Your Camera’s Mode Dial – In Beginner Speak

Almost every camera has a modes dial of some description. They come in various shapes and sizes but most of the positions on the dial are common across all cameras and brands. Knowing what each of the steps on the dial does is the first step to being in the correct mode for the type of shot you are going to take. So lets crack on and work our way round the dial: (I have focused on the modes as they are implemented on a DSLR, P&S cameras may differ slightly but in general are the same)


Some times this is indicated by the word “Auto” sometimes a green square. What does it do? Exactly what it says on the tin. In this mode the camera will decide everything for you, the shutter speed and aperture, the ISO, whether to use the flash etc. All you need to do is aim and click. The camera will base its decisions on average conditions though so anything out of the ordinary may confuse the camera and you need to use another mode.

P – Program

Normally signified by a P. In this mode you are still using the cameras auto exposure calculations but you have more ability to override the camera choice. You can set the ISO yourself, decide on the correct metering mode, choose when to use the flash. You do not directly set the aperture and shutter speed, however if you are presented with anything but average conditions you can indirectly control the settings using exposure compensation or P shift mode (more on these at a later date as they are quite advanced).

A – Aperture Priority

(On Canon this is called Av mode, the awkward lot!) Here you have all the same control as P mode with one key extra setting to be controlled. The aperture value. You set the aperture based on the type of shot you want, shallow DoF then set a low number, landscapes then crank it up. The camera will do all of the rest for you, pick the shutter speed and ISO (if you let it). This a great mode for learning about aperture control (and the one I use for at least 60% of shots)

More info about the use of aperture here

S – Shutter Priority

(Tv on Canon – Even more awkward!) This is like A mode but instead of setting the aperture manually you set the shutter speed. Simple! Why? When you need to ensure the shutter speed is a certain speed to freeze motion, blur motion, stop camera shake etc you can use this mode. The camera will choose the aperture and ISO (again if you let it).

More info on the use of shutter speed here.

M – Manual mode

(Canon call this M as well which is nice of them) Here it is down to you. You need to set everything to get a correctly exposed photo. Aperture,  Shutter Speed, ISO, the whole triangle! Some people swear by it and never shoot in anything but manual, some people are scared of it, me I’m in the middle, M has its uses, but sometimes it just not that necessary. The key for me is that you need to know when the camera has got it wrong in the (semi) auto modes, that is when you move to manual. You need to be hot on your knowledge of the Exposure Triangle

Scene Modes

Lots of modern cameras have a multitude of scene modes, designed to help you get the right shot in certain situations. I don’t find much use for them as I know how to set the camera in either P, A, S or M to achieve the same effect but understanding what they do can be useful and a helpful fallback if you don’t know where to start. The key things these mode control are the white balance and other JPEG conversion settings if your not shooting RAW and some elements of exposure. Here are some of the more common modes:

Landscape mode

Favours smaller apertures to maximise DoF.  JPEG conversion favours blues and green and boosts saturation. May also switch WB to daylight.

Portrait Mode

Favours larger apertures to create nice blurry backgrounds. JPEG conversion favours skin tones.

Macro Mode

Very different in a DSLR to a P&S. In a DSLR it will favour medium apertures and vivid JPEGs. In a P&S it will allow closer focusing and create (slightly) more blurry backgrounds.

Sports Mode

Favours faster shutter speeds to freeze motion and turns on continuous shooting mode.

Night/Scenic Portrait

I find this the most useful scene mode as it is the hardest shot to set up manually. It is also a scenario that you often want snapshots without having to worry about manual settings. It will set the camera to slow sync flash to expose for the background but fire the flash to exposure your portrait.

There are loads of other scene modes on some cameras but we would be here all day of I tried to describe them here. As with everything the best way to work it all out is trial and error so get out there and shoot some pictures

Sorry for the lack of pics in this post, I’ll come back and add some when I find the time!

1 Response to “Your Camera’s Mode Dial – In Beginner Speak”

  1. 1 Kathe 2 August 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Hi Fletch,
    I found a link to your blog in a post you made on Digital Photography School website. I’m SO glad I followed your link because I love the Beginner Speak articles you are writing! They are so easy to understand. I do a little bit of photography for my work and I’ve taken one or two photography workshops as well but I always feel like I’ve missed the boat on a lot of stuff. I’ve purchased books and subscribed to websites but your blog is the first that has made a lot of the basics very clear to me. You have a knack teaching.
    I’ve subscribed to your blog and I’m going to be spending the next few weeks read everything in your Beginner Speak archives.
    I hope you are considering publishing a book on Beginner Speak because I would definitely buy it.
    Here is a link to my website.
    It is mostly concerned with writing (I use it primarily as a Internet Resume so to speak) but there is a photo gallery page link at the top of the page. I’m hoping to improve my photography and I think I’ll be able to do it now that I have a subscription to your blog. Thanks!

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Welcome to my blog

I am an amatuer photographer living in Sheffield, England. My blog will detail my photography journey, from fumbling beginer to, hopefully one day, competant and knowledgeable photographer

By sharing my experince hopefully I can help every one else with the same goals and maybe, just maybe impart some of the knowledge I have leaned

If you have any questions or comments about the blog then why not email me.
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