Getting out of Auto: Understanding the different modes on your camera

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Gizmag looks at the camera modes which could help you get out of Auto(Credit: Simon Crisp/Gizmag)

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So you've got a new camera and are probably getting some great shots. But if your mode dial is still pointing at Auto, you probably have a pang of guilt that you're not making the most of your camera every time you press the shutter. Here we look at modes such as Shutter or Aperture Priority, along with the sometimes daunting Manual mode, to make getting out of auto that one bit easier.

First off, there's nothing wrong with using your camera in Automatic. A great photo is a great photo, irrespective of what mode the camera is set to. Would Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl be any less impressive if it had been shot on a camera with a mode dial pointing at a green square? Of course not – subject and composition are far more important than settings.

What we're saying is that if shooting in auto makes you feel more comfortable while you get the hang of a new camera, that's perfectly fine, and there's nothing to feel guilty about. Automatic modes can also be great if you are in need of a quick bit of point-and-shoot action, or if you are handing your camera to someone who isn't as au fait with photography as you.

However, the photograph you want to capture won't always be the same one as your camera would take in Automatic. For example, you might want to take a photo of a road at night, turning passing cars into a light trail. The chances are your camera, if left to its own devices, would use faster shutter speed and a higher ISO to freeze the action and give you a well-exposed picture.

If you want to be able to shoot the types of image you can imagine, getting to know how to use your other modes is important. As such, we're going to look at what those different modes are, whether accessed by a mode dial at the top of your camera, or in the menu system, and what they will let you control. In future articles we'll look in more detail at exactly what these settings are, and how they can be used to create different types of image.

While most cameras have access to modes which offer the same functions, they are sometimes represented by different icons or letters on different brands of camera. For example, while some cameras will say Auto on the mode dial, others will just have a green icon. Aperture and Shutter Priority are normally represented by an A or S, but some cameras use Av and Tv, even though the modes work in just the same way.

Automatic (Auto, green icon)

In this fully automatic mode, the camera will do most of the work for you. You simply point your camera in the direction of your subject button, zoom to compose your shot, and hit the shutter. The camera will do the rest, to the best of its ability, even popping up the flash if needed.

This means it will set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed to give you a well-exposed image. Many cameras also select the autofocus mode when in Automatic mode, with an increasing number prioritizing faces in the screen, and trying to select the best settings based on what sort of scene it thinks you're photographing. This mode is great if you don't have time for (or can't be bothered with) manual controls, or are handing your camera to a friend.

Automatic Scenes (Portrait, Sports, Macro...)

While a camera in full automatic mode has to make all the decisions about which settings should be used, automatic scene modes make it a bit easier on your tech. This can mean you are much more likely to get the sort of image you want, without having to know exactly what you are doing.

For example, dialling to Sports mode will tell the camera to use a faster shutter speed to freeze the action. Meanwhile, Landscape mode will select a smaller aperture for a greater depth of field, and a Snow setting will recognize the lighting conditions and still deliver a properly-exposed image.

Automatic scene modes are most commonly found on entry-level cameras, and can typically be accessed via a top mode dial, or in the main menu system. Other common scene modes include: Portrait, Macro, Night and Fireworks.

Program (P)

Program mode is something of a stepping stone between fully automatic and the modes where you have got more creative control as the photographer. While the camera will still automatically set the shutter speed and aperture, you are in charge of things like ISO, exposure compensation, autofocus modes, and flash.

This can be a good mode to use if you want to start taking control, and if you want to start understanding how settings impact the sort of images you are taking, while still having the safety net of some automatic settings. Program mode is often the most Automatic mode available on more advanced cameras.

Aperture Priority (A, Av)

From here on in you really start to have more control over the images you are taking than the camera does. In Aperture Priority you also gain control over aperture settings, allowing you to control the amount of light coming into the camera, and the depth of field of your shots. The camera then balances the shutter speed and other settings to give a good exposure.

This mode is handy when you want to have quick control over the depth of field, especially at times you know the automatic camera settings would get it wrong. This might be because you want a very shallow depth of field for a portrait, or deep enough to get two people sharp at the same time. You could also dial the aperture to give a very deep depth of field for detailed landscape images.

Shutter Priority (S, Tv)

In Aperture Priority, the camera took control of shutter speed while you managed aperture – this flips that around. This means users set the shutter speed, along with the ISO and focus mode, while the camera takes charge of aperture for a balanced image.

Being able to control shutter speed makes this mode good for times you need faster or slower exposures than your camera would automatically choose. This can be using a quick shutter speed to freeze fast-moving sport action, or a slower shutter speed when you want to capture motion blur, or let in more light when shooting on a tripod.

Manual (M)

If you've used, and mastered using, the above modes, then Manual mode is just a matter of putting it all together. You as the photographer are in ultimate control over all of the previously mentioned settings including ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. The camera will still measure and recommend an exposure, but you are free to act on this, or ignore it, as you want.

This setting will potentially let you shoot any image you want, within your camera's technical limits. It's probably where you want to get to as a photographer, as it means you can experiment and adjust for tricky lighting situations.

Summary

Hopefully this guide has given you a bit of an introduction to the modes of your camera, and the confidence to turn that dial away from the green icon when you feel ready. In future articles we'll look at settings like ISO, aperture and shutter speed in more detail, explaining exactly how they work, and what changing them can do to your images.

If you are yet to invest in a serious camera, you might want to check out our guide to choosing the right camera for you, and our explanation of what all those buttons and dials do.

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