Close-up macro shot of a modern digital SLR camera. Detailed photo of black camera body with a classic wide aperture portrait lens

Camera Modes Explained: Everything You Need to Know

The camera is an advanced box that holds a large arsenal of controls, buttons, and features. This can quickly become overwhelming to someone who has never seen it before! Luckily, modern day DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have a nifty dial at the top of the camera to remedy this. This dial switches between different camera modes, to help you figure out what setting works best for what you’re trying to capture. 

Camera modes are different preset features or options that tell the camera how you want to take a picture. These modes dictate whether or not the camera makes the decisions for you or if you control the camera settings. Here are the most universal modes available for photographers:

Featured in this article is a basic photography mode dial sitting at the top of DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. Please keep in mind that modes may be named differently or marked differently depending on camera brand, so do refer to your user manual for help. 

Automatic Mode 

This mode is exactly what it sounds like- automatic. The camera makes all of the decisions for you – it selects the ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture, and White Balance for you based on its sensor and how it interprets where you are photographing. ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture make up the Exposure Equation and the combination of them can make your image either too light, too dark, or just right. 

Cameras have pre-built programming to tell it how to set the exposure variables based on how much light it is sensing throughout its various ports, but this may not always be the most accurate. New cameras tend to have artificial-intelligence dictating the exposure settings so they may be better equipped than older models. Even so, cameras do not have brains and are not always right. 

As such, automatic mode is generally frowned upon because you lack the control over what you’re doing. Relying solely on automatic mode will not allow your camera to utilize its maximum potential. However, this mode is excellent for learning photography, taking a quick spontaneous snap, or using leisurely when photography is not your primary concern. 

Sport Mode 

This is also an automatic mode, but instead of relying on the camera to figure out whether or not you’re capturing action photography, you can right away set it to capture movement. This makes sure that your shutter speed is as high as it can go given the present shooting conditions (how much light is available, what lens you are using, and other such factors). The intention with this mode is to freeze action. 

Portrait Mode 

Another automatic mode that finds the best settings (according to the camera) in order to capture a portrait. This mode is intended to optimize capture for people exclusively, so portrait mode for pets may or may not work! Depending on the camera you have, if it has a built-in flash, this mode may trigger the flash if it senses that there is not enough light present. 

Night Mode

Night mode is an automatic setting to capture photographs in low light. You have to remember that cameras rely on light hitting their sensor in order to properly operate. When there is minimal light, the settings have to be extremely adjusted in order to maximize whatever light it does have to work with. 

Night modes in cameras range from being set to capture night portraits of people to being able to capture nighttime scenes. Night mode requires slow shutter speeds, so be sure to hold the camera steady so there is no motion blur!

Landscape Mode 

This automatic mode is ideal for the nature photographer. Landscape is meant to perfectly capture a landscape scene with great detail and vivid colors. Often this mode will set your camera to a deep depth of field to make sure everything is in focus. This mode may require a tripod as the shutter speed can be slowed down significantly in order to maintain the deep depth of field. 

Close Up / Macro Mode

This mode is great for detailed close-up portraits of small objects and details, such as flowers or insects. Macro is a photography term that means extreme close-up. This mode differs significantly between camera brands, because each brand has its own philosophy on what settings work best for close-ups! Some, like Nikon, will use the flash while others, like Canon, will use wide apertures and a shallow depth of field. 

Program Mode

This mode is a bit more confusing to explain than the rest. This is the Automatic mode on steroids, as I call it. The camera still selects your ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture in order to expose the frame, but you get to select the White Balance, Picture Style, and you can change any of the exposure equation variables and the rest will adjust accordingly. 

For example, say your camera sets the variable to ISO 100, Shutter Speed 1/400, and Aperture to F/4. What if you actually need a Shutter Speed of 1/800? Well, you switch the shutter to 1/800 and then the ISO and Aperture will change in order to accommodate your new shutter speed. The aperture might drop down to F/2.8 and the ISO may raise to 200! 

This is really nifty and a great feature to use if your subject spontaneously changes from action, to portrait, to something else. 

Aperture Priority Mode 

Now we are beginning to step into what I call ‘semi-manual’ modes. In these modes, you are able to control one variable of the exposure equation and the camera will adjust the other variables in order to expose the image properly (once more, according to the camera’s sensor and programming). 

Aperture Priority Mode allows you to select the Aperture and the rest of the settings will alter to ensure you are able to keep proper exposure with the aperture that you set. This is great to use when you feel that the depth of field in your shot is more important than anything else. This isn’t recommended for action photography because the camera may set your shutter speed too slow, but is fantastic for portraits and still life. 

Shutter Priority Mode

Similar to Aperture Priority, here you select the shutter speed and the rest of the settings change with it. This is ideal for when you’re capturing action and the shutter speed will make or break your shot. 

Manual Mode 

Manual Mode turns off all of the camera’s automatic settings- you control it all! This is really the ideal mode for professional photography, and one that all photographers strive to be able to use easily. Here you adjust the entire exposure equation yourself, as well as all of the more minor configurations such as the Auto Focus Settings and White Balance. 

Manual mode gives you the ultimate freedom of capturing the exact image you want and ensuring that you make the decisions- not your camera! This mode also prevents the camera from glitching during an automatic mode and causing you to miss your shot. 

Conclusion

Now that you know about all of the different modes you can set your camera to, the dial at the top should be a bit more familiar! You can set your camera to whichever mode suits what you’re capturing and needing to get done.