What The Heck Are Shooting Modes

Up to this point I have been approaching photography strictly from an artistic perspective, but as important as the art of photography is, it is good practice to understand the technical aspects as well. Knowing how to fully utilize your equipment, and understanding its limitations, will only help you create your ideal images. That being the case, I will start sharing intermittent articles dedicated to learning how to use the tools of photography. 

First up is camera shooting modes. Whether it be on a dslr, mirrorless, or point and shoot, almost every mode selection dial will have these five options: full auto, program, AV, TV/SV, and manual. 

Your particular camera may have a handful of other settings such as movie, scene, and custom modes. These vary by manufacturer and by model, so I won’t be addressing those in this post. 

Before I get into the meat of the topic, I think it would be a good idea to cover some basic terms I'll be referncing. If you already know this stuff, feel free to skip to the next section. 

Basic Photography Terms

Exposure Value

This is the actual brightness of your image. Exposure value is measured in factors of two, called stops. This means that an increase of 1 stop actually lets in twice as much light, 2 stops is four times as much light, 3 stops is eight times as much, and so on. It is controlled by the combination of ISO, aperture, and shutter settings. 

Metering and Exposure Compensation

Practically every camera in production today has a built in light meter. This is used to help the photographer judge their exposure before they take a picture. As a standard the meter will divide the frame into multiple sections and average it all to a middle grey. 

This works well for many scenes, but not for other instances, such as a field of fresh snow or in a shaded grove. The cameras tendency towards middle gray will cause these scenes to underexpose, and overexpose respectively. This is where Exposure Compensation comes in. By setting the exposure compensation, you are telling the camera that you want the image brighter or darker, and by how many stops. 


Varying in pronunciation (I say ice-o), ISO is a measurement of your film/sensors sensitivity to light. These numbers are set by the International Organization for Standardization to ensure the settings are comparable across all cameras. Higher ISO settings have more noise, which can lead to a less crisp image. 


This is the size of the opening in your lens, and is measured in f/stops or f/number. Every lens has a maximum aperture that, such as f/1.4 or f/4. Your aperture setting controls how much light is entering the cameras at any given moment, and it also controls how much of the scene is in focus. 

Shutter Speed

The shutter controls how long the film/sensor is exposed to the light entering your camera. Measured in fractions of a second, it also controls motion blur. 

In a future post I will be covering how the interaction of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed combine to create your final exposure.

The Modes

Full auto

This mode is self explanatory: the camera takes the reigns and controls everything. This is a good option for someone who is just picking up a camera, or for someone who is only interested in capturing a moment but doesn't want to worry about settings. 


A step up from full auto, p-mode gives you control of ISO and exposure compensation, but the camera still sets the aperture and shutter values. Unlike auto, in this mode you are able to have some input in the final exposure. This is a good option for those that want a little more control, but are still learning. 


The first of the “creative modes”, this mode gives you control over the shutter speed in addition to setting ISO and exposure compensation. 

By setting the speed yourself, you are able to decide exactly how much motion blur will be in your final image. The camera will then choose an aperture value to give you the proper exposure based on your ISO and exposure compensation settings. 

Ideal for sports, or wildlife photographers that need to react quickly to a changing setting. 


The inverse companion of Tv/Sv, and my most used mode. Av allows the photographer to set the aperture value, ISO, and exposure compensation. The camera will then choose a shutter speed based on those settings. 

This mode gives creative control over how much of the image is in focus, A.K.A. the depth of field. It allows for quick adjustments that are great for photographers that are more interested in controlling depth of field, or that are photographing stationary subjects where longer shutter speeds are not a problem. 


Mistakenly thought to be what professionals use by beginners, manual mode is really just one more option for you to take advantage of. In manual mode you are able to control all aspects of your exposure: ISO, aperture, and shutter. 

This enables an unlimited amount of flexibility to create the exact image you want, but at the cost of setup time. This is a perfect option for art photographers, landscape photographers, and for the times you are able to slow down to make sure you are achieving your desired outcome. 

So Which Should You Use?

As you can hopefully see, there is no best mode to use. There is no reason to think you are less of a photographer because you aren’t using manual mode. Each mode has a time and place; which one you use just depends on what your priorities are, and how quickly you need to react to your environment. 

For example: imagine trying to photograph a hawk diving after its prey in manual mode. Maybe you want to freeze the hawks motion, so you set a fast shutter speed: but then you have to adjust the aperture and/or ISO to get a proper exposure. In the time it took you to do all that the hawk is already flying away, meal in hand. 

Wrap up

I know this article glanced over some major photographic terms, but I will be covering each of them in more depth in future posts. For now, I hope this has helped you understand what the various shooting modes are, and how each one can be used. 

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