DSLR Photography Tips – Camera Modes

Most people shooting with a new DSLR camera will be firmly set in the “Auto” mode. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In the beginning, you should focus on understanding what you like to photograph. Using auto mode will generally do a great job of capturing images.

But, using your camera in “Auto” mode will only ever yield snapshots. These will generally not have that “wow factor” that every photographer strives to achieve. To gain full creative control of your camera you are going to have to wind that dial past “Auto”.

To help you achieve better results this article will answer the following:

  • What are A (Av), S (Tv) and M mode?
  • How do I use A (Av) or S (Tv)?
  • When should I use (M)?

What are the primary camera modes?

Aperture Priority

(A on Nikon, Av on Canon) In this mode, you will fix the aperture setting on the camera. The camera will then set the shutter speed (and ISO) to gain a correct exposure.

Shutter Priority

(S on Nikon, Tv on Canon) In this mode, you will fix the shutter speed setting on the camera. The camera will then set the aperture (and ISO) to gain a correct exposure.

Manual mode

M (all systems) this gives you full control of your camera. You will set ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

Why should you use A (Av) or S (Tv)?

Aperture Priority

Use aperture Priority mode when you want to control the depth of field in your photo. A blurry background comes with a shallow depth of field < f 5.6. A photo that is sharp from front to back has a deep depth of field > f 11. Aperture priority is the most common setting that you should find yourself on. The majority of my photos are shot using in this mode.

A shallow depth of field is used to separate your subject from the background. This can help simplify the image which will generally make it more compelling. It is one of the most powerful photographic tools in our arsenal. Used most commonly when taking portraits of people.

Tip: Ensure you accurately focus on the eyes. If the person is standing at an angle, focus on the closest eye (unless you have a reason not to).
A deep depth of field maintains front to back sharpness in an image. This is great for landscape photos. Most lenses (especially zoom lenses) are at their sharpest between f8 and f11. After f11 there can be some diffraction issues causing the image to become softer.

A deep depth of field (f 11 at 24mm) The image is in focus all the way through. See the focus point highlighted.

A deep depth of field (f 11 at 24mm) The image is in focus all the way through. See the focus point highlighted.

Tip: For landscape photos – stay around f11 and focus 1/3 the way into the frame.
DO NOT use Aperture Priority mode when you want to capture motion. Use it only on static subjects (landscapes, architecture, nature etc.) The correct shutter speed for exposure will often be too slow to freeze motion.

Shutter Priority

A fast shutter speed of 1/500 freezes motion.

A fast shutter speed of 1/500 freezes motion.

Use shutter priority when attempting to capture moving subjects. A fast shutter speed freezes the motion in the image (between 1/250s-1/8000s). To emphasise motion, use a slow shutter speed and create motion blur (between 1/10s-30s).

Freeze a wave crashing with a fast shutter speed of 1/500-1/8000. Fast shutter speeds are also great for taking photos of kids running around. Street photography (of people) should be shot at 1/500s or faster. This creates more interesting shots that freeze each slice of time. A slow shutter speed will show movement in the scene. Silky smooth shots of water flowing is a classic slow shutter speed technique. A slow shutter speed while following a moving subject creates fantastic action shots.

A slower shutter speed of 1/10 blurs motion.

Note: DO NOT use Shutter Priority mode when you want to control the depth of field. Freezing motion using this mode will force the camera to lower the aperture. This creates a shallow depth of field. If your focus is not absolutely perfect, you will miss the shot. It is better used to create slower shutter speeds.

To be honest this is not one of the modes that I never find myself using. My first thought is usually the depth of field. For fast shutter speeds, I will move to manual mode. For slower shutter speeds in a pinch, it works well.

When should I use (M)?

Manual mode allows you to set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Here we have a 20 second exposure at f 4 and ISO 3200.

Manual mode allows you to set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Here we have a 20-second exposure at f 4 and ISO 3200.

So we arrive at the dreaded M mode. This mode instils fear into most amateur photographers. But it really shouldn’t. I can bet that your prior experience in manual mode has ended up with completely white photos (overexposed), or completely black photos (underexposed).

You need to understand this mode if you are to have full creative control of your camera. Manual mode is used when you know your desired depth of field and the shutter speed you need. Using an auto ISO can allow you to leave some decision making to the camera. However, if it is the dead of night then you will have to fix this at a high ISO also.

In Manual mode, the sky is literally the limit. If you want to take photos of the night sky then you need Manual mode. If you want to do light painting or long exposures then it is essential.

Beyond the stars manual mode is also a street photographer’s best friendThis will let the camera make the ISO decision allowing you to get more “keepers”. Simply set the camera to 1/500, the f-stop to 8 and the ISO to auto. This is always my set up for “general” candid street photography during daylight. As the light drops you will notice that your camera has trouble. It will frequently hit the ISO limit. In this case, you may have to lower the shutter speed or raise the aperture in order to get correct exposures at night.

Manual mode is essential for night exposures. Here we have 25 seconds at f 4 with an ISO of 3200.

Manual mode is essential for night exposures. Here we have 25 seconds at f 4 with an ISO of 3200.

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