Number three in a series of posts filed under Happy Snapper. This is where I try to explain the basics of photography on a phone, point and shoot or DSLR in language that makes sense and hopefully helps you.

Posts in the series so far:
#1 What camera? An introduction to the types of camera available these days.
#2 Need some focus? The how and why of autofocus.

20131108 Fibbers-4

Like with the other posts in this series, I’m all about camera equality – it’s about what you do with your lens that really matters and all modern cameras have these modes available, you might just need to look through the menu to find the automatic alternatives.

Most beginner photographers¬†use their camera in fully automatic mode, some even well beyond beginner. It’s easy, the photos are ok and it takes very little thought apart from composition. But we’re all about pushing you out of the basics here and enjoying taking great photos.

So here’s a rundown of the automatic modes available on almost all cameras:

(Note: I’m using Nikon icons just because, have a quick squiz at your own camera/manual and you’ll see that while the icons might be slightly different, the end result is basically the same)

Automatic Modes


autoAutomatic mode lets the camera make all the decisions about the shot. It decides how closed or open the aperture will be, the ISO, the speed of the shutter, the white balance and whether or not to use the built in flash. All that’s left to you is to compose the image and release the shutter.
While this is ideal as you’re getting to grips with composition, it really leaves you with no control over the image you’re making and can result in photos that are just a little flat. The camera is basically guessing what you want to do and may not always give you what you want.

Flash off/ Red eye reduction

no flashYou can usually override the flash by either turning it off completely or using a red eye-reduction flash mode. This will give a short burst of light before the shutter opens to allow your subject’s eyes to adjust.

Automatic sub-modes

You can give your camera some extra information by using some of the automatic sub modes in your camera. These are usually called scene modes, you tell the camera what type of image¬†you’re shooting and it will tailor its settings to suit that general type of scene.


portraitPortrait mode works best when you fill the frame with your subject. Try to leave some background, but a relatively small amount. The reason for this is that portrait modes changes the aperture settings on your camera to a very low number. This means that the ‘iris’ of the camera is open wide so that the background is blurred and the subject¬†is¬†in sharp focus.
If you’re shooting into the sun you might want to put on the flash so that your subject’s face is well lit too.

There may also be a ‘child mode’ scene on your camera.¬†This is sort of a cross between portrait and sports modes – high shutter speeds but colours and contrast are boosted, without affecting skin tone. It can sometimes turn off the focus beep too so you don’t attract any unwanted attention if you’re trying to take candids.


landscapeThis is the very opposite of the portrait mode in that it closes the aperture of the lens right up so that the whole image is in focus. This is great for wide images where there are lots of things to focus on, or they’re at various points in the photo. Depending on how much light accessing the sensor, your camera might slow down the shutter speed to compensate for the very closed aperture, so you might want to steady the camera using a tripod or something similar if you’re using this mode.

Macro/Close Up

macroNot strictly just for flowers. Macro or close up mode is for small objects – insects, flowers, small still lives. The depth of field is tiny in this mode so you’ll want to try to keep your camera parallel to your subject. You might also want to use a tripod for this mode too – the field of focus is so narrow that your camera may struggle to focus at all and can lose it quickly if you move the camera even slightly. You also won’t want to use the built-in flash with this mode, the light source will be much too close to the subject and it’ll just blow out all the detail.


sportsFast moving subjects like sports, cars and pets are what this mode is designed for. It’s also called action mode on some cameras. This mode works by increasing the shutter speed of the camera to freeze the action in front of the lens, so a tripod is never necessary with this mode. It also increases the ISO value and opens the aperture to let in as much light as possible. Like in portrait mode, this means that the depth of field will be pretty narrow and will separate your subject from the background nicely. When composing your images in this mode it’s wise to keep the subject just slightly to the left or right of the middle of the frame. The sensor will focus quicker this way but it will also make the composition more pleasing than a dead centred image.



Dance floors and parties are where this mode come in to play. The shutter speed is slowed down to let as much light on to the sensor as possible while the flash fires off¬†a short burst of flash to capture your subject sharply. This means you get your subject in focus with lovely blurry, colourful backgrounds. You can use a tripod if you like or you can use this mode handheld – you’ll notice the difference in how the background turns out. Try both and see what effect you like best.

Semi-Automatic modes

These modes are only available on DSLRs. With the camera set to one of the two semi-automatic modes you have much greater creative control over your image. You set the ISO and one of the other of the two aspects of the exposure triangle and the camera fills in the last part for you.

Aperture priority (A or Av)

app priorityThis mode lets you control the aperture of the camera. Like I said earlier about portrait Vs landscape mode, the¬†smallest¬†aperture number means that the ‘iris’ of the lens is opened widest. Your depth of field is narrower so your subject and background are more separated – ie the background will be blurred.

With a narrow aperture, high number, the depth of field extends much further from the camera allowing much more of the image to be in focus.

Shutter Priority (S or Tv)

shutter priorityIf your subject is moving quickly this is the mode you need. It depends on the subject and how fast they’re moving but you can set your shutter to open for anything between 30 seconds and 1/8000 of a second (depending on the camera). You’ll probably want to start at 1/25oth of a second and see how much you’re freezing from there.
You can also slow the shutter right down for light writing or getting those lovely moving light trails – you’ll want a tripod for that most definitely.

Manual Mode

manualAfter three years on a DSLR, I’m finally moving to manual¬†now. It’s exciting to push my abilities as well as tiring having to make so many decisions so quickly. You need to have a good understanding of how exposure and light metering works to use manual mode effectively. You also need to be able to decide when the camera is wrong and when you should under- or over-expose the image. Having that control is incredible but unless you’re confident with all other aspects of your photography then this is a headache better avoided for now.

This is a photo I took last night on manual mode – aperture wide open so only the head of the guitar is in focus, the ISO was set to 1000 and the shutter speed at 1/60 – not fast enough to catch the movement but slow enough to show the movement.


Go explore your camera friends. Learn how to talk to it, it’ll change your photos forever!
Next up we’ll take a look at how depth of field works.