What exactly is a camera “mode” and what’s the difference between them? Let’s go back in time a bit…
Before the 1960s, just about all cameras were fully manual, but the advancements of electronics generated the first cameras with “Automatic Modes”. Early on, there were basically 2 types of “automatic” modes – shutter preferred and aperture preferred (which we’ll cover in a bit) – the user set one, and the camera selected the other to give a correct exposure. Eventually, full “Program” modes which fully automated exposure were common. Camera manufacturers didn’t stop there, and developed fully automatic “program” modes that were designed for specific types of photographs such as portraits or landscapes – but, in their attempt to “simplify” photography, they made it more confusing for many. Below is a brief description of the “modes” you may find on your camera:
P – Program Mode (The Green One)
This mode is the true “set it and forget it” setting. The camera will select a shutter speed and aperture combination that’s as average as the lighting allows. It is a good choice for people unfamiliar with the camera or photography – and really only want to record memories in the form of snapshots. It’s also perfect for the times you ask a stranger to take a photo of you and your friends on vacation. This mode is so “basic” that it actually locks out any unintentional additional adjustments (if you accidentally spin the shutter speed dial, for example). Think of it this way – with this mode, EVERYTHING (with the exception of focus, typically already set to automatic) is automatic, including exposure compensation and flash.
P – Program Mode (The Not-Green One)
This mode is pretty much the same as the program mode above, but only the EXPOSURE is automatic (users can still set exposure compensation and flash settings manually). With some cameras, this mode allows the user a bit more creative input. The camera will select an “average” combination of shutter speed and aperture, but the user can alter those settings by adjusting the shutter speed or aperture. For example, I’m in my Program mode and I’m shooting a scenic with a tree in the foreground. My camera has selected a shutter speed of 1/250 at f8, but I think I want a bit more depth of field than f8 will provide. I can adjust the aperture to f11, and the program mode will automatically adjust the shutter speed to 1/125 (or, I can adjust the shutter speed to 1/125 and the camera will automatically adjust the aperture to f11 – either way). The camera then reverts to the “average” selected exposure values for the next photograph.
A Bunch Of Other “Automatic” Modes
Most modern cameras have additional “modes” that are fully automatic, but give different results by using different combinations of shutter speed and aperture for the same correct exposure.
Below is an incomplete list of modes that may be on your camera:
Sports or Action Mode
This mode is programmed to stop action as much as possible, and does so by selecting the fastest possible shutter speed combined with whatever aperture required to correctly expose the photograph. On cameras with an automatic ISO setting, this mode may increase the ISO in order to select faster shutter speeds.
With the landscape mode selected, the camera will automatically set a combination of shutter speed and aperture that will produce the greatest depth of field – selecting the smallest possible aperture and combining that with the correct shutter speed (one that is fast enough to prevent blur caused by camera shake) for the image. On some cameras, the flash may be disabled.
mode is programmed to produce exposures with very shallow depth of field, so as to set the background apart from the subject. It accomplishes this by selecting the largest possible aperture to reduce depth of field as much as possible, and combining it with whatever shutter speed required to yield a correct exposure. Some cameras may automatically recognize and focus on a human face.
Macro or Close-Up Mode
With this mode enabled, the camera will set its focusing preference to objects closer to the lens and selects a small aperture to increase depth of field. With some cameras, this mode restricts the camera lens to wide angle in order to increase depth of field to accommodate closer objects.
Night Portrait Mode
This mode selects a shutter speed that is slow enough to record low light background detail, and enables the flash to provide fill light for a foreground subject.
Use of this mode requires a tripod or some other platform to support the camera. It uses a longer shutter speed (about 4 seconds) to record several fireworks bursts.
This mode automatically sets exposure compensation to correct for underexposure caused by the snow “fooling” the light meter.
Similar to the Snow Mode, this mode automatically sets exposure compensation for the bright sand and reflective water surface, as well as enhance blue colors of the sea and sky.
Movie or Video Mode
Pretty much self explanatory – this mode enables the user to take videos with the camera.
Understanding how these modes work is what’s going to give you the predictable results you want. If I wanted to take a photograph of a car race, and I wanted the cars to have a slight blur giving the illusion of speed, the last “mode” I would want would be the “Sports” mode. I’d be better off with the “Landscape” mode to give me a shutter speed that would be slow enough to possible give me that touch of blur I’m looking for – or, better yet, I’d opt for the “Manual” mode and have absolute control over everything.
A – Aperture Preferred Mode
With this mode, the user selects the desired aperture, and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed to give a correct exposure. This is a good selection when you want full creative control over the depth of field, but still want to work in an automatic mode.
S – Shutter Preferred Mode
This is pretty much the opposite of the Aperture Preferred Mode described above. The user selects the desired shutter speed, and the camera selects the appropriate aperture to give a correct exposure. As with the Aperture Mode above, this is a good choice when you want control over the motion stopping quality of the photograph while still in an automatic mode. Even though the aperture is set automatically, it is a good idea to take note of the aperture being selected to prevent selecting a shutter speed that would require an aperture beyond the range available on the lens.
M – Manual Mode
With this mode, the user is responsible for the shutter speed as well as the aperture and has to manually select a combination of the two to yield the desired exposure. Using this mode, the camera’s meter is strictly informational and makes no adjustments to the exposure.
What About The Focus?
In addition to the various exposure modes, most cameras have optional settings for the focus – from manual to various automatic modes.
Focus – M or Manual
Manual focusing mode is just that – you are responsible for the focus – typically by spinning the barrel or front of the lens until it appears sharp in the viewfinder. This comes in handy when, for example, you want to have your subject off-center and you don’t want the camera focusing on the background. Another example would be photographing the car race (again) – pre-focusing on a particular spot and shoot when the subject (car) comes into that spot.
Focus – S or Single
Single Auto-Focus Mode is a focusing mode that prevents the camera from taking a photograph until the focus has been “locked in”. Most cameras will focus when the shutter release button is partially pressed – the exposure is then taken when the release button is fully depressed. With this mode, you can fully press the release and the camera will not “fire” until the subject is in focus. Additionally, you can point the camera at a subject that is not in the center, lightly depress the release until the focus locks (some cameras will “beep”), and then, while keeping your finger lightly on the release, you can re-compose the shot without the focus changing.
Focus – C or Continuous
Continuous Auto-Focus does not “lock in” the focus at any point, but rather continuously adjusts the focus while the release button is lightly pressed. This is useful when shooting that car race – the focus will adjust while the car is approaching. Fully depressing the release will open the shutter at any point.
I Have Flash Modes As Well
Although I’m not a huge fan of “on-camera” flash units (they’re not very powerful and they’re too close to the lens which usually results in “red eye”), most on-camera flash units have operational “modes”
Flash Mode – Off
I don’t think I really need to explain this one – the flash is off and won’t fire
Flash Mode – On/Auto
This is the standard mode for the flash – it will pop up when needed (or you can manually pop it up) and flash once to correctly expose a photograph.
Flash Mode – Fill
With this mode selected, the flash output is reduced slightly so as not to provide all of the light required for the exposure – it provides just enough light to “fill in” dark areas (within the range of the flash). The overall exposure is created with existing light.
Flash Mode – Red Eye Reduction
This mode reduces the occurrence of “red eye” in photos of people or animals. “Red Eye” occurs when the light source is at roughly the same angle as the lens. The light reflects off of the subjects retina and appears as zombie-possessed glowing highlights in the eyes of the subject in the final image. This mode will cause the flash to fire at reduced power a few times before the actual exposure is made, causing the subjects pupils to dilate, reducing the reflective area of the retina. The downside of this mode is that there is considerable shutter lag – a bit of delay between pressing the shutter release and the shutter opening.
Pretty much, we can separate this into 2 modes – single or continuous:
Drive Mode – Single
With this selected, the camera will take 1 photograph every time the shutter release is pressed. You have to lift you finger off of the release before you can take another photo.
Drive Mode – Continuous
Continuous mode allows you to take bursts of photos by holding your finger down on the shutter release. Some cameras allow you to set the speed, or FPS (Frames Per Second), of the burst. When using this mode, keep in mind that long bursts (coupled with hi-resolution image settings) can cause the camera to clog or pause while processing the images, disabling the camera for a bit.