01 July 2009

Explaining Shooting Modes

This is the next post in my series of weekly photography tips.
I’m aiming to help people who are new to taking pictures of craft objects but also to give some more general advice on getting well exposed, sharp photos for blogs or even just your own personal snaps – we’re not all one man marketing machines after all. This week I'm discussing shooting modes and what they allow you to do.

If your camera has only fixed settings with no manual settings, such as portrait, sports or distance it is still useful to understand the adjustments your camera is making in order to optimise exposure for subjects and lighting conditions - so read on it's not too technical.

If your camera has manual functionality then you will see some or all of these symbols on the dial. This is the dial on my camera, A/S/M are all one setting, you have to access the menu to choose which one you want.


The camera will control all the settings for you – useful for everyday snapshots but once you see how easy it is to use the other modes you'll rarely use it.

Manual (M)

Most professional photographers won’t move from this dial, especially when they’re photographing stationary objects as it gives complete control over the final image – if you’re just beginning to explore your camera and learning about aperture and shutter speeds, the following modes may be a better starting point.

Program Mode (P)

This mode is a neither Auto or Manual. It sets both the aperture and shutter speed for you but allows you to adjust some other elements such as whether the flash fires or the ISO (what used to be the film speed in 35mm cameras, remember 100, 200, 400). Program mode should allow you to adjust the exposure to be a little lighter or a little darker (+3 to -3) which gives you some control but it’s really not that useful when you have A and S modes as well which are very simple to master and offer much more flexibility.

Shutter Priority (S or Tv)

In this mode you control the shutter speed and the camera will automatically set the aperture for the best exposure. Shutter speeds are measures of the length of time that light is allowed to strike the sensor of your digital camera, they are shown in fractions of a second e.g. 1/60 means that the shutter was open for 1/60 of a second. Shutter speeds affect the clarity and sharpness of your photos. This is not only with regard to camera shake, but to freeze motion, such as a child jumping high on a trampoline or splashes of water.

The faster the shutter speed the less blur, a fast shutter speed will need lots of light as less will be reaching the sensor. Sometimes you may want to deliberately set a slow shutter speed to allow moving parts of the scene to be blurred.

Use the sports mode on your cameras fixed shooting modes for a fast shutter speed, often depicted as a runner, but bear in mind you’ll need it to be a bright day to get good results.

As most craft photography will be of stationary objects shutter priority is not as useful as aperture priority mode – although a few action shots are great for showing off some crafts. I really wanted to get a picture of this 10p dropping through mid air but the combination of 5yr old model and not enough light to up my shutter speed meant I failed – next time though! (when I say now drop it, is apparently not as easy as all that!)

Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av)

This is where my dial is pretty much always set and is a great setting for craft or close up photography. In this mode you control the aperture and the camera will automatically set the shutter speed accordingly for the best exposure.

Aperture is measured in f-stops, going from small numbers e.g F/2.0 where the aperture is open wide to larger numbers F/16.0 where the aperture is very small. Just like the pupil of your eye you can adjust the aperture to suit the light conditions, at night when light is low you have big pupils and in full sun you have tiny black dots. So if you are struggling for light set the aperture lower to allow more light in which increases the shutter speed, and reduces the chance of camera shake.

Importantly - the aperture also controls depth of field which means how much in front of and behind the point you are focussing on is acceptably sharp, which is so important to the final image.

For digital cameras with fixed shooting modes use portrait mode to get a wide aperture when you have less light and landscape mode to achieve small apertures. Portrait mode is usually a head and landscape is usually a mountain. Why those pictures you ask, well that all has to do with depth of field.

I will discuss depth of field on its own next week, I want to take some time to get some good pictures together to explain why it is important.

Questions or comments are most welcome!