camera modes tutorial

The 4 Essential Camera Modes Every DSLR Owner Needs To Know

There will come a time in your photography journey when you’ll turn away from the previously ever-present AUTO mode. Almost everyone starts there, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But eventually you’ll want to push your understanding beyond a simple click and finished approach. To do so, you’ll need to start manipulating your work by deciding what to capture instead of what the camera tells you to. To help ease this transition, we’re going to look at the four main camera modes.

Join me as we explore the most common path towards feeling comfortable enough to switch to the total control of MANUAL.

The Best Camera Mode Is Always Subject To Change

I prefer approaching different camera modes with the question: How can your camera help you best in your current situation? The whole reel of camera modes is still used by many professionals and amateurs alike. It’s important to understand mode choice is more about the need of the photographer in the moment than a one way progression where you can never go back.

What’s best for one photo may be less than ideal for another–feel free to change it up depending on your shot.

camera mode dial
Camera mode dials will vary depending on the model and manufacturer. This is a Canon Powershot dial. Photo by Bill McChesney

1. Program Mode (“P”)

As a simple and easy progression from Auto mode, “Program” still decides almost everything. Like full Auto mode, Program mode also chooses the best aperture and shutter. However, it hands you control of the ISO and also gives you the ability to shoot in RAW when capable.

My favorite element of Program mode over Auto is the ability to control the in-built flash. In Auto mode, I often find the camera is too quick to use the flash. Many times a higher ISO and adjusted aperture or shutter allows for a far more natural-looking shot.Of course, you can always manually pop the flash if the lighting is insufficient.

The downside of Program mode is you are still unable to set your aperture or shutter, leaving you with a camera-directed shot.

When to Use: Program mode is a great all-purpose mode that will at least get you to start thinking about when and why to change certain settings.

Symbol: Program mode is dictated by the letter “P” on both Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

2. Aperture Priority (“A” or “Av”)

Aperture Priority mode gives you control of your lens’ aperture (or f stop). Your camera, however, will control the aperture. By controlling the aperture, you decide how much depth of field appears in your photo. Whether you chose a lower f-stop to blur the background or push to a higher f-stop to provide details throughout your landscape work.

The drawback to Aperture Priority mode is the camera often compensates for an extreme aperture setting by making the shutter speed too low for handheld shooting. Without tripod assistance, it can become impossible to take your desired shot.

camera modes aperture priority
Aperture Priority mode is great for pinpointing how much depth of field you want in your image. Photo by Koshy Koshy

When to Use: Aperture Priority mode is most useful when you want to define the range of your focus. For example, you may want to take a portrait with a blurred background, or photograph a line of statues with one in focus and the others progressively blurred.

Aperture Priority mode can also assist in maximizing your depth of field for tripod-assisted landscapes. Aperture Priority is a favored camera mode among a large number of photographers as the ability to control the f-stop often allows for sufficient control over your final image.

Symbol: Aperture Priority mode is dictated by the letters “Av” on Canon DSLRs and by the letter “A” on Nikon DSLRs.

3. Shutter Priority Mode (“S” or “Tv”)

In Shutter Priority mode, you’re put in control of the shutter speed. The camera takes care of your aperture. The downside to Shutter Priority is you lose control over the depth of field in your image, since the camera dictates the aperture. Often a wide aperture may leave you with blurred features and a lack of depth.

It’s also possible you may ask the camera to do too much by setting the shutter speed too quick or too slow for the conditions at hand. If that is the case, the camera will show your aperture in red or as a flashing number.

camera modes shutter priority
Use Shutter Priority mode for capturing long exposures as shown here. But it also works for freezing fast action. Photo by Frank Meffert

When to Use: Shutter Priority is most useful when you desire longer exposures. For example, when you’re capturing motion blur of a road intersection at night. Shutter priority is also useful for shooting high-speed action shots such as fast-paced sports action where you need to “freeze” movement.

Symbol: Shutter Priority mode is dictated by the letters “Tv” on Canon DSLRs and by the letter “S” on Nikon DSLRs.

4. Manual Mode (“M”)

In Manual mode, control of aperture, shutter speed, and all other settings are the responsibility of the photographer. This is a great way to use the best available settings for any given situation. As the most involved setting on your camera dial, Manual mode does leave you vulnerable to missing your moment if you cannot feel out your preferred settings in time. Perhaps you will miss the sun setting, a crucial goal being scored, or a colorful bird flying overhead.

Although Manual mode gives the greatest platform for personal interpretation, this setting does have limitations. It holds the highest number of pit falls if you aren’t fully capable and confident.

Manual mode gives the photographer complete creative control over their work. Photo by Mahmood Salam
Manual mode gives the photographer complete creative control over their work. Photo by Mahmood Salam

When to Use: With confident understanding of how both shutter speed and aperture work, Manual mode allows you to add a personal preference to each of your shots.  You decide every detail in Manual mode.

This mode is most useful when you want to produce an aspect the camera simply can’t understand on its own. These aspects include ‘intentional’ errors or an imperfect yet necessary balance between aperture and shutter speed which will later be corrected during post processing.

Symbol: Manual mode is dictated by the letter “M” on both Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

Find What Works For You

It may seem manual mode is the simple end goal. However, it’s important to realize everyone has their own preferences and reasons. A good number of photographers spend the majority of their time in Aperture Priority mode because the camera does a great job providing the other setting quickly and competently. The same is true for Shutter Priority.

To choose one of the priority modes is not an admission of incompetence; it’s more an understanding that using the camera’s brain is the fastest way to achieve the desired shot.

camera modes explained

Let’s Talk About Camera Modes

All this talk about camera modes has me curious…Which shooting mode do you tend to favor? I find myself using a combination of the priority modes and manual mode. Do you mix it up as well, or do you find yourself settled in with a particular shooting mode? Remember, there is no definitive answer so feel at ease to leave your opinion below!


Get valuable photography education and inspiration.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

About the author

Elliot Pelling

Elliot Pelling is a wildlife photographer and passionate conservationist. Working as he travels, Elliot spends most of his time trying to experience the very best of the natural world and inspire others to protect it by educating and increasing awareness through images of animals in their natural environment. You can follow his journey on Flickr.

Send this to a friend