The Shooting Mode Dial

The shooting mode dial's location on a camera.
The shoot­ing mode dial on a Canon EOS Elan 7e (35 mm film cam­era).

Your choice of shoot­ing mode (or expo­sure mode) estab­lish­es which cam­era set­tings and con­trols you can access. The most com­mon way to select shoot­ing modes is via the mode dial locat­ed along the top of most cam­eras. Depend­ing on your cam­era and its lay­out, you may have access to some or all of the fol­low­ing shoot­ing modes.

Auto mode

In this mode, you relin­quish almost all con­trol to the cam­era for a ful­ly auto­mat­ic expe­ri­ence. Your sophis­ti­cat­ed cam­era becomes a sim­ple “point-and-click” device that ana­lyzes the scene to deter­mine whether it’s a por­trait, land­scape, sports, close-up, or anoth­er tra­di­tion­al sub­ject, and assigns the opti­mum set­tings auto­mat­i­cal­ly. You are typ­i­cal­ly allowed to select pic­ture res­o­lu­tion and, some­times, image file for­mat; how­ev­er, more sophis­ti­cat­ed func­tions are not acces­si­ble. 

Auto mode with­out flash. In auto mode, cam­eras that have a built-in flash will auto­mat­i­cal­ly deploy it when nec­es­sary. For sit­u­a­tions in which flash is unde­sir­able, some cam­eras have a “flash off” auto mode that allows you to sup­press its use while retain­ing the ful­ly auto­mat­ic expe­ri­ence.

Automatic scene modes

In these modes, you select a scene that best match­es your sub­ject, and the cam­era deter­mines the opti­mum pic­ture set­tings auto­mat­i­cal­ly based on pho­to­graph­ic con­ven­tions. The main dif­fer­ence between auto­mat­ic scene modes and auto mode is that the lat­ter attempts to guess your sub­ject mat­ter and the for­mer takes the guess­work out of the equa­tion. Let’s take a look at the most com­mon scene modes:

Por­trait mode. This shoot­ing mode makes your por­trait sub­ject more promi­nent and lends the com­po­si­tion a greater sense of depth by blur­ring the back­ground. It also process­es colour to pro­duce skin tones and hair that look soft­er and more pleas­ing.

Land­scape mode. This shoot­ing mode is designed for tak­ing land­scapes, cityscapes, and oth­er wide vis­tas. It aims to focus every­thing from near to far sharply. Colours are processed to ren­der vivid blues and greens. In gen­er­al, the built-in flash will not fire.

Sports mode. This shoot­ing mode is intend­ed for tak­ing pho­tos of fast-mov­ing sub­jects. It aims to freeze action using fast shut­ter speeds. Many cam­eras will acti­vate high-speed con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing, which cap­tures pic­tures in quick suc­ces­sion as long as you keep the shut­ter but­ton pressed down. The built-in flash will not fire. 

Macro or Close up mode. This shoot­ing mode is intend­ed for pho­tos of flow­ers, insects, and oth­er small sub­jects. The cam­era will auto­mat­i­cal­ly focus on the sub­ject in the cen­tre of the com­po­si­tion. 

Night por­trait mode. This shoot­ing mode is intend­ed for a pleas­ing bal­ance between the main por­trait sub­ject and back­ground when pho­tographed under low light. The cam­era will fire the built-in flash to light the por­trait sub­ject and use slow shut­ter speed to expose the back­ground ade­quate­ly. 

Advanced shooting modes

These shoot­ing modes are typ­i­cal­ly reserved for advanced and inter­change­able lens cam­eras. They allow you to obtain a vari­ety of cre­ative results by tak­ing full or par­tial com­mand of the main expo­sure controls—by select­ing the shut­ter speed and aperture—and by giv­ing you full access to manip­u­late cam­era set­tings. Let’s take a look at some of the stan­dard advanced shoot­ing modes:

Pro­gram mode. This shoot­ing mode is referred to as “P” or “Pro­gram AE” (for Auto Expo­sure). When Pro­gram mode is engaged, the cam­era ana­lyzes the scene and auto­mat­i­cal­ly sets the opti­mum shut­ter speed and aper­ture to suit the subject’s bright­ness.  

Shut­ter pri­or­i­ty mode. This shoot­ing mode is often referred to as “S” or “Tv” (for Time val­ue). In Shut­ter pri­or­i­ty mode, you set the desired shut­ter speed depend­ing on whether you intend to freeze action or cre­ate motion blur, and the cam­era ana­lyzes the scene and auto­mat­i­cal­ly sets the opti­mal aper­ture to suit the subject’s bright­ness. (Find out more about effects of the shut­ter speed.)

Aper­ture pri­or­i­ty mode. This shoot­ing mode is often referred to as “A” or “Av” (for Aper­ture val­ue). In Aper­ture pri­or­i­ty mode, you set the desired aper­ture depend­ing on whether you want to blur the back­ground or make all sub­jects both near and far appear sharply focused, and the cam­era ana­lyzes the scene and auto­mat­i­cal­ly sets the opti­mum shut­ter speed to suit the subject’s bright­ness. (Find out more about effects of the aper­ture.)

Man­u­al mode. This shoot­ing mode is often called Man­u­al Expo­sure. In Man­u­al mode, you set the shut­ter speed and aper­ture val­ues to achieve both the expo­sure and cre­ative results you desired. Although the cam­era con­tin­ues to ana­lyze the scene to pro­vide you with light mea­sure­ment infor­ma­tion, it does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly adjust any expo­sure con­trols. (Find out more about set­ting man­u­al expo­sures.)