All digital SLR camera systems comes with a series of shooting modes. These are the Auto mode, the Shutter priority mode, the Aperture Priority mode and of course the Manual mode. The Auto mode is further divided into the Full Auto mode and the Programmed Auto mode. There is no single shooting mode which can be termed as the best for all situations. Each of these modes are designed to serve a specific shooting situation and a specific shooting requirement. This article is all about detailing each of these shooting modes and finding out the best one for specific shooting situations. However, before we venture any further we need to recap some of the basic aspects of exposure and the parameters that govern them.

Exposure parameters – What is shutter?

The key that fires an exposure when you press it down is the shutter button. But what it triggers is an elaborately choreographed set of movements that work with domino efficiency. When you press down the shutter button it triggers the shutter curtain. The shutter curtains (there are two of these) open to allow light to enter your camera. Once the exposure is done they then reset for the next shot. This is the simple mechanism of a shutter.

However, in reality, it is way more complicated than this and involves a lot more than just opening and closing of the shutter curtains. That discussion is however, beyond the purview of this article. We leave them aside for a future time.

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed, in plain English is the length of time for which the shutter curtains remain open to allow light to enter the camera. It is called speed for some curious reasons. Shutter speed is expressed in fractions of seconds.

What affect does increasing or decreasing the shutter speed have on your photos?

Longer the shutter speed, or in other words, longer the time frame for which the shutter remains open, more is the amount of light that enters the camera. Additionally, longer the shutter speed, more likely is the amount of motion blur you are likely to see in your images.

Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter priority mode is one of the creative shooting modes on your camera. It is referred to as a creative shooting mode because you can control the amount of light by controlling the shutter speed. In Shutter Priority mode you select the shutter speed of your camera while the camera selects the aperture value on its own.

This mode is ideally suitable when you need to select a precise shutter speed and you don’t really care about the corresponding aperture value. In real world scenarios, shutter priority mode is used less.

Some scenarios for the use of shutter speed could be –

When you need to pan with a subject and need a specific shutter speed. Let’s say you are covering a track and field event. You want to pan with the sprinters as they pace down the track. You need a shutter speed which would allow you to pan with your sprinters. After a few test shots you figure out that 1/30 is the right shutter speed.

You set your camera to shutter priority and allow the camera to select the aperture on the fly to correspond with that shutter speed. Since the exposure will vary in different shots depending on the lighting conditions, aperture will be auto selected by the camera. This saves you critical moments and hence, prevent you front losing out on precious images.

Shooting in bright outdoor conditions is another example. In bright sunlit conditions you don’t need a slow shutter speed. Plus, if your subject is moving about, you need to freeze the moment. You need to shoot at the fastest shutter speed that you can possibly shoot at.

That means you are likely going to select a fast shutter speed to (a) not overexpose the scene and (b) to freeze the subject. Shooting in shutter priority mode is the best alternative in this case. Aperture is auto selected by the camera.

What is aperture?

Aperture is the opening on the lens that allows light to enter the camera. Larger that opening more is the amount of light that enters the camera. Smaller that opening, less is the amount of light that enters the camera.

Aperture is controlled via the aperture diaphragm. Tiny blades form what is known as the diaphragm. These can be compared with the Iris of the human eye. The pupil here is analogous to the aperture, the actual opening that allows light to pass through.

What affect does increasing or decreasing the aperture value have on your photos?

Aperture, just like shutter, controls the amount of light that gets through and reaches the sensor of your camera. Additionally, aperture controls the depth of field of your images. Depth of field denotes the extent of the image which is in acceptable focus. Larger the aperture, smaller is the depth of field. Similarly, smaller the aperture, larger is the depth of field of your images.

Aperture Priority Mode

The Aperture priority mode, just as the name suggests allows you to set the aperture value of your shot manually. This is also a creative shooting mode. It is about manually setting the one aspect that you need fixed in your shot, i.e., the aperture value.

When you set your camera in to aperture priority, shutter speed is auto selected by the camera. Aperture value has to be manually selected by you depending on the scene and your requirement.

Depth of field

Why should you select the aperture priority mode? Aperture priority mode is ideal when you have a specific depth of field requirement or a requirement to selectively focus on something in the frame.

We learnt above that aperture controls depth of field of your images. In other words by carefully selecting the right aperture you can decide whether to bring almost the whole of the image into focus or just a small area. Let’s take a few examples.

Selective focusing with the Aperture priority mode

Flower photography is one area where we normally do selective focusing. It is accomplished by selecting a large aperture (f/2.8 and wider), selecting single-point AF and then focusing on a sweet spot on the flower.

When you do that everything except the aspect of the flower that you had focused on would be blurred. This technique is also known as selective focusing. This technique is used in a wide variety of other photography genres as well. This includes portrait, wedding, macro and product.

What is the Auto mode?

The Auto mode has this dubious distinction of being referred to as the ‘stupid mode’. But it is anything but ‘stupid’. Even pros have mixed feelings about it. Some use it others hate it. For beginners and amateurs, it is the one mode that allows them to get into the whole set-up of composition, focusing and building an image before making the transition to manually control exposure.

The auto mode as you may have imagined from the name, does everything automatically. It is marked by the word Auto. there are two Automatic modes on most cameras. The first one is Programmed Auto and the second one is Full Auto. In Programmed Auto mode the camera selects the aperture and shutter speed depending on the scene. All other settings can be done by you.

In Full Auto mode the camera selects everything. So all that you have to do is point your camera and press the shutter button. There are applications of both these modes in photography.

The full auto mode is similar to what you would find on standard point & shoot cameras and smartphones. It is the smartest mode and one that requires absolutely no input from the user except to press the shutter release. You don’t have to have an IQ of 135 to use this shooting mode.

The other mode is the Programmed Auto mode. In this mode you can still select the focusing point and use exposure compensation to change things a bit. The camera, however, selects aperture and shutter speed. Another thing that you can do is change the exposure value by using the command dial. Let’s say that your camera selects a combination f/5.6 and shutter speed 1/200. You can change things around to select an aperture of f/4 and shutter speed of 1/400.

Advantages of the Auto mode

Why should you use the program mode? Let’s first check out the advantages of the Full Auto mode. The most obvious benefit of using the Full auto mode is in situations when you are unsure of the scene. You don’t know what aperture or what shutter speed to use for the right exposure. Switching to the full auto mode allows the camera to take charge.

Let’s say your 9 month old starts getting up on her feet for the first time. It is a priceless moment, once in a lifetime moment. You really don’t have time to fiddle round with shutter speed and aperture at that point. All you should do is set your camera on auto and fire away as many frames as you can.

Then again auto mode is actually a very smart mode. It is built on the basis of, at least the auto modes on latest digital cameras, of years of experience of handling various shooting situations. It compares an internal database of hundreds of shooting situations and then applies the idea exposure settings based on the closest match.

Disadvantages of the Auto mode

The auto mode is a rough and ready shooting mode for making snapshots. It is not ideal for making creative photography at all. It hardly gives any opportunity to do that. With some degree of freedom, you have to accept the shutter speed and aperture that is selected by the camera on the fly. This mode is ideal for snapshot style photography. Thus, the auto shooting mode is perfect for beginners and occasional photographers who are learning the basics of composition, framing and focusing.

What is the manual shooting mode for?

shooting in bad weather

Finally the manual mode, also known as the ultimate creative shooting mode. Manual mode is only for users who have mastered both shutter priority and the aperture priority modes. With this shooting mode you can not only alter the depth of field of your images but also the shutter speed therefore controlling the amount of light and the extent of the image that in in sharp focus.

There are a million different instances when neither aperture priority nor the shutter priority mode is ideal for photographing a scene / subject. Let’s say you want to capture a waterfall with the smallest possible aperture and the longer possible shutter speed. You need to control both. This is not going to be possible using either of the above modes.

Let’s take another example. Let’s say that you are photographing someone against a bright backdrop. In the Auto mode or the other creative shooting modes, the camera will try to force you into accepting an exposure value that it thinks is perfect.

We have discussed elsewhere about the built-in metering mechanism of your camera. The built-in light meter invariably will get it wrong in this situation. It would think that the scene is too bright and suggest you a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture depending on the shooting mode you are in. Of course you can always use exposure compensation to override what the camera tells, but the best option would be to switch to Manual shooting mode.

The manual mode is the best shooting mode to tackle difficult lighting scenarios where the built-in light meter is likely to get it wrong. Plus, it gives the critical advantage of being able to control both the shutter speed and the aperture.

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib’s love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.
Rajib Mukherjee

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