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Updated: Dec 2, 2023

An image showing the mode dial on an Olympus E-M1. Different cameras can have different looking dials, but essentially all function the same.


Let's start with some basics for those of you who just picked up a DSLR or mirrorless camera (or if you need a refresher). We'll start off with camera modes, or that little dial with all the letters and symbols. I'll just go over the main modes, since not all cameras were built the same and dials can differ. The main modes you'll be using will be AUTO, PROGRAM, APERTURE PRIORITY, SHUTTER PRIORITY, and last but not least, MANUAL.

AUTO (Green icon) - This is the mode most people start off with when they first take the camera out of the box and want to snap some shots. In auto, the camera does all the thinking for you. It will analyze the scene, and calculate the best settings based on default predetermined parameters for a properly exposed shot. Unfortunately, in this mode you have relatively zero control, and the camera doesn't always know best, so the picture might not be what you expected or intended.

PROGRAM (P) - This is, how can I put it, "advanced AUTO". Just like the previous mode, the camera will calculate the exposure based on the information it collects from the scene. But unlike AUTO, it gives you a little room to adjust some parameters and values if you want. Once again though, you are giving up most control to the camera.

APERTURE PRIORITY (A or AV) - Feel like you're ready to have a bit more control over your camera? Try a priority mode. Priority modes let you adjust a setting and then your camera adjusts the other parameters to properly expose the shot. Let's start with aperture. In this mode you set the opening in the lens that determines the amount of light that hits the sensor. This mode basically gives you control over depth of field (DOF). Want to capture a nice landscape shot with as much in focus as possible? Raise the aperture number (F-STOP) to around F16, or higher if your lens allows it. An interesting character strolls through your landscape scene and you want to take a portrait with background separation? Lower your F-STOP to F4 or lower and you're good to go! One thing to look out for though, since the camera still adjusts the shutter speed based on your choice of F-STOP, if you raise the number, the camera will adjust by lowering the shutter speed, which can cause blurry images. I recommend having a tripod with you if you want to shoot in this mode, or turn on AUTO ISO to help shoot at slower speeds.

SHUTTER PRIORITY (S or TV) - See above, just in reverse. In this mode you manually adjust the shutter speed, which determines how long the light hits your sensor, and lets the camera adjust the F-STOP. This mode helps you freeze your subject at high shutter speeds, or show movement at lower shutter speeds. Let's say you're shooting a race, and you want to freeze the cars while they round a corner, raise your shutter speed to somewhere between 1/1000 and 1/2000 of a second. You want to show movement and intentionally blur the scene or subject? Lower the shutter speed value until you get the desired effect and get creative.

MANUAL (M) - In this mode, you are the master of your camera, and you adjust all values. If you plan on using this mode, you'll need some knowledge on how the the "holy trinity" (shutter, aperture, sensitivity) works and how to use metering. But hey, there is no reason not to play around with this mode and see what your camera is capable of.

And that covers the main shooting modes you will find on a majority (if not, all) cameras. Sometimes things can seem a bit confusing when first trying them out, but keep playing with your cameras' settings and modes to familiarize yourself with how it works. If you happen to enable or disable something unintentionally, and you do not know how to set it back, you can just revert your camera settings to default in the menus, and keep at it. Hope this helps you get started.

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