Most (if not all) digital SLR cameras have a variety of “modes” that they can be operated in, such as Av, Tv, Portrait, and so on. To the novice it may seem as though some of the modes are redundant, and certainly to some degree that is true, but they all have their uses. Today I will attempt to demystify these modes and explain how to use them most effectively for the greatest creative impact.

First off, here is my general-purpose disclaimer: I have always been a Canon user, so my statements and opinions regarding other camera models are based solely on research and not on experience. That said, the fundamental concepts of photography are exactly the same no matter what type of camera you are using, so aside from mixing up some terminology here and there, this should be a usable guide.

Before I dive into each of the specific modes available on various cameras, let’s briefly review the two main camera settings and their effects on creative output:

  • Shutter speed: The amount of time for which your shutter remains open, typically measured in seconds or fractions of a second. Faster shutter speeds can more effectively “freeze” moving objects. Even if the objects in your scene are standing still, a faster shutter speed can “freeze” the shake of your camera that occurs from holding it in your hands.

  • Aperture: The aperture is one of the hardest concepts for novices to pick up because its system of measurement is seemingly arbitrary and because the numbers on the scale get larger when they intuitively ought to get smaller. The aperture setting refers to the size of an opening through which light is allowed to pass, and has an effect on “depth of field,” which, simply stated, is how blurry (or sharp) stuff is. A wider aperture admits more light and permits the out-of-focus areas of the image to be more out-of-focus, while the opposite is true of a narrower aperture.

Manipulating these two settings will greatly affect the outcome of your photographs and allow you to create the compositions and effects that you’re after. For the most part, shooting modes do nothing more than manipulate these two important settings. Knowing what these modes do will allow you to create the same effects using only manual controls.

Here are some of the shooting modes available with the major camera-makers’ cameras (Nikon calls these “Digital Vari-Programs” and Canon calls them “PictureStyles”):

  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Close-up
  • Sports
  • Night landscape
  • Night portrait
  • Sunset

In addition, virtually every SLR camera has these four basic settings available on their mode dials (I have noted the names in Canon and Nikon lingo, respectively):

  • Av (aperture value), or A (aperture priority auto)
  • Tv (time value), or S (shutter priority auto)
  • P (program or programmed auto)
  • M, which pretty much always stands for manual

The first set of modes I listed (Digital Vari-Programs or PictureStyles) can change a host of parameters related to how the image is captured and finally saved. Nikon’s set of Digital Vari-Programs essentally manipulate shutter speed, aperture, and basic settings such as whether the flash will fire and what type of auto-focus to use. In “Portrait” mode for example, a larger aperture is selected, which causes the background to become blurrier and softer; opening the aperture also requires a faster shutter speed. “Night portrait” causes a slower shutter speed to be selected but also fires the flash (the flash lights your subject while leaving the shutter open for a bit longer allows the background to come into view; this technique is sometimes called “dragging the shutter.”)

“Sports” mode instructs the auto-focus to keep the center of the frame focused at all times (in the Canon world we would be using the AI Focus or the more sophisticated AI Servo settings). For the most part, at least in the Nikon realm, these Digital Vari-Programs don’t do anything you couldn’t do yourself in Manual mode with a bit of practice.

In the Canon realm, the PictureStyles modes do almost the same things, but they have also thrown some other changes into the mix. Using their Digic image processing system, Canon’s PictureStyles modes also subtly change the color reproduction of the images. In “Portrait” mode, skin tones are given preferential treatment, while “Landscape” mode increases the saturation of greens and blues and so on. These changes are only applied to JPEG images; RAW images will not be changed.

These different shooting modes can be helpful for the amateur to achieve the desired outcome without a great deal of knowledge or experience in the post-processing area. Canon’s PictureStyles settings in particular were designed to yield totally usable JPEG images directly from the camera without a need for post-processing, and I think that in most cases they do work. Nikon’s Digital Vari-Programs are helpful in getting the camera to tweak its own automatic selection of the main camera settings for different situations without altering the image file itself in any overt way.

Be a Control Freak

All of these PictureStyles and Digital Vari-Programs are great and everything, but they won’t help you to be a more versatile photographer. Learning about photography takes a lot more than switching a dial to “Portrait,” pointing it at someone, and pressing the button. For example, you may want to change the intensity of the effects that the PictureStyles offer, not to mention that once you start shooting in RAW you won’t get much out of them, anyway.

My personal preference is to use Av (on the Nikon it’s called A) mode nearly all the time. What this allows me to do is select the aperture I want and let the camera meter the scene and select a shutter speed appropriately. On top of that, there is one more level of control called the EV or Exposure Value. This allows me to say to the camera, under-expose this shot by 1/3 of a stop, or over-expose this shot by 1 full stop.

The benefit of shooting in Av mode for my style of work is that I can dictate what the depth of field will be like (how blurry or sharp stuff will be) within the limitations of available light and so on. I have found it to be an equally intuitive and versatile method.

My friend from The Curious Lens uses M, or Manual mode, all the time. His method involves metering the scene and, based on the camera’s assessment of whether it’s over- or under-exposed, adjusting the shutter speed, the aperture, or both until the exposure reads at the level he wants it. I have personally found that approach to be too tedious, especially when the shutter speed itself has no bearing whatsoever on the way the image will come out. Even when I need to control the shutter speed, I can do that indirectly by changing the aperture, the Exposure Value, and the ISO sensitivity (or all three).

One last bit of advice that I offer is to stay away from Program mode. Even professional photographers occasionally use Program mode when the situation calls for it, but by and large, you will learn a lot more about your camera and about the fundamentals of photography by adjusting the settings yourself, making mistakes, and picking up new experiences.

Questions, comments, and rude gestures can be left in the box below. Happy shooting!