Camera Basics: Common Exposure Modes

Digital cameras are laden with bells and whistles. One common feature set is a selection of exposure modes which allow the user to choose how the camera will determine exposure settings when taking a picture. Understanding these exposure modes is essential to getting the best out of your digital camera. Let’s discuss the common digital camera exposure modes and their uses.

Automatic (Auto)
In this mode, the camera’s computer makes all the exposure setting choices for you. The only decision that’s left to the photographer is when to press the shutter button. It’s great for those times when you don’t want to fuss with your camera’s settings at all and produces acceptable pictures in most situations.

Program Mode (Pgm or P)
Program Mode gives the photographer some control over how the camera selects the exposure settings. On most cameras, you can set the film speed equivalent, exposure compensation, and image size. Some cameras offer additional settings in this mode. Program mode is very useful when you want to affect the settings the camera chooses without picking any settings yourself. For example, if you want the camera to deliberately underexpose a shot, you can do that by setting the exposure compensation to a negative number.

Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av)
If you would like to select the lens aperture while the camera determines the shutter speed automatically – use aperture priority mode. The aperture is the opening inside the lens that controls how much light enters the camera. Since the lens aperture controls the amount of the picture that is in focus, this is an important creative control for the photographer. In addition to the aperture, the photographer can choose the film speed equivalent, exposure compensation, image size, and other camera functions with the exception of the shutter speed in this mode. Advanced amateur and professional photographers often utilize Aperture Priority Mode when control over focus is critical, and shutter speed is not.

Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv)
The natural complement to aperture priority mode is shutter priority mode. The user selects the shutter speed they want to use while the camera determines the correct aperture automatically. This mode offers the same additional controls as aperture priority mode. Many photographers prefer to shoot in shutter priority mode. It’s particularly useful and appropriate when shooting sports or other fast moving subjects where control of the shutter speed is crucial.

Manual Mode (M)
Want to be in charge of all the choices? Select manual mode. The camera will read the scene and tell you how far away you are from the exposure indicated by the meter, but you’ll have to adjust the aperture and shutter speed yourself. This gives you a great deal of creative control, but removes many of the safeguards that protect you from mistakes. Some of the features available in other modes will be disabled in manual mode because they are redundant. Experienced photographers often turn to manual mode to reduce the amount of menu navigation they have to do when adjusting exposure for specific situations. The disadvantage of manual mode is that changing the settings takes time, and if conditions are changing rapidly it’s hard to keep up.

Understanding the exposure modes your camera offers will help you get the best results possible in every situation. For more detailed information on the exposure modes, and the specific features and controls available in each mode, refer to your camera manual.

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