Understanding Camera Modes and When to Use Them

If you are reading this, it is probably because you got a new camera with more professional features and a lot of buttons on it to use…or you simply want to master these functionalities of your camera. 

Among those camera buttons is the top button with letters surrounding, those are commonly called camera modes or camera exposure modes. 

There are many different modes on most cameras. One thing to keep in mind as you explore the options is that each mode is a way of giving you more control over your camera (Manual) or less control (Automatic or smart auto).

Sony camera shooting modes
Sony Camera Shooting Modes

In the old days, our camera only had two modes: manual and auto. Auto meant that the camera made all the decisions for you, including how much light was needed by taking a reading of the amount of available light and then making an adjustment with the shutter speed and aperture. 

Manual meant that you set these yourself using your knowledge of how f stops and shutter speeds affect exposure.

Today’s cameras have more modes, but they’re still either in one of these two categories. The better cameras will have more modes along with an indication of what each one does such as action shots, portrait shots, and landscape shots to name just a few. 

These make it easy for any photographer to get good results without having to understand all those things about aperture and shutter speed.

In this article we will go over different digital camera exposure modes also called shooting modes and their different uses. 

We will cover the following top 5 modes :

  • Auto mode
  • Program Mode
  • Shutter Priority mode 
  • Aperture priority mode
  • Manual mode

1. Auto Mode (A)

This is the mode with a green box or A+ sign on it on your camera or simply written AUTO. If you are new into big cameras, this mode is your friend for your first steps into photography. 

Like its name clearly implies, it’s a full auto mode, meaning it does things in an automatic mode, doing all the settings by itself, setting the shutter speed, aperture and ISO by itself by analyzing the setting of the environment to photograph. 

When to shoot in Auto Mode?

If you are a beginner and started exploring your camera you can use the auto mode to practice other aspects of photography such as composition, exploring creative framing, playing with the direction of light and your subject…

The Auto Mode is not only for beginners, this mode can save you time if you just want to point and shoot. 

Auto mode has also caveats to take into account;

  • It does trigger the flash in low light unless you turn it off manually. This can be annoying if you just wanted to photograph the dark mood as it is.
  • Your camera adjusts the shutter speed and aperture automatically to find the best exposure for your image. This can be problematic if you want to blur motion by using a slow shutter speed or freeze motion with a fast one.
  • No room for creativity, I wouldn’t recommend it for cityscape or landscape photography, especially during the night. 

2. Program Mode(P)

Program mode lets your camera decide based on the environment the aperture and shutter speed to use. This gives you the freedom to not worry about the camera settings and focus on the composition and getting your shot sharp.

When to shoot in Program mode?

This mode is a general use mode, and is perfect when you don’t have time to play with your settings. This can be like in a very time constraint situation when you need to quickly take a shot with no time for decisions

  • When you don’t know how to use your camera
  • You need to take a shot quickly and aren’t sure the best shutter speed or aperture (f/number) to choose
  • Your subject is moving very fast, and you aren’t sure what settings are best

3. Shutter Priority mode(S)

With the Shutter priority mode, you set the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture. This means that the camera compensates the set shutter speed with the aperture to give a balanced outcome as a final image.

Shutter speed in a nutshell:

  • Shutter speed controls the amount of time the shutter remains open. The longer it’s open, the more light reaches the sensor. The shorter it’s open, the less light reaches the sensor. It also affects how motion is captured.
  • When you’re shooting a moving subject, such as an athlete or a waterfall, setting a slower shutter speed will create motion blur to give a sense of dynamic movement. To freeze that same action, use a faster shutter speed (1/1000th of a second will do).
  • For example, if you’re shooting your friend standing still in front of that beautiful waterfall and they are absolutely glowing with happiness while wearing sunglasses (and they should be), turning on Shutter Priority Mode will let you adjust your camera so that their awesomeness is captured at 1/200th of a second before they walk away and into someone else’s photo album forever.

When to shoot in Shutter Priority mode

The Shutter priority mode as described above gives the photographer the ability to set their own shutter speed. This can be used in high-speed situations where the control of the shutter speed is much needed; like in sports, moving cars, flying birds…

For most people, Shutter priority mode will be the most useful option. It allows you to choose how fast or slow the shutter speed is while still being able to control the focus and exposure of your picture. A slower shutter speed will let in more light, while a faster one will freeze any action happening around you. You’ll want a fast enough shutter speed so that you can use a tripod if you’re using it (not to mention it won’t take as long for your camera to focus)

4. Aperture priority mode (Av or A)

 This mode is represented on the camera by A on the dial for most camera brands except on Canon and Pentax where it is symbolized by Av.

In Aperture priority mode, you set the aperture and the camera sets the shutter speed. The very advantage of shooting in aperture priority mode is that photographers are sure that the aperture is all set and forget about it and work on other settings and creativity. 

Imagine that you don’t want a deep depth of field behind your subject so that the background is blurred out for artistic reasons; then an aperture priority mode would be perfect for setting that up by taking control over your aperture settings on your lens instead of your camera automatically deciding what it thinks you should use as far as exposure goes while using automatic mode (P). 

When to shoot in Aperture Priority mode

As stated above, this mode is used when you have a clear mind on what kind of depth of field you want to use. For example, you can need it when shooting portraits and want your background to be blurry and put in focus only your subjects. 

At this point, you are no longer a photographer who simply wants to take a photo. You want to create an image that has feeling and tells a story. The depth of field (DOF) is one of the most powerful tools you have as a photographer, and it’s at your disposal in Aperture Priority mode.

5. Manual Mode (M)

Manual mode is the pro mode, you manage your settings. You can set the shutter speed, Aperture and ISO as you wish. This mode gives the most flexibility for creative shots.

If you want total control: Manual mode gives you the ability to adjust every single setting on your camera. You can shoot in the lowest light possible or get creative with slow shutter speeds. 

While you’re experimenting with these settings and seeing how they affect your photo, eventually it will just click for you and you’ll start to understand what is changing between shots and why. Shoot in manual mode until it becomes second nature and then graduate into using aperture or shutter priority modes so that you can make adjustments to only one setting at a time

When to shoot in Manual mode

This mode is preferable when you want to set different settings and want them to stay the same. For example, it is the best mode for long exposure photography, because to keep a sharp image you would want to have a lower ISO and slow shutter speed to let more light in.

This mode is also good when you have the light doesn’t change much, cause that means you will be adjusting the settings every time.

This mode is best used when shooting in low light conditions (indoor lighting or nighttime). For more info about shooting in Manual mode, check this article.

How to Set the Shooting Modes on The Camera

This might sound obvious but let’s not assume that you already read that user manual and know where to change those shooting modes.

Cameras have a camera mode dial on top of most cameras which you can rotate. On some Canon cameras, you have to press a little button in the center of that circle and rotate it to align with the symbol of your shooting mode.

Canon camera shooting modes
Canon Camera Shooting Modes


As we saw above, each shooting mode has its use case and can be particularly useful under certain conditions, so it depends on the situation.

When you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to shoot in Full Auto mode. Eventually, you’ll want to move on to other modes that give you more control over your shooting. 

As you become more confident with your camera, try experimenting with the semi-auto modes where either aperture or shutter priority are set by the camera but one is set by you. 

Finally, when you feel like a photography ninja, move up to Manual mode where everything is up to you. The more familiar you get with each shooting mode and how they affect your images, the more creative and fearless you can be! Happy shooting!