Camera Modes Explained

You know one of the biggest reasons why cameras start collecting dust in the attic? Or simply never get out of auto mode. It’s because all those darn buttons and dials can get pretty complicated. Fortunately though, we’ve created a camera mode cheat sheet to help you demystify those dials. Feel free to print this one out and stick it in your camera bag.

Camera Cheatsheet

Download the Camera Cheatsheet. Print this out and stick it in your camera bag.

Automatic Mode

Almost everyone starts in auto mode. On this setting, the camera will automatically decide the best aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and focus. All you have to do is click the button! Cameras are getting pretty smart these days and you can get some great results in auto mode. Especially in well-lit situations.

Plus, let’s face it… sometimes you just want to get out and enjoy your camera! Without having to fiddle with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

But keep in mind that the camera is still having to “guess” as to what you want. It doesn’t always know if you’re shooting a portrait or a landscape. That’s where many of the other settings will come in handy. Allowing you to fine-tune your selections based on the effect you want to create.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go straight into manual. There are some baby steps you can take along the way. Understanding all of these different camera modes will allow you to unlock the full potential of your camera.

Program Mode

Program Mode is Automatic Mode’s cousin and operates almost exactly the same, except you can adjust the flash and color settings. If you want the “set it and forget it” of Automatic Mode with a just a dash of creative control, try shooting in Program Mode.

Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode is designed to bring objects in the foreground into sharp focus with the combination of a very low Aperture f-stop and a very fast Shutter Speed. The result is that your primary subject will be sharp and clearly defined, and the background will be slightly blurred. Portrait Mode is perfect for highlighting people, animals or objects and works magic in black and white because of the stark contrast between foreground and background.

Child Mode

In this mode, clothing and backgrounds are colorful while keeping skin tones soft and natural looking. Shutter speed is also increased to capture kids who are a bit more wiggly.

Landscape Mode

Landscape Mode cranks up the Aperture f-stop number, so every detail of your background will be distinct. Landscape Mode was made for capturing sweeping vistas or huge crowds where the beauty of the picture is in the whole scene, not a single detail or object in the foreground. In this way, it’s the polar opposite of Portrait Mode.

Macro Mode

Macro Mode simply means close up mode. Use it when you’re in Portrait Mode to zoom in on your subject and capture minute details. Macro Mode combined with really low Aperture and fast shutter speed is how photographers get those breathtaking close-ups of flowers, insects, ice-coated leaves and any other host of tiny wonders. Just Google “Macro Photography” and you’ll find tons of inspirational photos that you can recreate with a few tweaks to your camera!

Action Mode

Action Mode, sometimes referred to as Sports Mode, is a setting that has a really fast Shutter Speed so you can capture fast-moving subject matter with complete accuracy. Those faster shutter speeds allow you to seemingly “freeze” time. Use Action Mode when you’re photographing anything that’s moving to grab a sharp snap without pesky blurring.

Night Portrait

This one is great for low light situations. Night Portrait mode uses a slower Shutter Speed to give the camera as much time as possible to absorb all the light it needs to get a good picture. If needed, it will often fire off a flash to illuminate your subject. Basically, it compensates for the lack of light by creating its own and maximizing the time between snaps. Keep in mind though, with a slower shutter speed it’s also best to use a tripod so you get a nice sharp photo.

Entering the World of Semi-Automatic

The semi-automatic modes are a great place to start when you’re first venturing out from full automatic.

Aperture Priority

This is a semi-automatic mode that allows you to choose the aperture yourself. It’s generally indicated on your camera dial with an “A” or “Av”.

In this mode, the camera will automatically set the shutter speed that will produce the proper exposure. But you are in full control of aperture. Allowing you to choose the appropriate f-stop. Think of f-stops as milestones to gauge how your picture will look. If you want a crisp and focused background, choose an f-stop that’s higher; somewhere between f/16 and f/22 would be appropriate. To hone in on a subject in the foreground, you’ll want to choose a lower f-stop that brings that object into focus while blurring the background slightly.

Shutter Priority

Shutter Priority is marked as “S” on your camera. This nifty little button lets you set a precise shutter speed, giving you total control of how you photograph motion. You can create some really cool effects with shutter speed, so have some fun playing around with this one. You can create some really interesting effects with different shutter speeds.

The camera will automatically select the aperture (f-stop) that will produce a proper exposure.

Manual Mode

Oh… you are a brave one!

Manual Mode puts you in the driver’s seat. You can adjust the aperture (how much light comes into the camera) the shutter speed (how fast the camera clicks) and ISO (your camera’s sensitivity to light). In manual mode, you’re able to take photos that are truly unique based on what sort of “look” and composition you’re going for.


What are all of those little buttons and dials on your camera? Now you know!

Of course the best way to learn is to simply take lots of photos. Start experimenting with all those different camera modes to see how each one changes your photos. If you have an electronic viewfinder you can even preview the effects of your settings BEFORE you take the photo. Giving you a real time preview of what your exposure will be. That’s one thing I love about the mirrorless cameras. But each mode offers new creative opportunities. So get out there and have a blast.

Happy Shooting 🙂

Download the Camera Cheatsheet. Print this out and stick it in your camera bag.

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