A Short Course Book
Curtin's Guide to Digital Cameras
And Other Photographic Equipment

Exposure Modes

Click to explore the various exposure modes on many cameras.
Modes and how they are designated on the camera vary from model to model. Modes that give you the most control, available only on more advanced cameras, are usually indicated with letters. Those that are fully automatic, often called scene modes, are indicated with icons like those shown here on this Canon mode dial.
Click to explore how apertures and shutter speeds relate.
On some cameras you select exposure modes using buttons or a menu.
Digital cameras have various ways of controlling the aperture and shutter speed. All modes give equally good results in the vast majority of photographic situations. However, when you photograph in specific kinds of situations, each of these exposure modes may have certain advantages. Here are modes you may want to look for although it can be complicated by the way camera companies use different names for the same things.
  • Automatic mode sets the shutter speed and aperture without your intervention. This mode allows you to shoot without paying attention to settings so you can concentrate on composition and focus.
  • Scene modes, which go by a variety of names (Nikon calls them Multi auto programmed modes), have preselected settings for specific situations such as landscapes, portraits, night portraits, sports, and close-up photography. On some cameras the number of these settings has gotten a bit out of hand since there are so many you have to select them from a menu.
  • Programmed mode is just like full auto in that it sets the aperture and shutter speed for you so you can concentrate on composition and action. When in this mode, many cameras have a mode that lets you select from a series of paired aperture and shutter speed combinations that yield the same exposure as that recommended by the camera but which give you control over depth of field and motion.
  • Shutter-priority mode lets you choose the shutter speed you need to freeze or deliberately blur camera or subject movement and the camera automatically sets the aperture to give you a good exposure. You select this mode when the portrayal of motion is most important. For example, when photographing action scenes, such as those encountered by wildlife photographers, sports photographers, and photojournalists, shutter-priority mode might be best. It lets you be sure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the action or slow enough to blur it.
  • Aperture-priority mode lets you select the aperture needed to obtain the depth of field you want and the exposure system automatically sets the shutter speed to give you a good exposure. You select this mode whenever depth of field is most important. To be sure everything is sharp, as in a landscape, select a small aperture. The same holds true for close-up photography where depth of field is a major concern. To throw the background out of focus so it's less distracting in a portrait, select a large aperture.
  • Manual mode lets you select both the shutter speed and the aperture. You normally use this mode only when the other modes can't give you the results you want. Some cameras have a bulb setting in this mode that lets you capture time exposures such as light trails at night. In this mode the shutter remains open as long as you hold down the shutter button. If it's open for more than 1 second, noise in the form of randomly-spaced, brightly-colored pixels may appear in the photograph. To reduce noise at slow shutter speeds, turn on noise reduction if the camera has it.
  • Custom settings mode on high-end cameras lets you store personal settings. If you use the same settings over and over again it may be worthwhile saving them for future use. Some cameras let you save one or more sets and then instantly access them at any time just by turning a mode dial. Storing your own settings is as simple as setting the camera the way you want it and then selecting the menu's command that assigns them to the custom setting.

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