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Updated: Jan 13, 2021

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 cameras brains (computer) does all the thinking for you. It will analyze the scene, and calculate the "best" setting based on predetermined parameters for a properly exposed shot. Unfortunately, in this mode you have zero control, and the camera doesn't always know best, and the picture might not be what you expected.

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, you can adjust some parameters such as ISO (light sensitivity), set focus point, exposure compensation, and even shift shutter and aperture 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, sharp, landscape shot? Raise the aperture number (F-STOP) to, say, F16. A little girl skips through your landscape scene and you want to take a portrait? Lower your F-STOP to a 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, 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, let's say, between 1/1000 and 1/2000 of a second. You want to capture movement? Lower the shutter value, follow your subject while you shoot. The car will stay sharp while the rest is blurred (this technique is called panning, which I will cover in depth in a later post).

MANUAL (M) - In this mode, you are the MASTER! The camera has no say in anything. 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 read your cameras built in light meter. But, hey! There is no reason not to play around with this mode.

So that covers the main camera modes. Do you have a question about any of the (many) other modes cameras have, want to learn more, or learn about something that wasn't covered here? why not sign up for one of my classes!

Hope this helps you get started!

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