.  It doesn’t really matter.  The top players here are Canon and Nikon.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some other brands that shoot way better images, but they come at a cost that you and I won’t be spending.  So for the sake of covering my bases with most of you, we will stick with those two.  I mentioned in my last post that I have a Canon Rebel XSi, which is an 8+ year old consumer digital camera.  I also have a Canon 6D…that one is closer to the professional end of the spectrum.  The good news is that in terms of functionality, they operate about the same…more on the differences some other time.

Semi-Automatic Shooting Modes

You know that dial on top of your DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex – more on that later) that has Auto or a Rectangle with an A in it?  Have you ever tried the other settings?  There are usually some pre-defined modes that are setup to help the camera be a little better with its automatic mode.  They are usually indicated by a Mountain, Flower, Running Person, and a Face.  These are known as Scene Modes and they help you take better automatic pictures of Landscape, Macro, Action and Portrait Shots respectively.  Those are fine for what they are, but that is not where I recommend you hang out.  If you know you just want to take a picture of a mountain or a flower, give them a shot, but know that you can still do better.

The modes I want you to try are on that dial between the Auto and the M.  They are indicated by Av, Tv, and P on Canon or A, S, and P on Nikon and here is a quick overview of each.  I will spend at least a whole article on each one, but this is what they mean:

Av or A = Aperture Priority

This puts you in charge of Aperture and lets the camera figure out the Shutter Speed.  Aperture is determined by the lens that is attached to your camera body.  For instance, my Rebel came with an 18-55mm lens (focal range) with an aperture of f/3.5-5.6.  Your camera probably came with something similar.  To keep this one basic, these numbers represent the size of the opening inside the lens that lets light in.  Aperture is a fraction, so the smaller numbers represent bigger openings and vice versa.  On this lens, the aperture is a range when the lens is at 18mm the maximum aperture I can have is f/3.5, and at 55mm is f/5.6.  This means when I “zoom in” to something at 55mm the amount of light getting into the camera is less because the aperture hole is smaller.

I hope I haven’t lost you yet, because this is where it gets fun.  This achieves two main goals when taking a picture, how bright it will be due to the amount of light you let in, and what your depth of field will be.  You’ve seen the pictures where the person is in focus, but everything else is blurry…that has to do with aperture.  There is a lot of math involved and I don’t want to go there yet, I just want to introduce you to this feature on your camera.  So for now, if you want to give your pictures an instant upgrade, try switching to Aperture Priority and go to the widest opening you can with your lens (probably f/3.5) and see what happens!

Tv or S = Shutter Priority

Just like Aperture Priority, this mode allows you to have some creative control, but this time you are controlling the Shutter Speed and letting the camera figure out the Aperture.  Inside your DSLR is a mirror that reflects light (and the image) up to your viewfinder.  By the way, yes you should hold these cameras up to your eye instead of using the screen…they work better that way.  When you see the image you want to capture, you press the shutter release and the mirror quickly flips so the image is no longer in the viewfinder, but is instead being reflected on the camera’s sensor.  This mirror used to reflect onto film instead of a digital sensor to expose the film to light and capture the image.  Essentially the same thing is going on here, but digitally.  The shutter speed is the amount of time that this mirror is reflecting the image onto the sensor to capture the image.  So you may see something like 1/250 as a shutter speed, or maybe even something like 1/2000.  That is time in fractions of a second.  The lower the bottom number, the slower the shutter speed as you can imagine 1/2 of a second is much slower than 1/1000th of a second.

This setting helps you adjust your camera to allow light in for a certain amount of time to determine the proper exposure or creative exposure you are trying to achieve.  For instance, I’m sure you have seen an image of a waterfall that appears to be flowing, which was taken at a very slow shutter speed.  Or perhaps you have seen a single drop of water suspended in mid-air that was taken at a very fast shutter speed.  This setting allows you to blur or stop motion, among other things.  So if you are trying to catch your little soccer player running down the field, switch over to Shutter Priority, pick a fast shutter speed of 1/500 or faster and let the camera do the rest.

P = Program Mode

Program Mode is very similar to Auto mode, but allows for a few manual creative tweaks.  This mode will not allow you to choose your Aperture or Shutter Speed, it does all that for you automatically, which is why it is similar to Auto.  However, it will allow you to take control of a few things such as Exposure Compensation, Flash, ISO and White Balance.  I don’t want this post to be too long, so I won’t give all the details of each of these right now.  Essentially, if you have a situation where you are shooting in Auto mode and you know there is enough light for a good picture, but your camera keeps popping up the flash…you should switch to Program Mode.  This will allow you to disable the flash, yet still have the camera figure out your exposure.  The same is true if the image is a little dark and you feel like flash would help but that darn thing just won’t pop up and fire, switching to P will help.

Briefly, exposure compensation allows you to tell the camera that you would like your picture to be a little bit lighter or darker than what it thinks it should be.  White balance allows you to tell the camera that you want the picture to be a little warmer or cooler looking.  ISO is the setting that tells your camera how sensitive it should be to the light that hits the sensor.  If you ever used film, you can think of ISO kind of like the film speed.  You remember that roll of 100 speed film, that is essentially what you are setting except you aren’t stuck with it for the entire roll like you were with film.  We will get into more details about all of these settings in future posts.


Well, I tried to keep it short…but I wanted you to have a basic understanding of some of the Semi-Automatic modes on your camera.  These can really help take your images to the next level without having to worry about every setting for every shot.  They are the best way to get yourself shooting with some creative control while still receiving a few of the automatic advantages.  Go ahead and switch to one of these modes and give it a shot, I think you will be pleased with the results.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *