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Shooting modes

Updated: Apr 2

You may notice that your camera has a dial on top, with various icons and letters. Not all cameras will have this, but many do. Sometimes instead of a dial, the icons and letters will be somewhere in the settings menu on your camera's software.


These icons and letters are for setting the camera's shooting mode.



In my earlier blog post on Balancing Aperture Size, Shutter Speed, and ISO, I talked about how these 3 elements interact to control a photo's exposure. The shooting mode tells your camera which of these elements to automate or prioritize.


AUTO (sometimes represented by a green camera icon or green box)

All 3 elements are set and balanced automatically by the camera. This is like having a simple point-and-shoot - you switch on the camera, point it at the subject, and snap the photo. The camera decides the rest.


Letters: M

M stands for Manual. Manual mode means you control the aperture size, shutter speed, and ISO. The camera does not automate any of this.


Letters: P

P stands for Program. Program mode is sort of like a hybrid between Auto and Manual. The camera automatically selects the aperture size, shutter speed, and ISO, but you can override these by manually setting any of them, and the camera automatically adjusts the remaining elements to achieve the same exposure level.


Letters: A / Av

A (or Av, as indicated by some manufacturers) stands for Aperture Priority. You select the aperture size, and the camera selects the remaining elements to achieve the exposure level.


Letters: S / Tv

S (or Tv, as indicated by some manufacturers) stands for Shutter Priority. You select the shutter speed and the camera selects the remaining elements to achieve the exposure level.


Letters: TAv

TAv stands for Shutter and Aperture Priority. You select the shutter speed and aperture size, and the camera selects the ISO to achieve the exposure level. This is less common, the only camera I own that has this specific mode on the dial is my Ricoh GR. It's not really a vital mode because you can achieve this simply by setting your ISO to AUTO and manually setting your shutter and aperture.


Icons: Portrait (looks like a person - often a lady, sometimes she's wearing a hat)

If you select the Portrait icon, your camera will assume that you want to take a portrait of an individual. It opens up your aperture to a large aperture size in order to give you a shallow depth of field, and selects the remaining elements to achieve the exposure level. Although this icon suggests that it's good for photos of people, it fares poorly if you're trying to shoot groups because the large aperture size and corresponding shallow depth of field will result in some of the people in the group being out of focus.


Icons: Landscape (looks like a mountain)

If you select the Landscape icon, your camera will assume that you want to take a photo of a landscape. Accordingly, it will try to capture as much of the scene in focus as possible, by using a small aperture size to create a large depth of field. To compensate in poor lighting conditions, the camera may use a slower shutter speed.


Icons: Sports (looks like a person sprinting)

If you select the Sports icon, your camera will assume that you want to take a photo of a sports scene with fast-moving action. It will select a high shutter speed and adjust the remaining elements to achieve the exposure level.


Icons: Night time (looks like a person with a star over their shoulder)

If you select the Night icon, your camera will assume that you are shooting in low-light conditions. It will select a slow shutter speed and adjust the remaining elements to achieve the exposure level. It may also fire your flash, if your camera has one.


Icons: Macro (looks like a flower)

If you select the Macro icon, your camera will be able to focus on subjects close to the camera lens. The exact distance between your lens and the subject will vary from lens to lens. Focusing is often a bit slower on macro mode as your camera tries to figure out which part to focus on.


Note: You may see other markings on the dial as well, such as C1, MY1, C.Fn, etc. These may be for setting custom functions or additional shoot modes, and may not be found on all cameras. You may also find an icon that looks like a video camera, and this is for taking video if your camera permits. But when it comes to photos, the most common shoot modes you will come across are Auto, M, P, A/Av, and S/Tv. Icon shoot modes may not be present on certain cameras.


For beginners, I'd recommend either:


  • Aperture Priority mode (A/Av): This will allow you to control your depth of field more easily, creating bokeh if you want portraits with creamy backgrounds, and greater depth of field if you want everything in focus

  • Manual mode (M): This will allow you to rapidly improve your technical handling and learn how to balance aperture size, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity more quickly - but the learning curve for this is steeper.


My next post will share some standard settings that work for me about 80% of the time, and hopefully they'll work well for you too.



Please consider sharing your photos with the community by tagging #dharmaportraits on your Instagram photos - I'd love to see how you're using these tips to create beautiful photos.

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