No, that's a lie. There, myth busted in the first four words of my blog. But before you pack up and go home for the day, lets explore the uses and benefits of the different modes your digital camera is likely to have. It's important to know how professionals think and operate with their camera, when to use each mode, and when to take full control over the camera entirely. There are many reasons why a photographer may use one mode over another in certain situations, and there are many others where manual is preferable to letting the camera give the "Best possible guess" off of metering and environmental conditions.

Before we go any further, let it be known I spend a lot of time in manual mode... But I often see this as to my detriment, not my benefit

First, lets explore the common items on the dial of a camera. In the title image, you can see my D750 with a circular dial on the upper left corner. This is the mode selection dial of the camera. On it, you see I am locked to "M", which is full Manual mode. But what about the others? Let's give a quick description of them before we dive deeper:

  • M, Manual Mode – In this mode, every setting for the camera must be set by the operator. Shutter speed and aperture are controlled independently and can be set to anything the photographer desires. ISO can be set manually in this mode, too, or the camera may be set to automatically move through a range.
  • A, Aperture Priority Mode – As the name suggests, this mode gives priority to the aperture settings of the camera. This means that as you move your control slider on the grip, you are only changing the aperture settings. The camera will then use metering to determine the best shutter speed and ISO (again this may be manual if desired) to properly expose the photo.
  • S, Shutter Priority Mode – Just like with Aperture Priority mode, this mode lets you control one aspect while leaving the other to the camera. This time, however, you are opting to control the shutter speed (how long light is exposed to the sensor). As you move from one setting to another, the camera decides the best aperture settings to properly expose the photo, with regards to your shutter speed.
  • P, Programmed Auto – Is essentially an intermediary mode between Auto and manual. In this mode, the camera is going to default to the best assumed settings for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, with the added benefit that you can make some changes to these settings in real time.
  • Auto, Fully Automatic Mode – Often represented by a green camera or other green icon, this mode places the full responsibility of exposure onto the camera itself. While it may very well produce a good photo, this is not a mode you want to stay in when you are ready to learn about creatively correct composition, as the camera will regularly try to expose for the best "technically correct" composition in every shot. I have never, at any time, fired in auto mode.

Disclaimer: There is no standard naming to these modes and those listed above are most common on Nikon. Canon has a different naming scheme for its dial, as do other manufactures.

Now that we've talked a little about what each of those cryptic letters represents, lets talk about the most appropriate times to use them. Keep in mind that each photographer may find a unique use for each mode. While photography has a lot of "Best Practices", there aren't exactly many "rules" and you may break them as necessary.

Manual Mode – The Control Mode

A meteor shower streaks over the sky as the sun finishes setting, to the left the Galactic Centre can be seen coming over the mountains. 24mm, ISO 1600, f/1.8, 20", manual mode.

Just like in the automotive world, where manual means the car has no input over the gears used or the shift points, in the photography world manual means the camera has no input over settings. The training wheels are off and every aspect of the camera is in your control. You are responsible for setting the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO. Autofocus is usually not impacted by this setting, unless you disable it on the lens or in menu settings.

Manual mode has many great uses. I personally depend on it for my astrophotography work, where the cameras built-in sensors are useless because there is minimal to no visible light before the exposure takes place. Manual mode is great when you have both plenty of time to spend on your subject and a desired creative composition you are attempting to achieve. It is best used in landscape photography where a tripod is in use, in astrophotography, or in macrophotography on a tripod. It can generally be used for any variation of shooting, but for events and portraits, it may add unnecessary delay and could cost the photographer precious moments that are lost on exposure correction.

Manual mode is great for producing the photo you want, as the artist. It is the proverbial paintbrush by which you will apply your paint to your canvas. The lack of automatic intervention means that the resulting photo will feature every specific element you choose, for better or worse. This creative control, just like in the automotive world, comes at the cost of operation speed. A human simply can't move as fast as a computer, no matter who tells you otherwise.  

Aperture Priority Mode – For Depth of Field Control

A gust of wind hits my daughter as she plays in a creek bed in Rocky Mountain National Park. 150mm, ISO 125, f/5.3, 1/300s, Aperture Priority Mode.

The aperture of your lenses is one of the most important features in photography, and certainly a topic of another post to come. To sum it up simply, the aperture controls how much light passes through the lens at any given moment. The numbers, represented as F stops, determine how "wide" or open the aperture is at any given moment. The smaller the number, the more light can pass from the element to the sensor. The larger the number, the less light passes through the aperture to the sensor. This is variable on all lenses, even your smartphone.

So much more than just light, the aperture also impacts depth of field. Depth of field is best summed up as "softness" in the background of an image, or bokeh for technical term. The more light that passes through, the less the camera is able to focus on. The wider the aperture gets, the more out of focus other elements in the photo become. At a setting as wide as f/1.4, you may have focus on a subjects nose but not their eyes, or vice versa depending upon where you are focused in the frame. It is what allows you to isolate subjects or moments in a frame while allowing the background to provide contrast and colour, without detracting from the subject.

In aperture priority mode, you are focusing on telling the camera how much light you want to pass through the lens, while letting the camera decide how fast the shutter should move in response. This means that the camera is constantly seeking the best speed at which to open and close the shutter to expose the shot, based on your aperture settings. A wide, open aperture, and the camera will likely select a faster shutter speed, to avoid blowing out the highlights. A small, dark aperture setting of f/16 will result in a lower shutter speed, allowing more time for light to hit the sensor, but risking blurring to the photo. Aperture priority is great when light varies and you want to focus on specific subjects or items. It is best used in events like family reunion shots, holidays, portraits, and weddings. It is not always best for sport events, high activity scenes, or automotive photography (such as racing).

Because you forfeit the control of the shutter speed to the processor in the camera, less time is lost worrying about exposure. Combined with an automatic ISO range mode, you can shoot rapidly in fast-pace scenes without spending a lot of time focusing on proper exposure. It isn't 100% accurate in all settings, but modern bodies do a great job of metering. In cases where it under-exposes, post edit can usually fix these photos rather than losing them. It's easier to lighten an under-exposed photo than it is to darken an over-exposed one.

For a comparison between aperture sizes, compare the above image of my daughter, which used an f/5.3 setting to bokeh the background, to the f/16 shot below. In this scene, both my trucks headlamp and the mountains in the background are in focus, a result of the smaller aperture increasing the depth of field, while the camera held the shutter open longer.

My truck in front of a mountain saddle and valley in Rocky Mountain National Park, just as the sun began to set. 120mm, ISO 400, f/16, 1/125s, Manual Mode.

Shutter Priority Mode – For Motion and Action Capture

My truck driving along a mountain pass in Cripple Creek, Colorado, as the Aspens change colours. This shot is a "pan motion", utilising a composition to show the action of the vehicle driving by. 85mm, ISO 400, f/4.0, 1/50s, VND Filter used, Shutter Priority Mode.

Just as aperture priority mode lets you control the light and give up control of the shutter, Shutter Priority Mode reverses these rolls. In this mode, you will determine how much light reaches the sensor by controlling how long the shutter stays open. Just as the name suggests, a shutter is the element that opens and closes to let light pass through. The shutter speed is represented as fractions of a second, for instance 1/100s represents one one hundredth of a second that the shutter is open for. The higher the number goes, the faster the shutter opens and closes. The lower the number goes, the longer it stays open. A 20 second shutter speed, represented as 20", will remain open for 20 complete seconds at a time, as where 1/600s will allow the shutter to open for 1/600th of a second.

The result between the two may be the difference between an astrophotography photo with the galaxy in view, or capturing a blazing fast scene in a football game. When speed matters most, shutter priority mode is the best to use. It could be the difference between freeze-framing a perfect pass between players and missing the moment entirely to blurry hands. In this mode, the higher the number goes, the faster the frame will be captured. The camera will determine which F stop is used to best assist with exposing the photo. This also means, however, that the camera is deciding your depth of field. The faster the shutter speed goes, the higher you can expect the ISO to go and the wider you can expect the aperture to open. The result may be a perfectly frozen moment, but it may introduce noise and have soft background features.

It can also be used to capture runners, action scenes, race cars or other vehicles as they pass by, which is called "pan motion" photography. By doing this, you use a longer shutter time and move the camera with the subject as best as possible. The result is a subject, or parts of a subject, in focus while the background blurs, giving the sense of motion and speed as if it is still moving. This can be used to creatively tell stories of moving objects, or when used zooming in or out, can add creative flare to an otherwise bland scene. It is an important mode to be familiar with if you plan to shoot sporting events, dance or stage events, races, air shows, or action scenes as you find creatively fit, like the below scene of Grand Central Station in New York City.

As The Time Flies, a long exposure shot of New York Cities Grand Central Station, Manhattan, New York. 24mm, ISO 600 f/4, 1/40s, Manual Mode. 

Programmed Auto Mode – The Beginners First Step

So now that I've overwhelmed you with the major modes photographers use, here is one of the two we use infrequently, or never. As the name suggests, programmed auto mode means that the camera is technically in auto mode still, but can be programmed. This means you can control, to an extent, the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO. To what degree will depend on the camera in use.

Programmed auto mode is a good first step for a photographer who wants to focus on composition and technique but still have control over the camera. If you're still learning your basics to composition (which I will cover in another post), it may be the best mode to use. Letting the camera set and forget many of the functions may help you get more comfortable with staging, focusing, and creatively framing your subjects and environments. It takes much of the guess work out of an intimidating camera while still allowing control when you feel comfortable. I would, however, implore most beginners to spend limited time here. Learning to harness the power of your camera is one of the most important steps towards producing beautiful photos that you and others will love.

Auto Mode

Auto mode is how most of us use our smartphones and basic point and shoot cameras. A "set it and forget it" mode passes 100% of the responsibility for exposure to the camera. It will decide both the proper shutter speed and aperture settings, as well as the proper ISO. The camera takes over all metering duties and you are tasked with simply pointing, autofocusing, and forgetting. It's a mode we are all comfortable with on our phones, but when you move up to a larger rig, it's one you should quickly stop using. An expensive camera alone does not produce beautiful photos, and many new shooters make the mistake of assuming that it will. In auto mode, too much of your creative control is left to a processor. While it can usually do a good job, it cannot determine the creative elements that matter to you or your subjects. For that, you must step a bit beyond this mode and harness control over the camera. Once you do, you will begin taking the first steps towards those beautiful photos you want.

Don't be afraid of all these buttons and dials. Your camera is a complex tool, but each part of it is merely simple math, and movement along the "exposure triangle", a tool often used to explain how shutter, aperture, and ISO all impact each other during the shot. The best way to learn is to take control of the camera and experiment with what you want to achieve. At first, you may not produce many or any photos you like... But what you may lose in photos, you'll gain in technical skill. Over time, these roles reverse, and what you gain in photos will be because of all that technical skill you now have as second nature. A good camera doesn't produce great photos without a great photographer behind it... So start taking steps towards your own greatness, switch away from Auto or Programmed Auto and start shooting creatively in various modes. You may find your best talents in photography are yet to be discovered.