What Mode Should I Shoot In?

Many people with a new digital camera ask the question, What mode should I shoot in? The answer to this question, like a lot of questions in photography is, It depends. It depends on your experience and comfort level with the camera, as well as what you are trying to accomplish. So lets take a brief look at all the modes and what they are best used for. With this knowledge and a little experience, you will be able to answer this question on your own.

Regardless of your brand of camera, it will have modes that are comparable to the ones described below, but may be called something else. The first thing you want to do with any new camera is sit down with the manual and the camera and read it while playing with the settings. This is the best way to become familiar with the dials, buttons and switches, and you can learn what each of the modes is called for your camera.


The first mode to look at is Full Auto or Green mode. Most people call it green mode because the icon that marks this mode is green on virtually every camera. This is fully automatic and does all the thinking for you. In this mode, it works the same as a point-and-shoot. This is a good mode to start with as it will allow you to become familiar with the camera without worrying about shutter speed, aperture, ISO, or whether the flash is needed. Many people leave it in this mode, but that is a mistake as you are losing the creative features that make a digital camera flexible and powerful.

The next modes on the camera are shown as little icons that look like a face, mountain, flower, and runner. Some also have a person under a moon or star, and a lightning bolt with a slash through it. Respectively, these are for shooting portraits, landscapes, macros (or close-ups), and things in motion. The last two, if provided are for shooting at night and disabling the flash. These are called the basic modes and are just as automated as green mode. The difference is they will make slight modifications in the camera settings to best capture what you are shooting.

These modes are better than green mode in terms of the results they will produce, but are only slightly better in allowing you to control the image. After you have shot in green mode and are comfortable with the camera, start shooting in these modes depending on the subject. Don’t worry about picking the wrong one; they will all take good pictures, but will change the way they take them.
Once you have shot some in the basic modes, look at them on your computer and notice the differences in the images and the settings the camera chose for aperture and shutter speed. For instance, in runner mode, the camera will shoot at a faster shutter speed to freeze the action. In portrait mode, it will use a larger aperture to blur the background.

Next, shoot the same subject using all the basic modes, then compare the results. In some cases, you may not be able to tell the difference, but where you can, examine the camera settings and you will begin to understand how shutter speed and aperture vary the results. This is something that requires time and there are many books on the subject, but this will give you a starting point. You can take perfectly fine images using just basic modes.

The next modes are called creative modes. These are displayed differently on different cameras, but the basic ones are P for Program, A or Av for aperture priority, S or Tv for shutter priority and M for Manual. The first one is P for program mode. This is slightly different from green mode and the next mode you should try. This mode will still set all the settings automatically, but you can override most of them manually to change the image capture to your liking. It also gives you full control over whether the flash is used or not. This is a great mode to start with as a failsafe while you start experimenting with aperture and shutter speed.

Once you are ready to venture into shutter priority, aperture priority or (gasp) full manual mode, the first thing you need to realize is you aren’t going to break anything. The images are digital if you make a mistake, delete it and learn from it. But mastering those three modes is how you will truly master the camera and be as creative as you can be. Shutter priority means you set the shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture. Aperture priority is where you set the aperture and the camera sets the shutter speed. Manual mode is where you make both settings.

Practice with all these modes will give a basic understanding of the interaction of three variables, shutter speed, aperture, and, ISO, and will help you learn to take better pictures with the ultimate goal for advanced photography shooting in manual mode.

When you are ready to experiment, take an image in full auto. Look at the back and write down the shutter speed and aperture the camera chose. Now move the mode to shutter priority, change the shutter speed to the one used in full auto and take the same image. Next do the same thing using aperture priority. Finally, change the mode to manual and set both the shutter speed and aperture to match what was used in full auto and take a final picture. Now look at all four. Guess what? They are all the same.

Next put it back in aperture priority and change the aperture several times, taking the same shot after each change. The overall look will be identical, but what is and is not in focus may have changed. This is called depth of field and is a primary reason for changing your aperture.

Continue to study aperture and shutter speed while experimenting with your camera and you will soon be shooting in all modes. Then you can answer the question, What mode should I shoot in? The one that captures what I want.