What Do the Camera Icons (Modes) on the Dial Mean?

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Occasionally I get a new DSLR owner pull me aside (so no one else will see) and ask me what all the little icons (modes) on the dial mean, and how they should use them. This shouldn’t be an embarrassing question, but it appears everyone thinks it is.  Most manufacturers make a vain attempt at explaining their modes either in the manual, or on the LCD screen when you switch modes. But they assume most understand the rest of the operations on the camera and do not really gear the description for the amateur or newbie photographer. Here we will try and unlock the mysteries of the DSLR camera modes.


Which modes will I use most?
As much as I hate to say it, for the average amateur the mode they will use most is AUTO, much to my chagrin. I constantly tell everyone I know who has a DSLR to get out of AUTO and use your manual modes. For clarification there are really only 4 manual modes on any DSLR. There are usually in the neighborhood of 8-12 different settings on the mode dial, but only 4 of them are actual manual modes. These modes are P,A,S and M (P,Av,Tv and M equivalents on Canon models). Of these modes 3 of them are really only Semi-manual modes. P, A(Av) and S(Tv), allowing you to adjust some, but not all settings. The camera still makessome of the decisions for you.  Every other mode on your camera is in one form or another an Automatic mode, where the camera adjusts the image in many more ways than you do. Only the M mode is truly Manual, where you the photographer have to set aperture, shutter speed and ISO without the camera interfering with your shot. Except for JPEG processing, which is a completely different article.

Now if your just wanting to document history with generic snapshots of the world, and don’t care about style, depth of field or adding any of your own personal touches, then stop reading right now. Just put your camera on AUTO and click away.  But I don’t think you spent the kind of money you did on a nice DSLR to just get the same shot every point and shoot owner can, with better quality of course.

The Modes Explained – your model or brand of camera may or may not have all the modes listed here, they may also have more. They may also not all be on the dial. Some Sony cameras for instance have a Scene (SCN) mode that you turn the dial to, then adjust the mode using the menus  on the on screen display.  These are just the most common modes at the time of this writing and not a comprehensive list. The icons shown here also may not exactly match yours, but they should be close. For example, for Night Portrait mode, some use a star above the head silhouette and some use a moon, they are the same mode.

AUTO – This mode of course is the simplest to use. The camera is in complete control of all operations. It will automatically adjust Aperture, ISO and Shutter speed to get you a correctly exposed image (according to the camera engineers). Probably 90% of the time this will produce an acceptable snap shot from your DSLR. It will look like the images that everyone else shoots in Auto mode but it will be acceptable. The most common mode used by all photographers. You may see a version of this called Auto+ which is basically a scene mode in automatic.

PP – Program Mode is where the camera sets the Aperture and the Shutter speed for you, but you have the ability to make changes to your other settings to adjust just how the image will come out. You can adjust the settings for the Flash, the ISO and the White balance. You can also use use exposure compensation on most models while in this mode. Adjusting your ISO up or down with determine how long your exposure will be and to what level of noise you will be adding. You use a higher ISO for lower light situation or to stop motion. This is the simplest of manual modes and is great for helping an amateur understand how ISO works. Play with this mode for a while and you will understand what I mean.

AA – Av –Aperture Priority- (Aperture Value on Canon) In this mode the photographer will adjust the Aperture (f stop) and the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to match. In this mode you can decide to adjust the ISO or leave it in auto mode. If you want to use flash, you must press the pop up flash button(usually on the side of the body left of the flash to enable it. Otherwise it will not fire.  Aperture priority mode is a good place to start teaching yourself how to adjust depth of filed in an image. Smaller F-stops (larger aperture opening) equal narrower depth of field. Which allow you to blur out backgrounds and foregrounds.

SS or Tv – Shutter Priority – (Time Value on Canon) In this mode the photographer has control of the Shutter Speed of the camera while the aperture is set by the camera. In this mode the camera will automatically adjust to the fastest (smallest f-stop) aperture that the lens will support and still take an image.  I would use this mode if your trying to capture a sporting event and are learning how to capture motion. This mode is great for capturing images in panning mode, where you track the moving object with the camera and freeze the subject but motion blur the background. The photographer is still in control of the vast majority of all other camera settings such as white balance and exposure compensation. Again flash must be popped up manually on many models.

MM – Manual – Obviously this is the mode everyone needs to strive to be using. Complete manual mode. The photographer has to adjust the Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO to get the proper exposure using only the light meter in the camera or heir own experience and knowledge. The camera does not automatically adjust these for you any more, giving you complete and creative control over your exposure. by using the 3 semi-auto modes above the photographer can eventually hope to be good enough utilize this mode on a regular basis.  Most new owners try this mode a few times, fail miserably and then go back to auto.  Don’t do it, learn the basics and take your time. If you aren’t using full manual well, then go back to Program, Shutter or Aperture modes for a while, then revisit manual later. You’ll get there with practice.

SCN – Scene – On cameras with very few modes on the mode dial, this setting is used to adjust the scene by using the on screen display on the back of the camera. You would select SCN then use the arrows on the back of the camera to select macro, portrait etc. Some cameras use variations of this, such as SCN1 or SCN2 to save custom user settings. Sort of like creating your own mode and storing it. But this is rare. Al teh same scene modes will apply, but the icons will be on the screen instead on on a dial. 

nightNight Portrait – This mode is if your going to be taking a picture of someone outdoors at night and you want to preserve the ambiance or feeling of the scene. Night portrait mode will slow the shutter speed, and adjust the timing of the flash to help you take a more natural night portrait.  When you try to take a night shot in Auto mode, the flash that is used will result in a very un-naturally lighted image that will appear nothing liked you are actually seeing. When using this mode you should use a tripod or at the very least the camera should be set upon a solid non moving surface. Due to long shutter speeds, if the camera or the subject move, you will get motion blur. Using a shutter timer is a plus here as well to prevent camera movement upon activation of the shutter button.

sunsetSunset – This mode is used to take beautiful pictures of either the sun setting in the west or rising in the east. By adjusting the cameras white balance settings and also tweaking the color filters and slowing shutter speeds, it tends to bring out the brilliant red skies and dramatic dark shading of a nice sunset or sunrise. Take care when using this mode that you do not look directly into the sun through your camera. Even with an ND filter attached you could damage your retina. Wait till the sun drops over the horizon or before it rises above it.

sportsSports and Action – The obvious answer is of course sports or action photography, the realistic answer is it sort of works, some of the time in the right conditions. To say that any camera has one single mode that will cover all the variations of speeds and lighting conditions of the different kinds of sporting events is absurd. This mode very basically speeds up the shutter speed, increases the ISO and attempts to stop the motion of an object or person. This mode alone is probably the number one reason I get people asking me how to manually shoot a sporting event. It usually just does not do what you expect it to. For slower sports like volleyball, baseball etc, it might work ok, but don’t expect dramatic results. You really need to learn manual or semi-manual operation to get the action pictures your wanting.

macromacro – This literally means “very large in scale or scope or capability”  but from a photographers point of view Macro means up close or zoomed in larger than life. This is the mode your going to use to obviously take pictures of flowers, but it is also a good mode to use to take images of very small items that you want to show in great detail such as the hands of a child or the texture of a brick wall. The difficulty in shooting in this mode is that you are going to be limited by the macro ability of your lens. Every lens has a minimum focal distance, and it is usually written on the lens somewhere. For your average telephoto this is around 2 Feet. A macro lens will be able to focus all the way down to say 6 inches or so. Giving you greater magnification with less distortion. There are also several telephotos that have the macro capability built into them as well. They usually have a switch that locks them into a fixed focal length to enable this ability.  My 70-300mm Quantaray does this, locking it in at 300mm with a 1:2 magnification ratio. it basically becomes a 300mm prime lens that magnifies the subject to twice its size. You do not HAVE to have a macros lens to shoot macro images, but it helps.

landscapeLandscape – For taking images of landscape, cityscape, seascape or any very wide ,very deep scene you want to capture a lot of detail in. The camera is going to set your focus to infinity, adjust to a bit slower shutter speed, and set a pretty small (read larger number) aperture. This will allow the camera to capture as much color and detail, with as wide a depth of field as possible. Using a tripod in this mode is recommended, especially in lower light, but not required.  A good tripod such as the Dolica GX650B205 reviewed here can be invaluable in getting tack sharp images.

portraitPortrait – Portrait mode is going to assume there is a person or object immediately in front of the camera and adjust accordingly. It will set a very wide (small number f-stop) aperture say f4 or f2.8 to get a very narrow depth of field, in an attempt to blur out the background. It will also almost always add some fill flash to remove unwanted shadows from the subject, even in really bright light, such as sunlight. New camera owners are usually disappointed in this mode for one simple reason. The lens that comes in the kit with their camera is not fast enough to get good portrait results. To really blur out the background you need a fast lens, f4 is not really fast, you need to get down into the 2’s to really make this work right. I recommend a 50mm Prime lens that is f1.8 or faster for portraits. You won’t regret the purchase. You may never shoot clear down at f1.8 or f1.4 but its nice to have the room to do so if needed. With my 18-55mm f3.5-f5 kit lens on my Sony this mode was disappointing. On my 50mm f1.4 it did a dramatically better job.

no flash  Auto (No Flash) – this mode is exactly the same as the Auto Mode above, with the exception it will not use the flash. The camera will ramp up the ISO to a maximum value, based on model, then attempt to focus on the nearest object. I am a firm proponent of not using flash indoors unless you absolutely have to.  I prefer natural lighting and the colors that it gives you. I think for the most part flash changes the perception of the image. Plus there are many places you cannot use the flash such as museums, plays, or some sporting events.  Keep in mind, you may need  tripod to achieve good results, as the shutter speeds tend to be much longer.

childChild or Infant – This mode will increase the vibrancy and saturation and add sharpness to a photo. It may also soften skin tone and try to give natural looking facial tones.  It should add flash if needed. This mode is again limited by the quality of the lens you have to some extent. The 50mm Prime f1.8 I mentioned earlier will improve this mode by leaps and bounds.

Snow –  Often just a snow flake emblem really just attempts t reduce the amount of light or glare the camera captures. It does this by either using a smaller aperture or a faster shutter speed. It also adjusts the white balance of the camera in an attempt prevent the greyed out image you normally get when photographing snow. This makes the snow look truly white without being blow out. I have achieved mediocre results with this mode. It always seems to over process the image in my opinion.

fireworks_icon2Fireworks – Before I begin, let me tell you how much I HATE this mode on a camera. I spent endless hours and years, (the fourth of July only happens once a year) perfecting my ability to capture fireworks in all their glory. Then along comes fireworks mode, now everyone with a decent DSLR and even some point and shoots can do it. It is not even close to fair. But seriously, this mode will allow you to capture some fireworks as they explode. It varies from camera to camera as to how well the results will turn out. Some will automatically snap the shot for you when the firework goes off, others you have to be ready to capture it yourself. You will need a tripod as this mode takes shot from 2 to 10 seconds depending on the amount of light the fireworks put off.

panoPanoramic – This mode allows the photographer to take a panoramic shot by simply pressing the shutter button and panning the camera from left to right. It will usually include some on screen prompts that tell you when to move and how to do everything. This is another mode that is irritating. Prior to this mode, you would take 5-10 images from a fixed point pivoting to the right as you snapped them. Then you had to manually stitch them together in Photoshop to get the desired Pano’  image. It is a nice function that does work pretty good most of the time but has limited use other than recording images for the web. Not many frames are made for these images. 

MR  – C1 –  These don’t pop up much but they are essentially modes that allow you the photographer to recall a setup you have stored on the camera. If you have this mode, you do not have an entry level camera, this is usually only for higher end camera bodies.

These are the most commons modes found on modern the DSLR and advanced point and shoot cameras. hopefully this helps you understand how to use them. Though I do recommend you learn to use manual mode, I would be a fool not to tell you that these modes can indeed come in handy at times. If you really don’t have time to figure out the shot, give the auto modes a chance. You might get lucky.

Don’t Stop Learning
On some cameras the automatic modes work amazingly well under the right circumstances. The problem comes in when the circumstances are less than perfect for the mode your using. This is where the knowledge to make the adjustments yourself is completely invaluable. Take your time and learn a piece at a time and you will be using only the 3 or 4 manual modes on your camera before you know it.

Good Luck and Keep Shooting STR8!

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Is an amateur photographer and writer who enjoys sharing information with others. "Technical information sharing is a critical part of helping everyone become a better photographer. If you don't know it, you can't do it!" From Film to Digital, photography has changed a lot, but the idea of learning hasn't.

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