Exposure Modes

As promised in my last post on the “correct exposure”, this next post deals with the different “exposure modes” on your camera. You might be in a position where your camera does not feature all of these modes, so if you can’t find one (or more) particular modes on your camera, you might want to check your user manual.

So – what are exposure modes? In brief, we can describe these as the camera setup that you will use to make your exposure, i.e. take your photo. Each setup, or exposure mode, will allow you a different level of control over the camera, depending on what your “priority” is. Let’s go over the options.

1. Automatic: Simple really- automatic means a process that is carried out without human intervention. All you do in Auto-mode is to point and shoot. It’s the simplest of exposure modes and the one where the least amount of effort is needed from the photographer’s side. Its primary advantage is the fact that it frees you from the technical aspects of photography and allows you to focus exclusively on content. Its biggest disadvantage, however, is that losing control over the technical aspects more often than not ends up limiting the photographer’s options to express his/her creativity.

2. Program Mode: In most cameras, this is referred to as P-Mode, you might have a “P” as one of your options in the camera’s control wheel/dial. What P-Mode gives you is a more “involving” auto-mode. What you get, in this mode, is an automatic combination (camera decision) of Shutter Speed and Aperture that should result in the desired exposure level, typically based on the scene’s “correct exposure”. The camera will thus be doing most of the work, but you are allowed an input to influence how dark / bright the final image is through exposure compensation. In P-Mode, you are generally allowed to do the following:

  • Increase/Decrease ISO
  • Introduce Exposure Compensation
  • Shift” the Program, that is, cycle between available sets of Shutter/Aperture. For instance, for a shot taken out in the sun, using ISO 100, f/16 and 1/100″ would result in the same exposure if taken at ISO 100, f/8 and 1/200″, or at f/22 and 1/50″. In some cameras, you are given an option to choose (shift) the most ideal combination of Shutter/Aperture to best suit your creative intent.

3. Aperture Priority: Things are getting interesting – in A-Mode (or Av-Mode in some cameras), you determine the “Aperture Value”, that is what aperture you want to “force” the camera to use. This is why the mode is referred to as aperture priority, as in this mode your priority is the use of a given aperture value irrespective of what the other settings are. Here, the photographer is telling the camera that the important factor is the depth of field required, and as you should recall from one of my earlier posts discussing the exposure triangle, this is determined by the aperture used. In this mode, you determine the following three items, and your camera chooses the appropriate Shutter Speed to give you the exposure required. The controllable elements are:

  • The Aperture Value you want to use.
  • Increasing/Decreasing ISO
  • Introducing Exposure Compensation.

4. Shutter Priority: This is similar to A-Mode, but here your main focus, or priority, is the Shutter Speed. In S-Mode (or Tv-Mode in some cameras), you determine the “Time Value”, that is the length of time you want to “force” the camera to leave the shutter open. Here, the photographer is telling the camera that the important factor is the length of time to be captured, and this is of course determined by your Shutter Speed, as discussed in another of my exposure triangle posts. The photographer using this exposure mode would thus want to concentrate on ensuring absolute control on the degree of “motion” captured above all else. For instance, the emphasis would be to capture light streaks of passing cars, or else to freeze an athlete in mid-air during an acrobatic movement. Both images require a primary focus on using the correct shutter speed. In this mode, you determine the following three items, and your camera chooses the appropriate Aperture Value to give you the exposure required. The controllable elements are:

  • The Shutter Speed or Time Value you want to use
  • Increasing/Decreasing ISO
  • Introducing Exposure Compensation.

 6. Manual: This is the total opposite of the Automatic mode – here you have FULL control over all camera variables – that is, you tell the camera exactly what settings you want used for a given shot. For each image you shoot under M-Mode, you have to make all the important decisions vis-a-vis the Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO. Before taking the photo, the photographer is “aided” by the exposure gauge in real-time, which tells him/her how bright / dark the image will turn out on the basis of the selected settings. The savvy photographer reads this output and corrects the settings used accordingly, and then makes the exposure. This mode is certainly the one which gives the photographer the greatest creative freedom, but it is also the most complex exposure mode to use.

So – which mode should you use? That depends, of course, on what you’re after. There’s nothing wrong in shooting in Automatic mode or P-mode most of the times, but you might find yourself limited as your technical ability and appreciation grows. Switching to Av-/A- or Tv-/S-Mode should help to give you a greater level of control whilst leaving some decisions to be made by the camera ‘on the fly’. But if this is still not working out for you, M-mode should present you with a carte blanche for you to do whatever you wish.



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