Best?I’ve seen this question come up often in photography groups both online and live – the question of what camera mode should I use! The absolutely correct answer is – “it depends”. Recently a person suggested that if you aren’t shooting in ‘M‘ mode (fully manual), you’re half the photographer that you could be and you are surely cheating yourself. And you clearly don’t know what you’re doing, so put that camera down before you break it.
I disagree, though, and here’s why – when it comes to measuring light and making favorable compromises, your camera is smarter than you are. A lot of people who wear white lab coats to work and have a lot of alphabet letters at the end of their names have researched and programmed these modes to ensure that you get the best possible photos in any circumstance.
First, a quick intro to shooting modes found on most DSLR cameras – Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc, all use the same modes and presets. They may be called something different on your camera, but chances are they are there. I use Nikon, so I’ll go with their scheme:
- Auto: completely automatic mode. Setting to Auto tells the camera to decide aperture, shutter speed, ISO and flash on/off, based on readings it gets when you push the shutter button. It turns your DSLR into a point-and-shoot (and I don’t mean that is always a bad thing, depending on the conditions you’re shooting in)
- Scenes / specials: Most cameras will have several scene-specific modes, such as close-up/macro, sunshine, snow, sports, portraits, landscapes, etc. These have pre-programmed settings based on best-case scenarios in most situations.
- Effects: Don’t use these – just, don’t. If you want to add special effects to your shots, it’s much better to do it later in post-processing, ESPECIALLY if you shoot in jpg mode. There’s nothing worse than finally getting the perfect shot only to discover later that you were shooting jpgs in Solarize mode. That shot is gone…. If you shoot in RAW, you’ll still have the original, though. But you still should add effects later, not in camera. Please.
- M: Manual mode. The photographer controls everything: the Aperture, Shutter speed & ISO independently of each other.
- A: Aperture mode. This means that you set the aperture and the camera calculates the shutter speed, one of the other two settings of the “exposure triangle”: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Aperture is how “open” the lens is – it determines how much light comes into the CCD and determines your depth of field. It’s also slightly counter-intuitive, in that a low aperture (f-stop) like f/1.8 or f/2.6 means that the lens is pretty wide open, allowing a lot of light in and creating a shallow depth of field (i.e., the background is blurred with a “bokeh” effect); a higher number (f/16, f/22, f/30) means that the lens is closed down more, allowing less light in and increasing depth of field (i.e., everything from the end of the lens to infinity is in focus)
- S: Shutter mode. In this mode, you set the shutter speed you want to use, and the camera decides on the best Aperture. A fast shutter speed will need a lot of light in a short period of time, so the aperture will adjust itself wide open (creating a LOW number like f/1.2). A slower shutter speed won’t need as much light as fast, so the aperture closes itself down small (creating a HIGH number like f/22).
- P: Programmable Auto mode. This mode allows you to quickly make adjustments to one aspect of the exposure triangle (shutter speed or aperture) and the other element automatically adjusts with it to maintain exposure – and it’s usually done just by spinning the wheel on the back of your camera. For example, if you have metered your shot using a shutter speed of 1/1600, an aperture of f/2 and ISO of 200, but then you decide that you want more of the background to show up, spin the wheel on the back of your camera to change your aperture to f/9 and the shutter speed will compensate.
- What’s the difference between P mode and S or A, then? In P mode, you adjust both shutter speed and aperture just by spinning the wheel. In S mode, you adjust only the shutter speed by spinning the wheel, and in A mode, you adjust only the aperture by spinning the wheel. Make sense?
The other point of the exposure triangle is ISO, which dictates the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. A lower ISO = not as sensitive (think bright lights), and a higher ISO = really sensitive (think a dark nighttime scene). The trade off is that the higher the ISO is set, the more likely you’ll wind up with noise, so try to choose the lowest ISO setting you can get away with. Here’s some quick, basic ISO generalizations:
- ISO 100: bright sunshine
- ISO 200: outdoors, maybe on a slightly overcast day
- ISO 400: indoors, or outdoors on a dark overcast day
- ISO 800: night scenes in well-lit locations (a parking lot or stadium on game night)
- ISO 1600 – up: night time in the woods or in a starlit field. In a closet with the door closed. Expect noise….
ISO can be used for effect, though – see some shooting examples below.
So – now that all that’s covered, these are the situations I use each of the shooting modes above (except Effects. I NEVER use the effects modes):
For sports like biking, boarding, basketball & lacrosse (or really any fast-moving stuff) I use S mode so I can set a fast shutter speed to capture the action without blurring, and let the camera resolve the rest. Usually I have to kick the ISO up a little higher than usual too, to compensate for really fast shutter speeds (1/500 and up).
For street photography, I use either A or S, depending on what’s going on: in shadow-y areas (alleys, sidewalks), or where I want a deep or shallow depth of field, I use A to set it and let the camera resolve the rest. When looking at fast-moving scenes, I use S and set a long or short shutter speed (for blurred or sharp images – depending on what I want). Again, ISO might need to be adjusted separately. With really fast shutter speeds (or sometimes even with slower shutter speeds like 1/80 or 1/100)) I push it up to add noise and give a nice gritty look to my images.
When shooting closeups, either of a person or a plant or a rodent or an insect, I’ll use A mode, because I like the control over depth of field. I can get really nice bokeh, or I can change it to focus to infinity and let the camera decide how fast the shutter should blink.
When shooting landscapes or architecture, or anything not moving that’s kind of far away, I go with M generally because I have time to meter through the lens and make fine adjustments to all three points of the triangle. I can also tweak the exposure compensation, but that’s another article.
For P mode, on my cameras, I’ve pre-programmed it for generic indoor shots / snapshots (shutter speed / Aperture / ISO / white balance) so I can just grab and snap without too much futzing.If the light changes (it gets cloudy or the lights get turned on) I can adjust either aperture or shutter speed quickly without worrying about everything else. This mode is great for the “spray-and-pray” mode of shooting, where you’re going to shoot a lot of shots (maybe at a party or a gathering of some sort) and you don’t want to spend too much time messing with settings. Get initial meter readings, set the shutter speed & ISO, and away you go, making minor tweaks as the event progresses.
With my “toy” lenses (Holgas & Dianas & pinholes), there is no chip in the lens to tell the camera how to read the light, so I use M for them – I have to!
So for “someone in the know” to say that there is a “best” mode to use all the time tells me that they possibly aren’t really in the know after all. Those modes on your camera are all different tools, just like my toolbox in the garage. If the situation calls for a nail, I’ll use my hammer. If the situation needs something cut, I’ll use my saw. If there’s a hole to be made, I use my drill.
Once you learn what the different modes do, you’ll know when (& why & how) you can use them. You’ll also learn that there isn’t a “best” mode for all situations!