Camera modes (PSAM and more)

Camera mode dial is something which really gets on photographers’ nerves. Every photographer has camera modes which are never used. This relates to style of shooting but more so with the comfort level in using these various modes. One of the first things to becoming a good photographer is to become comfortable with the camera (more about this – Knowing my camera). I thought I’ll write a small description of these various camera modes for clarity’s sake. I started of with cameras having manual mode and I still find Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority a luxury which I often use. The description may therefore be a little biased from my point of view.

Camera Modes

(A Nikon camera’s mode dial)

Manual Mode (M)
Everything has to be set by the photographer. The camera can click photos at any combination of shutter speed, aperture, ISO and various other settings. Metering in this mode just gives an indication of the exposure and how much the present settings are ‘off’ from the recommended exposure value. Any metering method or ISO can be chosen. Using the manual mode also helps in saving precious battery power. Auto-ISO and Exposure Compensation should not be used with Manual Mode as they will unnecessarily complicate the things.

Shutter Priority (S in Nikon, Tv in Canon)
The shutter speed is set by the user and the camera then calculates the aperture based on its metering. The aperture selection is also affected by ISO setting and Exposure Compensation. Very useful when the requirement is to freeze the motion, motion blurs or when the requirement is to stick to a particular range of shutter speeds. If the ISO is set to a value which makes the total exposure value outside the camera’s range, then the camera tends to use the lowest of highest aperture available and the pictures come out over or under-exposed depending on the side to which the exposure is falling. Some cameras do not let the shutter release button to be pressed in such cases. On the other hand, using Auto-ISO determines the lowest shutter-speed based on the focal length used, ensuring that the effects of hand-movements are reduced. With low light, the ISO automatically increases when the light is low to keep the total exposure within camera’s useful range. However with extreme bright light and low shutter speed selection, the images can get over-exposed, if the ISO has reached its minimum and the aperture is also at its smallest size.

Aperture Priority (A in Nikon, Av in Canon)
The aperture is set by the user and the camera calculates the shutter speed. The working is the same as that for Shutter Priority Mode but aperture is now user controlled instead of shutter speed. Useful for landscapes, macro, portraits and wherever a particular aperture is required. Using Auto-ISO in combination with Aperture Priority keeps the shutter speed above a certain limit as determined by the focal length of the lens by boosting the ISO in low light conditions. (Auto ISO)

Program Mode (P)
The shutter speed and aperture vary in relation to each other and for every light condition there can be multiple combinations available. 1/250 sec shutter speed at f/11 will permit the same light to reach the sensor as 1/500 sec shutter speed at f/8. The same light will also reach the sensor at 1/125 sec shutter speed and f/16 aperture. These all are various combinations available for any particular exposure value. In Program Mode, the camera comes up with one such combination recommendation for the scene in front. It does not include flash or white balance in these automated settings. The recommended combination can be changed too. The combination recommended also depends on the ISO setting. It can be a useful mode for taking candid snapshots where flash is not required.

Auto (A)
Same as the Program Mode but it also controls the flash and light balance. The camera calculates if light is low and makes use of the flash. The light balance is also set by the camera. I do not recommend using this mode for the simple reason that the in-camera flash are terrible.

User Modes (U in Nikon, C in Canon)
As the name says it, the various settings are based on individual inputs. These are useful modes for photographers who tend to use some particular sets of settings very often.

Bulb Mode (B in Canon)
This should ideally be not there on the mode dial. It is a method of opening the shutter. Usually this is available at the lower extreme of shutter speeds. In bulb mode, the shutter remains open till the time shutter release button is kept pressed. The new cameras now have another variation of this function in the mode dial – the shutter opens with the click and remains open till the next click. This has different names in different camera brands and varies within a brand also among different models. In fact earlier mechanical cable releases sometimes had a lock to keep the shutter release button depressed for really long exposures. Why the weird name ‘Bulb’? It is a left over from the old days when a pneumatic bulb was used for shutter release.

T Mode
An improvement on the B mode above. It opens the shutter with the first click and closes the shutter with the second click. Useful for very long exposures without the need for any kind of lock.  As I said above this one is also not an actual camera mode but just a way of opening shutter. Maybe part of shutter speed selection but never a mode selection!

X Mode
Every camera has a maximum shutter speed at which the curtains open up completely. This is the flash sync speed. X-Mode sets the camera’s shutter speed to this speed. This is also not a proper camera mode but just a shutter-speed setting.

This permits selection of pre-programmed modes as detailed below. Some cameras have the option to select the scene modes after setting the Scene option on the mode dial. Other cameras have the scene modes directly on the mode dial. Most of the high-end cameras usually don’t have these. I have some cameras where the scene modes exist but I have never used them. I find the above listed modes (A,S,M) more than enough for my use.

Landscape Mode
The aperture is set to very small in order to give a large depth-of-field. This ensures that everything is in focus. If clicking jpg, the camera also post-processes the images to increase contrast, saturation and sharpening. Some of the new camera models also increase the saturation mainly in the blue-green region. This makes the skin tones appear more natural. The small aperture in this mode leads to the camera using slow shutter speeds for letting in the correct amount of light. Auto-ISO should be set to ‘on’ with this setting (Auto ISO). If not, keep an eye on the shutter-speed and try to keep the camera stable.

Portrait Mode
As the name says it, this mode is best used for photographing persons. The camera selects a wide aperture in order to blur the background. This shallow depth of field helps by making distracting background out of focus. Camera also processes the raw image data in order to make skin appear soft and smooth. This is done by reduction in contrast, saturation and sharpening, which is usually limited to the hues corresponding to skin tones. A customized curve (Curves Tool at your service) is also applied for further improvements. The Portrait Mode also increases the shadow details.

Sports Mode
The camera selects a fast shutter speed and will often switch to AF-C (continuous auto-focusing or AF tracking) to keep the subject in constant focus. The main purpose of Sports Mode is to freeze the action. Though named ‘Sports Mode’, this can be used anywhere there is a need for high shutter speed.

Night Mode
Camera uses a slow shutter speed without any flash. This is good for capturing night images in available light. Think of the light-shows, new year decorations, neon signs and night life. Light trails can also be captured using this mode.

Night Portrait Mode
The camera uses the flash also along with a slow shutter speed. This ensures proper exposure of the dimly lit background and the dark subject. The long shutter speed lets in more light, allowing proper exposure of the background while the flash lights up the subject. An example of this can be taking a picture of your friend who is standing in the dark, in front of the music hall lit by flood lights. I don’t recommend this mode at all because of the low-powered direct flash and the mismatch in white balance between the subject and the background. Avoid it whenever you can. If you want to do what this mode is proposing, invest in a good flash/speedlight and use gel filters to match the white balance.

Macro Mode
It just sets the metering mode to spot-metering to get a good reading from the subject. No, it does not permit you to focus close as one would think from the name. The name is just a carry-on from compact cameras. In DSLRs the close focusing is determined by the lens and also by how it is mounted. Macro Mode does not change the focusing in any way. It also tends to use a wide open aperture to blur the background which is actually opposite what photographers do while doing macro photography. The shallow depth of field is supposed to give a look similar to a macro lens but in actual macro work, the creamy out of focus background happens since the subject’s relative distance is very close compared to distance of the background. The photographers have to actually use small apertures to get the subject properly focused at such close distances. Macro Mode therefore just tried to mimic things but fails most of the time.

Automatic Depth of Field (A-DEP)
This is an interesting mode which Canon has provided to its users. It depends on user inputs. The user has to provide information about which is the nearest and farthest point that has to be in focus. Camera calculates the aperture required for achieving the required depth of field and then adjusts the shutter speed after reaching at the desired aperture. It does make things easy but from what I have heard from Canon users, this mode is good only for basic depth of field requirements. Any thing serious requires more effort and are better captured at Aperture Priority or Manual modes. I am a Nikon user so I can not provide my inputs on this mode. I use the age old method of ‘Depth of Field preview button’ or the engraved scale on the lenses.

Movie Mode
Does exactly what the name says. Shifts the camera to capturing movies instead of still photographs. Once again, I am a complete still image man and love photography. Videography is not for me.

Flash ‘Off’ Mode
Sometimes in low light conditions, flash fires automatically. This mode disables the firing of the flash and forces the camera to capture images in available light. The working is almost similar to the Night mode

Various effects found in image editing programs are accessible using this mode and the chosen effect is directly applied to the image. My suggestion – forget this mode and if you ever require any effects, do so in post-processing.

Camera Modes in Canon

(A Canon camera’s mode dial)


Not all the cameras have all the above modes. Do let me know if I have missed any modes and I’ll include those too in the article.

My suggestion to any user is to learn to use the Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed Priority modes and use them to the maximum. Manual Mode can help one master the camera but why put in extra efforts if the same thing can be achieved by these two modes?

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