Understanding the modes on a DSLR camera is probably the greatest barrier to any amateur photographer who wants to move further in their photographic journey. Modes are those things that we all know are there and that we should probably should be using more, but just can’t find the time or patience to wrap our heads around. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not that tough. The whole ball of wax can be explained in one sitting and after some practice, it’ll seem like second nature. The key, though, is what I just mentioned – learning and practice. Without those, it simply can’t happen.
In this post, I’m going to cover what those little letters on your camera dial stand for and what they make your camera do. Once you see that they really aren’t intimidating, you’ll be off to the races.
I guess I should make one thing clear before I begin. In this post, I won’t be discussing any of the fully automatic settings, meaning the settings on the mode dial that use either an icon or a picture. Examples of these would be the auto-flash or non-flash automatic setting, the action setting or the landscape setting. The list can go on, depending on what brand of camera you own. I also won’t be discussing the “P” (program) setting, as that’s fully automatic as well. The primary difference between the P setting, or mode, is that when used, you have the choice of whether or not you’d like to use the built in flash, simply by clicking the flash button or by leaving it be. This is different than using the non-flash mode or the auto-flash mode. The auto-flash mode will decide the flash usage for you and the non-flash mode will restrict flash usage.
So, what will I be discussing? Well, if you take a look at the photo of my Canon T3i above, you’ll see a few additional available settings, that I haven’t referred to yet, on and near the mode dial. They are aperture priority, shutter priority, full manual mode and ISO. While these may sound confusing, like I mentioned earlier, they aren’t. All that’s required to understand them is a bit of reading and patience.
Out of all the camera modes I’m going to discuss in this post, aperture priority is the most challenging to grasp. It’s because, like many things in life, what you think means one thing actually means another. I’ll explain what I mean further down.
In order to put your camera in aperture priority mode, you’ll need to turn your mode dial to the “Av” on Canons or to the “A” on Nikons, Sonys and many others. Now, by changing your camera setting to aperture priority, it doesn’t mean that you just created a free for all. I remember back when I first began my journey into photography, I was a bit nervous about selecting anything other than full automatic mode. I thought, by taking photos in any other mode, I was going to have to start fiddling with more areas I was comfortable with.
Both aperture and shutter priorities are baby steps. By switching your camera mode to one of these two, you’re merely manually controlling that one aspect of your camera’s operation. All other aspects are still handled automatically by the camera, so there’s not much to worry about.
So, what is aperture priority? Well, it’s you telling the camera what you’d like the lens’s aperture to be, meaning how much light you’d like to allow to pass through the lens, into the camera. Aperture can be considered the adjustable light entry mechanism of your camera. The larger the hole, the more light is able to pass through and the smaller the hole, the less light.
If you’re shooting in aperture priority mode, your camera is going to compensate for the light you’re allowing through to the camera’s sensor. If you have the aperture wide open, allowing a lot of light through, your camera will compensate by adjusting to a faster shutter speed, inhibiting too much light and resulting in an over exposed photo. If you shrink the aperture, your camera will compensate by adjusting to a slower shutter speed, letting more light through.
So, why would you want to allow a lot of light through with a large aperture? Why would you want a fast shutter speed? Most likely action shots or pictures of things that have a lot of movement in them. If you’re after clarity of moving objects, you want a fast shutter speed and a large aperture. If you’d like to let less light through and have a slower shutter speed, you’re most likely attempting to take advantage of blur effects or are using a tripod for a subject that is very still.
If I stopped here and encouraged you to head outside to play with the aperture priority mode of your DSLR camera, I’d be doing you a disservice. This is because, while what I explained so far is rather simple to understand, there is more to it. And that more is called, depth of field.
In camera-speak, depth of field refers to the range of distance that appears acceptably sharp. I’m sure you’ve seen photographs that are extremely sharp in one area and blurry in another. A great example of this is portraits or close ups. Photographs like this would be considered to have a “shallow depth of field.” Photographs of landscapes and far away objects, with most everything in focus, would be considered to have a “large depth of field.”
Why does this matter? Well, depth of field is controlled by your camera’s aperture setting. If your camera lens is set to have a very large aperture, your photographs will have a shallow depth of field. If you have your lens set to a small aperture, your photos will have a large depth of field.
With cameras, aperture is measured with numbers called “f-stops.” Each number represents the particular size of the hole your lens is set to. The larger the number, the smaller the hole and the larger the depth of field will be. The smaller the number, the larger the hole and the shallower the depth of field will be. I know, this is the confusing part I was referring to back at the beginning of this section.
I have two ways to help my brain remember things when it comes to aperture and depth of field. If you’d like a shallow (small) depth of field in your photos, choose a small number. If you’d like a deep (large) depth of field, choose a large number.
The way I’ve been dealing with this idea is the think about using a big zoom lens on my camera. I know that when I zoom in on something all the way, the depth of field becomes very shallow. I also know that by zooming in all the way, my lens grows in length, letting in less light. In zoom lenses, the loss of light by the extension of the tube is compensated by the expanding of the aperture, thus allowing in more light and causing a shallow depth of field. Just think that by extending the lens length when zooming in, you’re reducing the distance between the lens and the subject. Smaller distance, smaller f-stop number, smaller depth of field.
The opposite is true when I zoom all the way out of something. By keeping the lens tube as short as possible, a lot of light is coming through. To compensate for this, the lens shrinks the aperture and allows as little light through as possible. This causes a deeper depth of field. Reducing the length of a lens is increasing the distance between it and the subject. Larger distance, larger f-stop number, larger depth of field.
So to remember:
Small number: Shallow depth of field and a lot of light is allowed to pass through.
Large number: Deep depth of field and not a lot of light is allowed to pass through.
If you’d like to dig deeper into aperture priority mode, please take a look at the resources below:
Fortunately, shutter priority is a bit easier to understand than aperture priority. Although, there are moving pieces with both priorities and that’s why it takes so much practice to become a great photographer.
To switch your camera to shutter priority, simply turn the mode dial to “Tv” on Canons and “S” on Nikons and Sonys. By making this change, you’ll be telling the camera that you’d like to control the speed of the shutter (the amount of light and movement into the camera). And similar to choosing aperture priority, when choosing shutter priority, the camera will automatically choose its aperture setting.
I think the big question here is why in the world would you want to choose either a fast shutter speed or a slow shutter speed. To answer this question, you’d have to think about what type of picture you’re after and what the conditions are.
Fast shutter speeds are great for action shots, when there is a lot of movement. By setting the shutter speed to just a fraction of a second, you’d be essentially very quickly capturing a specific moment in time. Think waves crashing on a shore or a race car zooming around a track. In these instances, you most likely don’t want blur. If you are after blur for special effects, you can always increase the shutter speed so the camera captures all the movement you’d like.
There are other times that you most likely want to control shutter speed as well. For instance, if you have your camera set up on a tripod and are attempting to take a picture of the stars or the moon at night, you most likely want to dencrease the shutter speed to allow as much light through as possible. Conversely, if you’re in a situation with an over abundance of light, you’d most likely want to increase the shutter speed, inhibiting light from coming through.
If you’d like to learn more about shutter priority mode, take a look at these sites I listed below:
If you have a very controlled environment or would like to experiment with your camera, you most likely want to use full manual mode. To switch your camera to this setting, simply turn the mode dial to “M” for Canons, Nikons and Sonys. By doing this, you’ll be taking control of setting the aperture as well as the shutter speed.
As I mentioned above, the reasons you might want to use manual mode is if you are conducting a photo shoot where you are dictating the environment, such as one indoors or one outdoors where you have control over the lighting. Also, if you want to immerse yourself into the world of camera settings for practice, full manual mode is where it’s at. Just be sure to read your camera manual to learn how to actually set the aperture and shutter speed.
Camera ISO can be best explained as the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. ISO settings use numbers to display that sensitivity. The lower the number, the less sensitive the sensor is and the higher the number, the more sensitive the sensor is. ISO settings are of tremendous value to photographers and the longer you photograph, the more you’ll come to understand the setting’s place in the digital image world.
In order to change the ISO setting, most DSLR cameras will have a button marked as “ISO” and a small dial nearby. To actually change the setting, you’ll want to hit the button and turn the dial. Like I mentioned before, you can choose from a range of ISO values, so if you turn the dial one way, you’ll be lowering those values and if you turn it the other way, you’ll be raising them.
Before I continue on, I’m going to give you a word of warning regarding ISO values. While low values aren’t as sensitive to light as high values are, low values tend to offer the clearest, least “grainy” photographs. Because of the extra sensitivity of high ISO values, grain is introduced into the photo. And by grain, I mean speckled artifacts all over the image. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture at night, you may have seen what I’m talking about after looking at the finished product.
Camera manufacturers have come a long way with cleaning up the digital noise that can be found from using high ISO values. So by the time you read this post, much of this issue may not exist anymore. There are other factors to consider when dealing with ISO though, so please read on.
So, when would you want to use a low ISO setting? Well, if you have plenty of light or are using a tripod and want the best quality, low ISO is the way to go. If you have less light and aren’t using a tripod, you may want to raise the ISO up a bit. There are also tons of other reasons why you’d want to raise and lower your camera’s ISO value, but those are for more advanced posts to be written another day. For now, I’d suggest sticking with what I attempted to explain above.
ISO can be fun to learn about. If you’d like to learn more, check out the resources I’ve listed below:
Real World Example
I’m going to give you a scenario here and I want you to think about what you would do in this situation. I’ll offer some suggestions as to what I would do below.
Let’s say you are on a beach and would like to take a picture of the waves crashing on the sand. You want to capture as much detail as possible and you want your entire picture to be in focus. The time of day is dusk, so the sun may be setting, reducing your available light. How would you set your camera if it was in fully manual mode?
In the most general terms, this is what I would do. In order to capture the utmost detail of each droplet of water, I would set my shutter speed to move very quickly. In order to have the entire photograph in focus, from front to back, I would set the aperture to be very small (high number). To compensate for the lower light of the atmosphere, the fast shutter speed and the small aperture, I would increase the ISO setting.
Do you agree? Disagree? What would you do? Have you taken photographs like this? If so, what were your settings?
Now that I’ve given you a basic understanding of the modes on your DSLR camera, you might want to dig deeper into the world of modes. If so, I’ve listed some great resources below. Please feel free to check them out.
If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below. If you’d like to read more great articles about photography tips and tutorials, please be sure to take a look through the photography category above.