Camera Modes Explained: What to Use & When

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Learn how different camera modes can control exposure settings, and how your understanding of each mode can improve your photography.

Words and Photography by Urth HQ

How to set camera modes

Before we get started, let’s take a quick look at how to set your camera mode. Nearly all cameras include a range of different dials on the body to allow for quick transitions between various settings. The most prominent dial is the one that features a bunch of different letters and strange markings. Av, Tv, P, M… Look familiar? These are your camera modes and they refer to how your camera will control exposure settings.

Setting your camera mode is as simple as rotating the dial to your desired function, which can change depending on your subject matter or how creative you’re feeling. Some smaller cameras may not have the large dial on the body and instead, will require you to access the menu on your LCD display.

Let’s take a look at the most common camera modes on this dial, and how and when to use them.

PS: Under each mode title is the relevant dial marking you’ll find on the three main camera manufacturers in Canon, Nikon and Sony.

Camera Modes Explained


Canon — Green rectangle with A

Nikon — Green camera symbol with AUTO

Sony — Green AUTO

Pretty self-explanatory. Auto Mode is the most basic mode to utilise as it gives the camera and its technology complete control over all exposure settings. If you point your camera at an open field on a sunny day, the camera may decide you need a narrow aperture of f/11, a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, and an ISO rating of 400. Point your camera in the opposite direction and who knows what your camera will decide is best for the situation. 

Although Auto Mode is great for beginners, it’s suggested that you try and graduate from this mode as soon as possible. Having the exposure settings decided for you removes any creativity from you as the author of the image. And more often than not, when a reasonably challenging lighting situation presents itself, your camera will not have the slightest idea what to do. Relying on Auto Mode can majorly inhibit your progress in photography.


Canon — Av

Nikon & Sony — A

Aperture Priority Mode means that you’re at the helm of aperture (you can read more on this in our guide to aperture). Aperture controls how wide or narrow your lens opening becomes, and therefore how shallow or large your depth of field becomes. This is perhaps the most commonly used camera mode.

Setting your camera to Aperture Priority Mode is helpful when depth of field is a priority. For example, when photographing flowers close-up or any other style of macro photo and you want an extremely shallow depth of field. You decide how wide an aperture you need while the camera decides the appropriate shutter speed and ISO. 

RELATED: A Complete Guide to Aperture: Examples & Photos


Canon — Tv

Nikon & Sony — S

Shutter Priority Mode inscription on camera dials varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Frequently you’ll find it’s denoted by a T or a Tv, which is confusing when shutter speed clearly starts with an ‘s’. In fact, Tv stands for Time Value and similarly, T stands for time to indicate the length of time you’re exposing the image. 

Shutter Priority Mode prioritises shutter speed on your camera (more on this in our guide to shutter speed). Use this mode when you’re trying to either freeze action, or oppositely, trying to blur action. 

For example, if you’re photographing race cars or fast animals, set your shutter speed in Tv (or S) Mode to a fast 1/2000th of a second. Depending on the lighting of the raceway or the landscape, your camera will decide which aperture and ISO is best for this situation.

Photo shot by Joel Herzog.

And when trying to create movement within the frame, using Shutter Priority Mode can be extremely helpful. We’ve talked a lot about waterfall or star photography in previous articles. This camera mode will allow you to arrive at a waterfall and quickly capture a 5-second exposure of the blurred water, without having to play tug-of-war in compensating the other exposure settings. 

RELATED: ​​A Complete Guide to Shutter Speed: Examples & Photos

Photo shot by Till Rottman.


Canon, Nikon & Sony — M

The problem with Priority Modes is that the camera will always expose the image evenly according to how the camera reads light. But what if you want to underexpose the image slightly to give it a little more grit? This is why Manual Mode is favoured by intermediate and professional photographers, because full creative control is at your fingertips.

The leap from Auto or other Priority Modes to full Manual Mode can seem daunting when beginning photography. The best way to make this leap is to use the Priority Modes as a guide of what settings to use in Manual Mode.

Let’s say you arrive at the albatross lookout where you’ve come to capture albatrosses in flight (bear with us through this obscure example). Set your camera to Shutter Priority Mode and your shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second or quicker to ensure you will freeze the action. Take note of the aperture and ISO settings decided for you by the camera. Then, copy these settings and input them into Manual Mode. Now you’re in the correct exposure ballpark and you can tinker with the camera settings bit by bit to regain some creative control. This is a great way to dip your toes in the Manual Mode deep end without having to dive in.

Photo shot by Tamas Pap.


Canon, Nikon & Sony — P

Program Mode more or less sits between Auto and Manual Modes. It still chooses the correct exposure based on aperture and shutter speed but you have the advantage of setting your ISO.

It may be easier to think of Program Mode as ISO Mode. Set your desired ISO and your camera will figure out the required aperture and shutter speed for the scene.


Canon — B

Nikon & Sony — M (Set camera to Manual Mode, and then toggle shutter speed to find “BULB”)

Bulb Mode is very similar to Manual Mode but has the functionality of creating extremely long exposures. Most cameras in Manual Mode only allow up to 30-second exposures. But if you’re wanting to open your shutter for a few hours under the light of the moon only, switch over to Bulb Mode.

In Bulb Mode, your shutter will remain open so long as the shutter release button is depressed. Of course you can’t keep your finger on the trigger for a few hours so get yourself a remote cable release.

Photo shot by Greg Jeanneau.

Camera modes: wrapping up

This has been a basic introduction to camera modes. Hopefully you’ve learnt a few tricks of the trade and can apply some of those learnings in the field. Everyone always says you have to shoot in Manual Mode, and it’s for good reason — once you gain complete creative control over your image, you’ll never look back. Use your priority settings as a guide and take the leap.

Want to learn more about photography basics? 

1. A Quick Guide to Aperture

2. A Complete Guide to Shutter Speed

3. How to Master ISO in Your Camera

4. A Quick Guide to F-Stops: Examples & Photos

5. The 3 Best DSLR Cameras for Beginners

Did you know Urth makes camera gear and travel accessories that reforest the world? Five trees are planted in deforested areas for every product purchased. Shop our range of camera gear and travel accessories.

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2021-11-01T05:17:43+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: |