Steve's Photography Tips: Camera Modes

Tips to help you improve your photos!

The last few posts in this series have covered ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, so now let’s put them all together and look at the different shooting modes available on digital cameras.

All cameras these days come with an “Auto” mode, where the camera does everything for you, selecting each of the main settings based on what it “sees” through the lens. And that’s nice, I guess. But if you have paid all of that money for a “nice” camera, you might as well use it to take some quality photos, right? Otherwise, it’s sort of like having a hot rod and only driving it in second gear. Or having an iPhone and only using it to make phone calls. Does anyone use their phone to make phone calls anymore? Or whatever other analogy you might come up with.

Instead of letting your camera try to figure out what you want, take control of your camera and start making the decisions! But what do all of those modes mean? Here is a look at a couple of camera dials.

First up is the dial of the Olympus OM-D E-M10 camera:

Wondering what all the different mode settings on your camera do? Read all about it in Steve’s Photography Tips from Burnsland!

It has all of the standard modes: Auto, Program (P), Aperture Priority (A), Shutter Priority (S), and Manual (M), as well as some other settings for artistic modes and a movie mode. Movies are self-explanatory, I would think. And the artistic modes vary greatly by camera, so we won’t discuss those here right now.

Also, here is a look at the dial of an Canon EOS 60D:

canon camera dial

This one also has the standard modes, although they are indicated a little differently. The empty rectangle is the Auto setting, and then there is Program (P), Shutter Priority (Tv for Time value), Aperture Priority (Av), Manual (B), and also Bulb (B), and Custom (C), which allows you to set everything like you want it and then access that particular setup quickly. And again, there are several artistic modes, many more than what the OM-D has.

As mentioned, our focus here will be on the main modes, so here is a look at what each one does:


As mentioned earlier, this mode sets everything automatically. The ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and even the flash are all controlled by the camera. Not much thought involved here unless you are thinking about what you might have for lunch.


Program mode starts out much like Auto mode, in that the camera selects all of the settings. But you do have some control over things. Before shooting, you can change the ISO setting, and the camera will choose the other settings based off of that. And then once the camera does choose the setting, you can override it by turning some dials or clicking some buttons. Some cameras have different controls for the aperture and shutter speed settings so that you can change both of them. Your best bet is to read the manual for your camera because each camera handles this a little differently. What’s that? You never thought you would actually have to read the manual for your camera? That’s always the best place to start before you ever take the first photo. Seriously. You can learn a lot by spending an hour or two reading that thing. Even if they only give you the full manual on a CD or as a digital download, it is still worth your time to check it out.

Also, Program mode gives you control over the flash, which you don’t have in Auto mode. Don’t want the flash to fire? Don’t open it, or turn it on, or whatever else you have to do for your camera. Where’s that manual again?

Aperture Priority

As you might imagine from the name, this mode gives priority to the aperture setting that you choose, and the camera selects a shutter speed based on your aperture setting. Want that blurry bokeh in the background of your photo? Choose a low f-stop number. Want all of the objects to be in focus? Choose a high f-stop number. Be sure to read the Understanding Aperture post if you haven’t already, just in case you don’t know what any of that means, by the way. This mode also uses the ISO setting that you select, although in most cameras you do have the choice of “Auto” as an ISO setting. I don’t use that, instead choosing to set my own ISO. What to watch for: Make sure that you can hold the camera steady for the shutter speed that your camera selects, just in case it ends up being a long one.

Aperture Priority gives you control over focus and depth of field, such as in this photo from the Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World.

Shutter Priority

This mode is similar to Aperture Priority, except that this time you set the shutter speed and then the camera selects the aperture setting. And you also still have control over ISO and the flash, just as before. So if you are wanting moving objects to be in sharp focus, select a faster shutter speed. If you want some motion blur or if there isn’t as much light, use a slower shutter speed. Again, check the Shutter Speed post for more about this, if you haven’t already. What to watch for: Your camera may be limited by the aperture setting it can choose. For example, if you are trying to get some motion blur on a sunny day, the photo may end up looking too bright because the aperture can only close so far. Or if you are using a fast shutter speed, the camera may not be able to open the aperture wide enough to let the right amount of light into the camera for a good exposure.

Shutter Priority is good when you know you know you can’t hold the camera steady for very long, such as in this photo from the Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom.


If you use this mode, you must be serious about photography! In Manual mode, you set everything: ISO, aperture, shutter speed. The camera will show you the expected exposure value, which can guide you, but it is up to you to know what to change if the exposure level isn’t right. Sounds scary, right? But really, I think that is the best way to learn what changing each setting does. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, because I learned photography on an old film SLR camera (the beloved Pentax K1000), where I set everything manually. Yes, there were some misses, but I came away with a good understanding of everything. And these days it is easy to immediately see what your misses were and try again, unlike in those days of film. Manual mode does sometimes take some patience, along with the time to set up your shot, but in the long run, it can be very beneficial, especially if you are a serious student of photography.

Bulb Mode

Some cameras have a separate Bulb mode, which is similar to Manual mode except that you don’t set a shutter speed. You set the ISO and aperture, and then the shutter stays open as long as you are pressing on the shutter button, similar to the old bulb shutter controls that you would see on really old cameras. This mode is mainly used for long exposure photos because no matter how much you practice I don’t think you could get to where you could press the button differently for 1/200 second or 1/30 second. For a lot of photos, Bulb mode is really much of a guess as to how long to keep the shutter open, and it sometimes involves some trial and error.

Alternatively, some cameras just have a Bulb setting as one of the shutter values, meaning that you would use either Aperture Priority or Manual mode and select “Bulb” as your shutter speed. That’s how it works on my Olympus OM-D camera.

For fireworks photos, Bulb mode (or Manual mode with a bulb shutter setting) is often your best bet. You can do some cool things with long exposures, such as with this photo from Illuminations at Epcot.

Which Mode Should I Use?

That’s a good question because it depends on what you want to get out of your photography. Or what sort of photos you are wanting to take. Or what photo effect you might be going for. For what some people want to accomplish, Auto and Program modes work just fine. But I always like to have a little more control over things.

As for me, while I would love to shoot in Manual mode all the time like the good old days, the truth is that I don’t always have time (or more accurately, I don’t take the time) to do that. So instead, I usually settle for Aperture Priority mode, because I like to control the depth of field of the shot. That does mean that I have to have the ISO set right to get a usable shutter speed, but I usually have a pretty good feel for what that should be, and then I can change the ISO rather quickly if it isn’t right.

If shutter speed is absolutely critical, I will use Shutter Priority mode. One use for this mode for me has been riding some of the dark rides at Walt Disney World, knowing the slowest shutter speed I can get by with is 1/15 to 1/30 second, and not even that if the ride moves with any speed at all. But I set the shutter speed to what I think will work, dial the ISO up, and let the camera figure out the aperture. This has worked pretty well several times.

And I do use Manual mode for long exposures from time to time. And when I am feeling especially experimental, or thinking I want to try to feel like a “real” photographer, I will switch to Manual mode for that, too. For a while. Before eventually switching back to Aperture Priority mode.

The best thing is for you to find some time to experiment with your camera and see what mode and what settings work best for you. It is always best to do this around home or some other time when the photos aren’t critical so that you will be well prepared when you really want to take photos. After all, the “vacation of a lifetime” probably isn’t the best time to start to experiment with your camera, because you might miss something important!

Be sure to check out other Photography Tips, and watch for more!

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Burnsland is Steve Burns, with generous help from his lovely wife Laura. Steve is a husband, father, photographer, webmaster, writer, podcaster, artist, Christian. Steve enjoys sharing his photography, art, and stories through, from the Burnsland World Headquarters in Tennessee.