A beginner's guide to Camera Modes

First published:
March 14, 2023
January 31, 2024

A beginner's guide to Camera Modes

First published:
March 14, 2023
January 31, 2024

Photo by Kav Dadfar

If you are still keeping your camera on Auto mode, now might be the perfect time to step beyond your comfort zone and choose a more suitable mode for your photography

If you have recently bought a camera for the first time, you will have probably noticed that there are various letters and numbers on the main dial on your camera. For a lot of beginners, this can seem daunting. So they end up just keeping their camera on auto-mode all the time.

While auto-mode is OK to use, it’s a little like buying an expensive sports car and keeping it in first gear. It still works, but it will not be the best option. The good news is that camera modes are relatively straightforward to understand. And once you have understood what they are and when to use them, you will be unlikely to ever go back to using auto-mode again.


Auto-mode is OK to use for most scenarios. But it can also mean less than ideal setting which will have a negative effect on your photos.

Before we go into the various modes that your camera may offer, it’s important to understand why auto-mode may not be the best option to choose. The big problem with choosing auto is that you are giving the camera complete control over the settings. And even though cameras are incredibly smart these days, they can also be prone to selecting unnecessary settings that have a negative impact on your photos. For example, say you are photographing a landscape scene, due to the shadow in the scene, your camera might suddenly set your aperture at f/2.8 because it wants to ensure that you get a good exposure in your photo. So you end up with a shallow depth of field where only a small part of the image is sharp.

Or another big issue is when your camera suddenly hikes up your ISO setting to 6400 because a scene might be slightly too dark. This ends up adding way too much noise into your photo which will make the image appear soft. Whereas, if you were shooting manually, you may have been able to underexpose your image a little and brighten it up in post-production.

Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon/S on Nikon)

Shutter priority is a good option when you need to ensure that you need a fast shutter speed.

The first step in moving away from auto mode on your camera is to choose a semi-automatic mode. One of these is known as “shutter priority” mode. When you select shutter priority mode, you select your shutter speed, and your camera automatically selects the aperture (i.e. the f/stop) to be able to achieve your desired shutter speed. So, that might mean your camera selects a wider aperture (i.e. lower f/stop) in lower light conditions.

Shutter priority mode is ideal for situations when you need to ensure that your shutter doesn’t fall below a certain threshold. For example, this might be when you are photographing any kind of movement (i.e. people, sport, wildlife or birds). In these scenarios when you want to freeze the action, you need to make sure that your shutter speed is fast. So by selecting your shutter speed you can be sure that there is no danger of your subject being blurred because the camera has selected a shutter speed that is too slow.

Aperture Priority (Tv on Canon/A on Nikon)

There are of course times when your depth of field becomes more important than your shutter speed. For example, if you are photographing a landscape scene or even a city skyline, you need to have a long depth of field to ensure that the photo is sharp from your foreground to the background. In these scenarios, selecting aperture priority would be the recommended mode.

Aperture priority works in the same way as shutter priority. But instead of setting your shutter speed, you select your aperture (i.e. f/stop). The camera will then select a shutter speed to ensure that you can achieve the required depth of field.

Aperture priority is useful when you need to ensure that your depth of field doesn’t change (i.e. for landscapes and head and shoulder portraits).

A word on ISO

Make sure that you always pay attention to your ISO. If it’s too high (i.e. when shooting in low light conditions) it will add unwanted noise to your photos.

For both of the semi-automatic settings above, it’s important to also pay attention to the ISO. If you leave you ISO setting on auto, your ISO setting will also be changed by the camera to help achieve the required shutter speed or aperture.

This means that it can suddenly be raised too high by the camera adding noise into the photo. So, I would strongly recommend that you always set a maximum ISO when choosing either shutter priority or aperture priority modes. You can always tweak things if you find that you need to raise your ISO higher.

Manual (M)

I will normally only ever use manual mode if I’m shooting with a tripod or taking photos for a stitched panorama.

As the name implies, this is a full manual mode which means you will need to set every aspect of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO). Before you fret, it’s not actually that complicated to master. You simply need to work through the three settings in order.

I would always start with my aperture (f/stop) when shooting in manual mode. Once I have set my aperture, the shutter speed will then depend on the scene that I am photographing, so that is second on my list. Depending on my aperture and the light available, it may be that my shutter speed can’t be achieved at a low ISO. So the final step is to raise the ISO until I can achieve the required shutter speed. If my ISO becomes too high, I may select a slightly wider aperture so that I can keep my ISO lower.

Usually, the only time that I would ever use manual mode is when I have placed my camera on a tripod or when I am shooting stitched panoramas (as I don’t want the settings to change between shots).

Other modes

Setting custom settings is useful if you regularly shoot a specific scene.

The above modes are the most common that you will find in modern digital cameras. But there are a couple of others which are useful to know about as well. Almost all advanced DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will have customisable modes that are either pre-programmed for specific scenarios (i.e. portrait, landscape etc) or ones that you can programme yourself. These are useful to have when you want to quickly switch to a mode other than the ones specified above.

Another mode to be aware of is the “Bulb” mode. For some cameras, this is achieved when selecting a shutter speed of longer than 30 seconds in manual mode. Other cameras like the professional Canon range have a dedicated “B” symbol on the main dial to allow you to select this mode. Bulb mode should be used when you need shutter speeds of longer than 30 seconds. When selected, the shutter will open when the shutter release button is pressed and will stay open until it is pressed again. So, you should only use this mode if you have a tripod and a remote shutter release otherwise your photos will likely suffer from camera shake and be blurred.

Bulb mode is primarily used for astrophotography when you need long exposures which might be several minutes.

Hopefully, this article helps to demystify photography modes and helps you to see how easy it is to move away from automatic mode. As I mentioned earlier in this article, I firmly believe that once you start using one of these other modes, you will rarely go back to using auto.

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