Master Camera Shooting Modes

Master Camera Shooting Modes | Photo Spices
Master Camera Shooting Modes | Photo Spices


The biggest question comes in everyone mind is : why do I need to learn how to set my camera’s settings manually when my camera already has built-in modes for sports, portraits, landscapes, etc?

Shooting Modes | Photo Spices
Shooting Mode Dial

An example will help to explain why these icon modes won’t work for those who want to become a “real” photographer.

With your new photography skills and your new fancy camera, your family members nominate you the official photographer at your family reunion. It comes time to take the giant group picture with over 60 people in it (including your Uncle Bob who really shouldn’t have worn that ugly Hawaiian shirt). What mode do you set the camera to? The little portrait icon, because it’s a portrait! But there is a problem… a really big problem. The portrait mode on your camera automatically makes the aperture go really low, because it thinks you want shallow depth-of-field in your portrait. But in this instance, it’s such a large group of people that you need full depth-of-field so that the people in the back aren’t out of focus. The camera doesn’t know your intentions with this portrait, so half of the group looks blurry.

And thus we see why the little automatic icon modes (the landscape, portrait, sports modes, etc), simply will not work for photographers who want to learn to take professional-quality photos.


Creative Modes | Photo Spices
Creative Modes Highlighted In Yellow.

The Creative Modes on your camera are Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode. On most cameras, they are marked “P, A, S, M.” These stand for “Program Mode, Aperture priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode.”

If you use a Canon DSLR, then you’ll see that your camera company likes to feel “special” by changing up those names. Canon cameras will show “P, Av, Tv, M” for the same exact modes. “Av” is Canon’s version of Aperture Priority, and “Tv” is Canon’s version of Shutter Priority.

It may feel a little bit intimidating to move to these creative modes on your camera, but I’ll walk you step-by-step through each of the creative modes, how to use them, and what they do.


Just trust me on this one–you don’t want to use it–ever.

But just in case you’re curious, program mode usually (it is slightly different on each camera model) sets the aperture and the shutter speed for you, and allows the photographer to set the white balance, ISO, and flash.

This mode is not a great choice for serious photographers because you can’t set the shutter speed to make sure the picture isn’t blurry, or the aperture to control the depth-of-field.


I’d love to see you use aperture priority for 95% of your shooting for the next several months. It is the mode that most hobbyist photographers and even many many pro photographers shoot in most of the time.

When you shoot aperture priority mode, you set the aperture (the f-stop) and also the ISO. The camera will then set a shutter speed for you so that the picture is properly exposed.

Aperture priority mode is powerful because it is amazingly simple to use, and still allows the photographer a lot of creative choice. In fact, most competent photographers use aperture priority mode every single day.

Suppose you’re shooting friends and family at a party. The background is really busy with people and things around the house, so you decide you want a blurry background in the photo (shallow depth-of-field). To achieve this, you set the camera to f/3.5 which is a low aperture and which will blur out the background. The first picture you take is of a person sitting on the couch next to a lamp. The lamp is bright, so you want a fast shutter speed to get the correct exposure since your aperture is wide open. Using aperture priority mode, the camera would automatically set that shutter speed for you. Then, you want to take a picture of someone in a darker corner of the room. You wouldn’t have to fiddle with camera settings at all, because the camera will automatically see that it is dark and choose a slower shutter speed. All the while, you’re able to keep the aperture set to use creative depth-of-field.

When you want full depth-of-field, choose a high f-stop (aperture). When you want shallow depth of field, choose a lower f-stop. Your pictures will DRAMATICALLY improve when you learn to control the depth-of-field.


Shutter priority mode sounds very useful, but the truth is that I have never found a professional photographer who uses it.  It is a bit difficult to explain why that is.

At first blush, it sounds convenient to have a mode where you could choose the shutter speed and ISO and let the camera choose the aperture for you.  For example, when shooting a school basketball game, you might think you’d want shutter priority mode because you could set the shutter speed fast enough for the quick-moving sports situation.

However, you might be surprised to learn that nearly all professional sports photographers I’ve worked with shoot in aperture priority mode.  Why?  Because the depth-of-field is key. We want to control depth-of-field in our sports pictures and we just keep an eye on the shutter speed to make sure the camera isn’t picking one that is too low. If it does, then we boost the ISO so that the camera will chose a faster shutter speed.


Photo Spices
Manual Mode. Aperture: F/18. Shutter Speed: 1/60. ISO 100. Nikon 10-24mm Lens. Camera: Nikon D7000.

Jim Harmer took the picture above while at a photography conference in San Francisco. In a situation like this, the bridge isn’t going anywhere, the bay isn’t going anywhere, the chain in front of me wasn’t going anywhere… he had a captive audience to say the least. In situations like this, he always use manual mode. Then he set his shutter speed to 1/100. He set his ISO to 100 because he wanted no noise in the picture and he knew if he needed more light, he could just slow down the shutter speed.

After taking the picture with the settings above, he realized that the picture was coming out a bit too dark with 1/100 shutter speed. So, he slowed it down to 1/60 and it looked just how he wanted.

The point is that, eventually, you’ll find yourself wanting to shoot in manual mode for situations where you aren’t rushed to get the shot. If you’re shooting sports, outdoor portraits, or other things, then aperture priority is simpler and faster than shooting in manual mode.

But since you’re still learning, the best option for the next few months is to get comfortable shooting in aperture priority mode 100% of the time.