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.

How Does Exposure Bracketing Work

There are times when it can be difficult to decide on what the ideal exposure should be to get the best image of a scene. It may be that you don’t have the time to think about your exposure, or it may be that there are elements of extreme brightness and shadow within the picture that you want to capture, and you’re not sure whether exposing for the highlights or the shadows will give you the better final image. Bracketing could be the solution.

What is bracketing?

Bracketing is the technical term for a sequence of frames of the same image, shot in rapid succession and all at different exposures. Normally, it is a sequence of 3 or 5 frames with each exposure differing from the other frames in steps of between 1/3rd of a stop up to a full stop or even two stops. Each sequence starts with a central exposure the camera deems to be the ideal exposure for the overall scene. Then another image is shot under exposed and one image shot over exposed. Hence the correct exposure is bracketed (or sandwiched) between 2 exposures which are under or over exposed by the same amount.

How do I bracket?

While DSLR camera users have the option to manually bracket between exposure settings, many DSLR and compact cameras have a built in feature known as Automatic Exposure Bracketing or AEB. AEB lets you select how much variation you want between frames and then fires off 3 frames in quick succession once the shutter is depressed. If you do manually bracket, be sure to use Aperture priority so that you are only changing the shutter speed and not depth-of-field.

The sequence is centered round the exposure the camera has determined will be the optimal exposure to produce the best image, so this is the first picture frame taken. It then takes the same picture but with less exposure, and finally the last frame is given more exposure than the first. This will give a series of 3 images, all of the same subject but with different amounts of shadow and highlight detail in them. The exposure variation that can be set between picture frames can vary between a third, two thirds or a full stop of exposure. Some photographers even bracket up to two full stops between images.

When we expose any image, we are trading off losses in some of the shadows and highlights to gain the most acceptable exposure overall, regardless of whether we make the exposure decision ourselves or allow the camera to do it for us.

What is the point of bracketing?

Bracketing gives photographers leeway to take and combine these multiple images in photo-editing programs to produce the ultimate perfectly exposed final image. Photographers are able to replace areas of shadow and highlight detail that could not be recorded with the main tonal range of the subject because the extremes of exposure went beyond the sensors dynamic range.

Bracketing can also give you subtly differences of exposures and allow you to choose what exposure compromise you are happiest with. Some photographers prefer to lose a little detail out of the shadows to keep the highlights from blowing out and becoming featureless white areas. Others prefer to see detail more in the darker tones.

So the next time youre at a loss about your exposure, try a little bracketing. You never know, you might like it!