What Camera Mode When?

Fuji Automatic SettingsModern digital cameras, particularly “prosumer” quality and above, include several different modes or ways of interacting with the camera settings.  Although labelled differently for different manufacturers, all good cameras have modes that range from fully manual (where the photographer picks all of the settings) to fully automatic (where the camera evaluates the scene and picks the settings).

I recently found myself in a situation where the camera appeared to be picking settings for me and I couldn’t override them.  It turns out that the most modern cameras don’t pick settings unless you tell them to, and will give you more and more information to help you make an informed decision about those settings.  You can specify which decisions the camera should make, and which information you should receive so that you can make your own decisions.  I had simply picked the wrong mode for the situation.  Lesson learned.

Canon 5DIII Shooting ModesYou do need to take the time to understand what options you have and why you should use them.  The mantra that “all good photographers shoot only in manual” is not only inaccurate, but it raises a rather interesting dichotomy:  good photographers buy better and better cameras, with (nowadays) smarter, more processor-driven, artificial intelligence supported modes.  How can it possibly make sense to turn ALL of that off ALL the time?

Canon 5DIII Top SideTo answer that question, let’s look at some typical camera modes and when they could be used.  But first, it’s useful to appreciate that despite the numerous modes, there really are quite limited setting choices and combinations.

White balance applies a colour temperature bias to the shot, unless shooting in RAW, in which case the setting does not apply.  Lens focal length is a conscious choice, but is typically driven by how much of the scene is to be captured in the shot, even though other aspects of lens optics such as distortion or aberration or perceived compression could also factor into the choice.  How focus will be captured is another choice, with automatic and manual options.  Adding flash introduces the complexity of multiple light sources mixed with ambient light and the need to manage each one.  And the only thing left really is the holy grail of photography:  ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

So what mode when?

Program ModeFull “Program” Mode

Photographers who are “real” photographers never use this mode.  It’s associated with beginners who haven’t yet learned the nuances of the elements I described above.  This more than any other mode reflects the strange relationship we have between the money we are willing to spend for sophisticated equipment and the belief that we have to turn off that sophistication to be “real” photographers.  In fact, the exact opposite is true.  Many pros use fully automatic settings in specific situations.

Where there is fast movement, action, and even changing light levels, shooting in program mode might just be the ticket.  That is, for sporting events and cultural events in halls, arenas and indoor stadiums.  Even in concert venues.  In these situations, there isn’t enough time to worry about the settings on your camera.  Some pros do set limitations on their automatic settings, constraining shutter speed, aperture and ISO to specific narrow ranges based on their experience of shooting in that situation.  I know several concert photographers who shoot in fully automatic mode, but don’t use autofocus, instead trusting their eye to get the right part of the scene in focus.

Shutter Priority ModeShutter Priority Mode

Controlling the shutter controls two things – the impact that ambient light has on an image (especially in the presence of artificial light sources such as stage lights or strobes or speedlites) and/or the way motion in the scene is captured.

A slow shutter speed lets in more ambient light, creating less separation between foreground and background light, and therefore between main subject and their surroundings.  It’s a mainstay of many environmental portraits, where the environment in which the subject is located is as important as the subject.

But the most often used purpose for shutter priority is either freezing or blurring the action in a scene.  Sometimes details matter more and sometimes the illusion of a spinning tire, a thrown ball or a foot crossing the finishing line in a flurry of moving feet is the money shot.  The ability to move almost instantly from a frozen moment to capturing movement is made possible by this camera mode, leaving other settings to be handled by the camera.

Aperture Priority ModeAperture Priority Mode

Aperture also plays a role in managing light, but in the case of multiple light sources, plays no role in separating artificial from ambient light, or foreground from background illumination.  Light is light is light.  The total amount of available light passes through the aperture and is captured by the sensor as the brightness of the scene.

Aperture does contribute to depth of field, allowing choices for how much or how little foreground, mid-ground and background to have in focus.  Very useful (and sometimes very frustrating) in portraits and in close-up photography, such as macro images or fine detail images.

Many photographers, including me, routinely shoot in aperture priority mode rather than fully manual, preferring to split the task of proper exposure with the camera and give our attention to the arrangement and prominence of elements in the scene.  This is especially useful in family events, such as weddings or anniversaries or birthdays.  Useful at least until those events have a lot of motion and action, which is surprisingly sometimes the case (at least later in the evening after a few drinks).

Manual Mode Manual Mode

Now we come to the mode we are all supposed to use.  For sure, there is no better teacher of photography than a mode where you have to select every setting yourself.  It could be argued that a beginning photographer should start out in fully automatic mode, learn photography theory, and then move exclusively to fully manual mode until they understand how each setting choice impacts the image.  That’s certainly the way I was taught.

But once you surpass that threshold, the decision to remain exclusively in manual mode seems to have an aura of elite expertise that is not necessarily deserved.  To me, its the same type of decision as the decision to shoot exclusively on film.  It conveys one of two things to me:  a discomfort with change and/or a need for full control.  Neither is particularly healthy.  And then there’s that thing about spending money on features you never use.

I do shoot in manual mode occasionally.  But only after I’ve determined that the camera isn’t as smart as I would hope.  Backlit scenes, pinpoint light sources, high contrast environments, changing light levels across a panorama have all prompted me on occasion to turn everything off and wing it.  But I typically try it both ways, just in case my brain doesn’t make the best choices either.

And of course if you are combining third party lenses with your camera body or mixing and matching lenses and bodies with adapters, you may have no choice but to shoot in fully manual mode.  At that point, you’re making choices to achieve specific effects that the camera was not designed to help with, so that’s ok.

What Does It All Mean?

The bottom line is this.  A skilled artisan is one who can achieve magic with even rudimentary tools.  But he or she is also one who knows how to fully exploit the tools that are available.  Try all the modes.  Decide how they fit into your workflow.  Make that choice consciously, not by omission.  You might be surprised.