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Camera Modes for Beginners

by Bethany (follow)
Blog (395)      Articles (166)     
Getting my first digital camera-with-manual-settings felt a little something like:

As I stare at all these dials and buttons, with their symbols and abbreviations, it feels just a little overwhelming. But I’ve never been one to crack under pressure, so I fell back on old habits honed throughout my academic career: reading the manual.

Thank goodness for the introduction section of the manual, which has a very detailed diagram of where all the bits and bobs of the camera are, and what they’re called. I figured that it was probably a good idea to get this part over and done with, so there would be less confusion later on, when we move onto more complicated things. Let’s concentrate on the very basic components first.

The Mode Dial

The Mode Dial is where you select what mode you’re going to be taking pictures in. All cameras have different shooting modes depending on the brand and model, so it’s a good idea to read the manual carefully.

My camera has eleven modes to choose from:
Advanced (Adv.)
Scene Position (SP)
Custom 1 (C1)
Custom 2 (C2)
Manual (M)
Aperture Priority AE (A)
Shutter Priority AE (S)
Program AE (P)

I’ve only ever used Auto mode before, as it’s the simplest ‘point-and-shoot’ option, where all the settings are calibrated for you. This requires very little thinking on the photographer’s part, which is good for beginners, but it's best not to get too reliant on the camera to decide the settings for us.

The manual introduces Advanced mode as ‘sophisticated techniques made easy’, which isn’t in the least useful, but luckily the rest of the chapter goes on to explain a little more. Advanced mode includes options such as a 360° motion panorama; Pro Focus, where the camera takes three shots with every shutter press, and emphasises the main subject by softening the background; and Pro Low-Light, which makes four exposures and combines them into a single image to reduce noise and blur, which is useful in poor lighting.

Scene Position (SP) adjusts the camera settings to adapt to certain shooting conditions and subjects. There are 16 different scenes to choose from, including variations of natural light, flash, portrait, landscape, sport, night, fireworks; as well as different environments, such as snow, beach, underwater, and outdoors.

Aperture Priority AE (A) mode allows you to choose the aperture settings, while the camera adjusts both exposure and shutter for you. Aperture is a part of the lens that widens or contracts to let in varying amounts of light to the camera sensor.

It’s sort of like the pupil of the eye, which dilates and contracts depending on the brightness of our surroundings. The only difference is that you can’t control your pupil dilation, but you can control aperture. More dilation means more light, so the image will be brighter, and vice versa.

But when talking about aperture settings, I find it easier to think in terms of contraction rather than dilation. This is because the number of f-stops, the unit of measurement for aperture, is inversely proportional to the size of the opening in the lens. That is, the higher the number, the smaller the opening, and so on. So an aperture setting of f/1.2 would have a very wide opening because it’s less contracted, and an f/8 setting would be significantly narrower.

Here are two pictures. One has the aperture setting to f/2.0 (wide), the other is f/10 (narrow):



You can see that the picture taken with an f/2.0 setting is significantly brighter than the one taken with f/10. The pot plant in the background is also in much sharper focus in the f/10 photo, which is a direct result of the aperture affecting the depth of field.

Shutter Priority AE (S) mode is the opposite of Aperture Priority AE; you get to change your shutter speed, while the camera adjusts the aperture and exposure. Shutter speed is the amount of time a camera shutter stays open during a shot. This length of time is known as the ‘exposure time’, which basically refers to how long the camera sensor is exposed to light before the shutter closes.

You measure shutter speed in fractions of a second. A shutter speed of 1/60 would be slower, and a speed of 1/1000 would be much faster. A fast shutter speed helps freeze action, and a slow shutter speed gives a motion effect (e.g. a motion blur, similar to the ones used in car ads or sports).

Have a look at these two pictures. The one on the right was taken with a shutter speed of 1/200, and the one on the left at 1/1000.



You can clearly see the difference in the way the water appears in each photo — the one with the lower speed, shows the water in motion; whereas the higher shutter speed image freezes the motion into a still shot.

Program AE mode is a combination of both S and A modes: you can change your shutter speed and aperture, while the camera adjusts your exposure.

EXR mode optimises your settings to improve clarity, reduce noise, or enhance dynamic range. It’s different from Auto in that it not only selects the aperture, shutter speed, and exposure for you, it also adjusts for the scene. This is kind of a combination between Auto and SP modes.

There are three modes within EXR: Resolution Priority, High Iso/Low Noise, and Dynamic Range Priority. These influence the resolution, the clarity, and the details visible, respectively.

The two custom modes (C1 and C2) allow you to store any previous settings you’ve made to the P, S, A, and M modes, as well as for all EXR modes except EXR Auto. This is especially handy for when you’ve found the perfect settings for certain shooting conditions, and don’t want to keep adjusting them.

That’s pretty much it for the main camera modes. Again, each camera has slightly different variations on these, but hopefully I’ve covered the most important ones. Next post I'll explain why switching from auto mode to manual mode can be really frustrating.

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