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What are all those camera modes for, anyway?

Whether you've been shooting in perpetual auto or just got that shiny new camera, you can probably get significantly better photos if you take just a little time to get to know some of its more advanced options.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
11 min read

The mode dial of the Sony Alpha NEX-6.

Editors' note: This story was originally published in Feburary 2010. Most recently updated to include links to more information.

Everyone out there who leaves their camera set on full automatic, raise your hands.

Automatic is great while you're learning your camera, and I frequently recommend it to people who want to step up to a dSLR but are too intimidated by all the settings on the camera. But like any crutch, ultimately you're better off without it. Here's some guidance about all those other modes you could be shooting in.

If you're frequently unhappy with your photos shot in Auto, it's time to substitute some of the camera's decisions with your own. Auto can only guess that you're shooting sports, but you know. Why leave it to chance? Choosing from these modes is the way you provide important information to the camera to help it make better decisions. Yes, it'd be nice if the camera could just take perfect pictures without any thought on your part, but most technology simply isn't that smart yet.

I'll start with some basic terms, then move to the core shooting modes -- ones that have been around forever and that you really should try (if your camera has them) when you're ready to take control of your photography. If you're not ready for these, then jump below to Typical scene program modes and Less-common scene modes.

Looking for more help? Check out our Photography How To section.

Basic terms and concepts

  • Shutter refers to the mechanical or electronic control that allows light to hit the sensor, and therefore is responsible for the duration of the exposure. A fast shutter speed (higher number) stops action and a slow shutter speed (lower number) shows motion; slow shutter speeds will show camera shake, as well.
  • Aperture refers to the opening through which the light travels before it hits the sensor. A wide aperture (lower number) lets in more light and yields a blurrier background, while a narrow aperture (higher number) lets in less light and yields a sharper background.
  • Exposure compensation lets you increase or decrease the overall brightness of an image. The camera does this by automatically changing the shutter speed and aperture values.
  • Exposure value is the absolute brightness of the image.
  • Metering is the process by which the camera measures the brightness of the scene. There are a variety of user-selectable metering methods that will make the camera choose different exposure values.
  • ISO sensitivity, sometimes just called "ISO," is a measure of how much light a sensor needs to produce a given exposure. As ISO sensitivity rises (less light needed to produce a given exposure), the signal-to-noise ratio drops, resulting in poorer photo quality. However, higher ISO sensitivities also allow you to use faster shutter speeds for a given amount of light.

No, those aren't exhaustive definitions; they're just enough to allow newbies to understand more of what follows.

Mode Description Uses What you can control
Auto without flash
In this mode, the camera makes all the decisions. You literally just point and shoot. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, to guess the appropriate settings the camera has to play the probabilities, which means in many cases it will choose suboptimal settings for any particular scene. It generally uses one, predetermined metering mode which isn't suitable for uneven lighting, and reflexively raises the sensitivity setting to a level at which you'll see noise or artifacts when it may not be necessary. Many cameras now offer so-called "Intelligent" auto modes, which are really just better-performing versions of this old standby.

Very few. But it should be OK outdoors in daylight. Avoid it in low light, for action, or backlit scenes; generally any time you don't have relatively stationary or slow-moving subjects in good, even light.

Generally, no shooting settings. Usually limited to basics like file size. Might let you set overall brightness via exposure compensation.
"Intelligent" Auto Most point-and-shoot cameras that have come out over the past couple of years now incorporate improved auto modes that analyze the scene and decide which of a handful of preset scene program modes best match the environment. They also will frequently invoke features like face detection, to improve autofocus accuracy, and automatic exposure adjustment algorithms (like Nikon's D-Lighting and Canon's i-Contrast). These advanced auto modes almost always deliver better results than traditional Auto. Some cameras also offer the ability to adjust parameters like shutter speed and aperture with an "easy" interface; for instance, it will present you with a continuum between still and action, and as you slide along the continuum it increases the shutter speed behind the scenes. Good for when you're in too much of a rush to select the correct mode yourself, or don't know which mode applies. Most suitable when a shot falls easily into one of the three or so basic scene types: people, landscapes, and object close-ups. Most cameras can distinguish between day and night, and some between adults and children or moving and stationary subjects. Generally, no shooting settings. Usually limited to basics like file size. Might let you set overall brightness via exposure compensation.
Scene program These are modes preprogrammed with settings for common shooting situations. For example, Portrait modes usually set the aperture as wide as possible (to throw the background out of focus), turn on face-detection autofocus and keep the ISO sensitivity as low as possible. Think of these as hinted automatic modes; by telling the camera what the scene type is, you're reducing the probability of the camera guessing incorrectly. Scene modes can be very useful, but tend to be underutilized by snapshooters. Here is a summary of the most common scene modes. If you repeatedly take the same type of photos, like indoor real-estate shots -- then choosing an appropriate preset can be very helpful. Also, if you're consistently unhappy with certain types of photos -- people, low light, winter or beach scenes, and so on -- then this is your next step. Generally, no shooting settings. Usually limited to basics like file size and occasionally flash, although for some modes you can't even change those.
Movie While cameras are increasingly providing a direct-access record button for shooting movies, some still require that you enter a special mode in order to capture video. The camera may have a Manual or Custom Movie mode in addition to or instead of plain Movie. Necessary for shooting video. Custom/Manual usually gives you control over the aperture, shutter speed, and/or ISO sensitivity during video capture. The upside is that it keeps you from confusing still settings with video settings; the downside is that it makes it a little clunkier when jumping between stills and video.
How to use Program mode
Program mode is the thinking person's auto: the camera chooses the most important settings for you -- shutter speed and aperture -- and allows you to override all of the other defaults. Program is the most general-purpose auto mode. It's better because you can set the ISO sensitivity (so you can control noise), use exposure compensation (to control overall scene brightness), and select metering (for difficult situations, such as a backlit subject). Everything except shutter speed and aperture. Some cameras offer a Program shift mode, which allows you to adjust shutter speed and aperture in lockstep (in other words, change them while preserving the metering exposure value).
Shutter priority
How to use Shutter-priority mode
In this mode, you set the shutter speed and the camera automatically calculates the appropriate aperture for a given exposure value. When you need an exceptionally fast or slow shutter speed; for instance, capturing fast action, producing that "cottony" effect for running water, or taking long exposures of the night sky. Everything except aperture.
Aperture priority
How to use Aperture-priority mode
In this mode, you set the aperture and the camera automatically calculates the appropriate shutter speed for a given exposure value. When you want to control how much of the background and foreground are in focus. This is especially useful for portrait and macro photography, when you want the subject in focus and the background blurred (wide apertures) or landscape and architecture shots, when you want everything sharp (narrow aperture). Everything except shutter speed.
How to use Manual mode
Here you can set shutter speed and aperture independently, shifting the exposure value. The camera usually tells you how far you are from the "correct" exposure. If you're wary of operating in manual mode but have some time to experiment, remember that you can use Program mode to see what the camera thinks the appropriate settings would be, then plug those into manual mode as a starting point. When you want full creative control. Complete control.
Bulb A version of Manual mode in which the shutter stays open as long as you hold down the button, for very long exposures. When you want full creative control in the dark. Complete control.

Typical scene modes

Scene mode in the Olympus PEN E-PL5.

These are general descriptions of the most common scene modes. Each manufacturer has its own variations, and may adjust parameters like metering, contrast, brightness and saturation as well. Furthermore, if the camera in question is a digital SLR, the scene modes can't control where in the lens zoom range the focal length is set or the state of the optical image stabilization.

Mode Description Uses
Portrait The goal is usually to render the face(s) in focus against a blurred background. Generally sets the camera to a medium telephoto focal length with wide aperture (or simulated wide aperture). Recent models will usually invoke face detection for optimal focus, exposure and skin tones, as well as turn on flash and red-eye reduction. Watch out for portrait modes that smooth skin and perform other feats of blurring and distortion. Daylight or well-lit shots of people or animals standing still.
Sports This mode usually attempts to freeze fast-moving subjects. To do so, the camera will bump up the shutter speed as high as possible, which frequently requires raising the ISO sensitivity as well, so you may see increased image noise in this mode. More advanced models may also kick in continuous-shooting and some sort of focus tracking algorithm to keep a lock on the subject. Daylight or well-lit sporting events, as well as kids and pets in action.
Landscape This mode attempts to get as much of the scene in focus as possible, and will occasionally boost saturation on greens, blues, and reds to render photos that "pop." (Sometimes that's split off into a separate Foliage mode.) To achieve this, the camera will generally set the focal length to a relatively wide angle, the aperture fairly narrow, and the focus to infinity. Daylight nature or cityscapes.
Macro, aka close-up This is like a portrait mode for small objects; it produces the same effect of a sharp subject against a blurred background. To do so, it zooms the lens to the point at which it has the closest focusing capability. Occasionally, the camera can intelligently set the flash to prevent completely blowing out the subject. Photographing small subjects.
Night, aka Night landscape This mode is designed for shooting photos in low light, preserving detail in the dark areas without blowing out bright objects, like streetlights, and to get as much of the scene in focus, as you would with a landscape shot. The camera generally sets itself to a medium-to-high ISO sensitivity, with a relatively slow shutter speed, and turns flash off. As such, there'll be increased image noise and the possibility of camera shake. Any night scene in which you don't have a central subject, like a person, that needs to be brighter than the rest of the shot.
Night Portrait This differs from a regular night mode to compensate for a relatively close subject in the scene, such as a person or animal, that you want to be exposed brightly enough to stand out. Newer cameras will turn on face detection, and many cameras turn on the flash. Like Night mode, the camera generally raises the ISO sensitivity and lowers the shutter speed, but the overall shot is optimized for the subject. Any night scene in which you have a central subject, like a person, that needs to be brighter than the rest of the shot.

Less-common scene modes

Beauty modes, which algorithmically retouch various skin tone and texture "problems" are the latest auto trend.

Yes, manufacturers tend to add more scene modes in order to boast larger numbers in comparison charts, but modes like these tend to be chosen because they handle a scene that's an exception to the rules of an existing scene mode.

Mode Description Uses
Candlelight This mode is a variation of Night Portrait, but usually without flash in order to preserve the ambiance of the light. Any night or low-light scene in which you have a central subject, like a person, illuminated by an attractive, nonglobal light source, such as candles, lava lamps, stage lighting, and so on.
Sunset A variation of Night Landscape, this mode assumes slightly more available light -- allowing for a lower ISO sensitivity and faster shutter speed -- plus bumps up the saturation. For dawn or dusk shots where you want to emphasize the colors in the landscape, including bright foliage.
Food This probably combines Macro and Night Portrait-type settings, sometimes accompanied by a boost in saturation to make the food look more attractive. In addition to food, you can try it for many indoor close-ups.
Documents, aka Text This is typically a black-and-white mode with extra contrast and sharpness applied, optimized for readability. Some variations on this mode also include some lens-distortion correction. Anything you might otherwise have scanned or photocopied, like business cards and book pages, as well as signs with information you want to remember, like phone numbers.
Panorama A mode that shoots photos intended to be combined into a single, very wide photo. It doesn't necessarily apply special settings, but at minimum usually has helper guidelines for you to align sequential shots to make it easier to stitch the photos together. In addition to the traditional broad landscape or cityscape, try Panorama if your lens isn't wide-angle enough to capture the entire scene as you want it.
Fireworks This is a variation of Night Landscape, but with a slower shutter speed to catch the trails of the fireworks. The camera might invoke image stabilization here. Good when you're trying to get trails of moving lights in the dark, like a carnival ride at night.
Beach and Snow Because a camera's automatic exposure is based on an average scene brightness, all-white shots will tend to look gray and low contrast. To compensate, you should always slightly overexpose them. This scene mode does that automatically. If it's a Snow-only mode, then it might also adjust the white balance to compensate for the fact that reflected snow looks bluish rather than white. For any scene with a lot of white or light colors in it.
Backlight Because a camera's automatic exposure is based on an average scene brightness, shots with a light source behind the subject will think there's more light than there is and produce a too-dark shot. This mode compensates for that, sometimes by turning on the flash. Any shot where there's a lot of ambient light but the subject is in shadow.
Museum This mode is optimized for indoor shooting without flash. The camera will likely set to a moderate ISO sensitivity and relatively slow shutter speed; it might turn on image stabilization Good for any low-light photographs in which you don't want the harsh light of the flash.
3D Unless the camera has dual lenses, this mode combines offset shots to produce a 3D effect when viewed with the appropriate hardware and/or software. Right now, it's still in the gimmicky stage. 3D effect is best achieved in scenes where the subject is significantly in front of the background and the lens is set to a moderately wide angle.