Why You Should Turn That Mode Dial On Your Camera Away From Auto but Not Necessarily to M

Why You Should Turn That Mode Dial On Your Camera Away From Auto but Not Necessarily to M

There’s an often misleading rule quoted that amateurs use auto and professional photographers use manual mode. Balderdash! It should be replaced with professional photographers can use manual mode, but many use the mode that is most likely to get them the shot.

What Are Shooting Modes?

On the top of most mirrorless and DSLR cameras is a dial with various shooting modes. These will normally include B (bulb), M (manual), S (shutter priority), A (aperture priority), and P (program) modes. For reasons unknown, Canon made the peculiar choice of labeling shutter priority mode Tv (time value) and aperture priority Av (aperture value). But for this article, I will stick with what the majority use. If you have a lower-end camera, you may also have auto and scene modes. Most cameras will have a movie setting on the dial as well.

This Nikon has a mode button not a dial.

Auto and Scene Modes

Auto mode does exactly what you would expect, the camera takes over all the settings in the camera and will take a photo using those it thinks are best. For simplicity, it’s fabulous and it means anyone can pick up a camera with this mode, point it in the right direction, press the shutter button, and end up with a photo. The downsides are that it can get it wrong and also leaves less scope for creativity.

Scene mode takes that one step further as it adjusts the camera settings to any you select from the range of scenes available. The scenes will typically include landscapes, portraits, nighttime, fireworks, and so on. They are more likely to get the result you are after than auto mode. They are a great learning tool, as one can see from a photograph the settings that were applied to take the shot. You can then use those settings as a starting point for adjusting the camera in one of the other modes.

Cheaper, lower-end cameras will have an auto mode, seen here on this entry-level Canon with the green A+.

Program Mode

Program mode is very similar to auto mode. However, it allows you to change a wider range of settings. This might vary from camera to camera. Typically, you still have control over the ISO, focusing mode, exposure compensation, etc. On most cameras, you can change the aperture and shutter settings together, and it will keep the same exposure. Once set up, it’s fast, and I know a professional photographer who uses it for wedding documentary work.

P Mode. Good quality cameras also have Custom modes where you can save your settings for particular types of photography.

Manual Mode

This is the other extreme from auto mode. You have full control over the aperture and shutter speed. When you are taking your time and concentrating on every small detail of creating a photo, then manual mode is perfect. I have used it for landscape and seascape photography, where I have the camera on a tripod and taken my time creating the image.

I always use manual mode in the studio and when I use a flash. Thus, I can maintain constant exposure throughout all my shots. I can adjust all the exposure controls, including the flash's power output, and achieve the desired results.

Although I can use manual mode at other times, I often don’t for a good reason. When I photograph birds in flight, for example, they fly against the brightly lit sky and then dive in front of a dark backdrop. If I were in manual mode, I would never manage to change the exposure fast enough so that would screw up the exposure.

Similarly, when shooting documentary photos and weddings, I can be indoors and spot action outside. Rushing out, I don’t need to spend precious seconds changing the exposure settings. Also, on a photo walk, I want immediacy and not mess around with the exposure settings. So, I see no reason why I shouldn’t forget manual mode and let the camera do the heavy lifting instead.

If I had used manual mode and been tracking the tern in the sky, the exposure would have been completely wrong when it dived and then emerged from the water.

Shutter Priority Mode

Many wildlife photographers will use shutter priority mode because they can preset the shutter speed to match the speed of the moving subject. The camera will then adjust the aperture to match.

However, there are problems with shutter priority.

If this mode is used to shoot a bright scene, the camera may reduce the aperture too far. Consequently, you will lose image quality because of diffraction.

Moreover, your camera probably has a shutter speed range of 30 or more seconds to 1/8000th second. In normal lighting, accidentally selecting either extreme will make your photo entirely white or black. With shutter priority, you must manually keep the shutter speed within the parameters suitable for the available light, or the image will be irrecoverably over-exposed. Even if using Auto ISO, the picture may still over-expose on a bright day or become excessively dark and noisy when shooting in low light.

Whereas almost all brands of camera use S to indicate Shutter Priority mode, Canon uses Tv.

Aperture Priority Mode

Most of the time, this is the mode I use.  Shooting in aperture priority, I can go into the menus and set the camera to have the minimum shutter speed I want. For photographing birds in flight, I need a much faster minimum shutter speed than I do for people milling around at a wedding. In case there is not enough light to achieve that minimum shutter speed, I have the ISO set to automatically increase.

I used to worry about increasing the ISO because of the noise that would be evident in the images. However, modern-day camera sensors are so good that increasing ISO is rarely a problem. Furthermore, the latest versions of noise reduction software remove noise and leave crystal clear images, unlike the muddy results one used to get from the pre-AI sliders in raw development apps.

With the camera set that way, I can choose the aperture and, consequently, have control over the depth of field by turning the rear (thumb) dial. If I want to adjust the exposure, I turn the front (forefinger) dial, which changes the shutter speed. Therefore, I still have full control over the exposure. On many entry-level cameras, there is only one dial. Therefore, one must press the +/- button first to change the exposure compensation.

By getting the camera to do the bulk of the exposure work, I can concentrate on the composition and what’s happening in the viewfinder. I am not great at multi-tasking, and the fewer things I need to think about at once, the better. Having the image framed correctly is the most important factor for me.

In aperture priority, the exposure is limited by the maximum and minimum apertures of the lens. Therefore, unlike shutter priority, an accidental irrecoverable wrong exposure is almost impossible. As I said, with shutter priority and manual mode, that window is far wider and I can select shutter speeds from 60 seconds to 1/8000th second and, therefore, easily over or under-exposed by a long way.

Shot using aperture priority mode.

Bulb Mode

Bulb mode is my favorite for long exposures. Although the 60-second exposure in my camera’s manual and shutter priority modes is generous – most cameras are limited to 30 seconds – with bulb mode, I can shoot for much longer. I use this on a tripod, usually with a remote shutter released via my phone app to minimize camera movement.

Variations on Bulb Mode

It would be remiss of me not to include two variations of bulb mode, although it will only apply to users of OM System cameras. Uniquely, they include a system called Live Time. It's found in the camera’s bulb mode. Using that, one can watch the image gradually develop on the rear screen and monitor the histogram moving to the right. The camera will refresh the image up to 24 times and can be set to refresh anything from once every 0.5 seconds to once a minute. You stop the exposure with a second press of the shutter button. (Live Bulb works similarly but the shutter button needs to remain depressed throughout the exposure and released afterwards.)

I used live time in bulb mode to photograph the aurora.

Even if the exposure hasn’t gone far enough in 24 minutes, you can see how far to the right the histogram has moved in that time and multiply up to work out how much more exposure you need. E.g. if, after 24 minutes, the exposure had moved only a quarter of the way to the right, you know you need another 24 minutes for a correct exposure.

Also, in Bulb mode is Live Composite. The camera shoots an initial long exposure. That can be set from 0.5 to 60 seconds. You then press the shutter a second time, and the camera will only add new light to the image. This can be used for light painting, star trails, lightning, and so on. I recommend looking at the work of Hannu Huhtamo to see how it can be used to great effect.

What Mode Do You Use the Most and Why

This article is written to introduce those who haven’t pushed their camera beyond the basic settings. What I have written is the way I use the camera but not necessarily the way everyone does. As I suggested above, other photographers have different approaches. I am sure some of our experienced photographers will use their cameras’ modes very differently from me. It would be great to hear about their approach and why. There's more than one way to take a photo.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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My cameras simply live in Manual. Changing Shutter and Aperture on the fly really isn't that difficult if you've been shooting for years.

I agree, it's not difficult. However, I find letting the camera change the shutter speed when in Aperture priority mode with Auto ISO and a minimum shutter speed set is faster. It depends on the circumstances whether you need that speed to change the settings though.

And if the camera gets it wrong and you miss the shot...well, "faster" didn't really help there did it?

Very nice “executive summary”


Expose correctly for the bird and your exposure will be accurate irrespective the background. When the camera's meter is set on "evaluative" it is not "smart enough" to determine the proper exposure of a smaller bird is moving from the sky to trees or even the water. In your example of the bird against the sky, in an automatic mode it would be severely underexposed unless one dialed in significant exposure compensation. As it dove against a dark tree background, the camera would increase the exposure, likely blowing out the bird. M is best.

I am not suggesting auto mode but aperture priority with auto ISO, a minimum shutter speed set, and applying exposure compensation. Because the camera will get you most of the way there when the bird moves from the sky to the darker background, you don't have to wind the compensation dial as far as you would in manual mode. So, M isn't necessarily best.

I have found FV to be my go to setting that the camera lives on second is P. BIF bores me now as they all look the same everywhere from everyone.
I look for unique shots of ruins, architecture, scenes and other types of wildlife (Which generally are more difficult to locate and photograph than birds).

I guess with Canons Fv mode allows you to set the camera as I suggest. Fix the aperture, fix a flexible shutter speed with a minimum value, and a flexible ISO.

I am not so sure I would agree with other forms of wildlife being more difficult. Just as difficult, maybe, especially shooting subjects such as mice and voles. There is an added degree of difficulty with birds in flight to capture the most exciting moment (as opposed to the wings just flapping) and the action is usually very high speed too. I am not bored by it, but each to their own.

Thanks for the comment

Have you tried Manual with Auto ISO? It's the third semi-automatic mode. You get the benefits of manual, in that you can set the aperture and shutter to your liking, but the camera takes care of the exposure. Add exposure compensation to the mix and you have a potent combination.

Yes, but when the bird flies from a bright background to being in shadow, having the camera do the heavy lifting by getting the shutter speed most of the way there means there is much less exposure compensation adjustment than there is adjusting the shutter in manual mode. It's faster. It's still possible in good cameras to set the minimum shutter speed so you don't get blurred images, after which the ISO increases. It's a different way of approaching the same result that works a little bit faster.

I use manual with auto iso because iso is the only part of the exposure triangle that doesn't affect the creative output of the image. And no I don't really worry about noise because when it gets dark I use exposure compensation to overexpose by 1 stop and then lower exposure in post production to hide the noise

Very, Very Good explanation for camera modes as well as admitting saying that you use Aperture mostly! I also am a Aperture mostly!!! But first of all those functions you pay for including the video stuff and knowing lets you select any at your will that is the smart photographer knowing all the tricks in the box. A few other things also like bracketing also in Aperture or SS or ISO etc. of the HDR days, this was when cameras did not have much Dynamic Range to recover shadows and and control highlights. Most DSLR cameras have the max 3 at +/- 2EV which is mostly adequate. I use Bracketing 5 at +/- 2EV for sunrise/sets and I have a battery of High Dynamic Sony cameras and using not Lr but other programs like the Nik HDR Efex that lets you pick the center image and ON1 Photo RAW also. Two things to use it on is getting a sharp moon with bright foreground 5 at +/- 3EV (reason I started with the A7S in '14), SS/ISO the same 125 and the start center of .5 sec gives you a 30 sec last capture but using a ultra wide, like 12mm, you get a very small moon not even seen but even with a long mm like 50mm the moon still will not be the moon size you see with your eyes, also great for getting the indoor sharp as well as being outdoors the area around it sharp and if you desire a moon above. During doing a landscape with old tree driftwood or a boat basin full of white hull boats the 5 at +/- 2EV for driftwood while the sun is still below the horizon the dark side will be on your side so this setting gets you bright, sharp and colorful trees and not a bunch of silhouettes and a boat basin white boats not bluish hulls. What got my eye was inside shots with windows and clear outside scenery back in '10 with my T2i when on a cruise getting outdoors scenery also. I used the promote control device with selectable anything. If using a mirrorless camera with IBIS sensor you can do the 3 at +/- 2ev while hand holding I learned when I forgot the on camera plate when at Antelope Canyon for a day tour when others where doing long exposure on a tripod. Remember if doing a long exposure 1 second or more in just one of the images the in camera NR will be off giving red (hot) and white (dead) pixels in your images BUT thankfully the HDR program will rid those when processed. For doing when the sun is above the horizon you get a small sun not a large blown out sun taking most of the image space along with sharp images of clouds to play with. As a hobbyist you get to play and experiment with the whole camera where as a pro of just one genre uses just only one set settings over and over day in and day out!
Lastly ask yourself if you paid for each function you wanted after selecting a camera how much all would be, you get it all for very low price indeed.....

For the birds either in Flight or in nests just keep the focus square in the center of frame and you will get in focus with shallow DOF most always. Also for portraits before eye AF put the small focus square on a eye and a blurr tip of nose and ears so really no need for a auto eye AF camera just save your dollars.

Thank you Edwin

When not using flash, Aperture Priority + Auto Min Shutter Speed + Auto ISO. When in this mode, I'm usually moving around and changing directions a lot. It's not about difficulty, it's about efficiency. It's way faster than any human. Some die hard manual photographers like to make believe they are just as fast. They are not. Let's be real.

When using flash, full manual. With this, I'm usually shooting unidirectional for a period of time. Or, in the case of some events and such, the ambient lighting is usually pretty static no matter the direction.

That's pretty much how I work a lot of the time too. Thanks, Eddie.

Mostly shoot in manual mode, just because I like to shoot that way and it’s fun to have full control. Do use auto iso sometimes during concerts when I want a fixed aperture and shutter speed but the lights change very quickly. Canon EOS R cameras also have a FV mode where you can choose which parameters you control and leave the rest to the camera , you just set those parameters to auto.

That FV mode sounds similar to the way I am suggesting. I presume you can, say, fix the aperture, and have a variable shutter speed with a minimum speed set before the ISO increases. Thanks for the comment.

Another great article. Merci!

I use manual because it works for me and I like to be in control rather than letting the camera do the work. Not necessarily an advantage considering what we can do with post processing RAW files but it just satisfies me to know I made all of the decisions. Lots of people like to use aperture priority for the reason they can concentrate on capturing the moment rather than having to get distracted manually changing settings. There is no right or wrong way to approach it…except full auto is very wrong 😉.

I still don't get Aperture priority, I know lots of pro use it, but I don't get it, and I sincerely hope for an explanation.
The article says
>> I can go into the menus and set the camera to have the minimum shutter speed I want. For photographing birds in flight, I need a much faster minimum shutter speed than I do for people milling around at a wedding.

So you can shoot manual and instead of going into the menu set the shutter speed at the beginning of the day and control the other settings, without having to set the mode dial and dive into the menu... Plus you retain the ability to change shutter speed of you need lower iso bc the lighting has changed. Isn't that faster and way more practical than using aperture priority? Can anyone explain to me the reasoning behind the use of A? It's driving me up a wall

Hi Ric. Thanks for the comment. I'll try to explain it differently.

Firstly, if manual mode works for you, then that is great. I'm not insisting you change. Lots of pros use shutter priority too in certain circumstances but I don't!

If you want, say, more depth of field at a certain distance you must make two sets of camera adjustments: the aperture and the shutter speed, assuming you want to keep the ISO as low as possible for the best image quality.

In manual mode that takes time, and could result in you missing the shot. I aperture priority, you just change the aperture and the camera does the rest for you. I find this incredibly useful at busy weddings.

Also, it is possible to get an exposure entirely wrong accidentally in manual mode, even with auto ISO because the range of shutter speeds is enormous. On my camera, I can select anything from 60 seconds to 1/8000 second, far wider than the number ISO steps available.

In aperture priority, you are limited by the maximum and minimum apertures. It's almost impossible to over or under-expose in Aperture priority,

Furthermore, you should also be able to set the minimum shutter speed for the subject you are shooting. That minimum will vary depending on the subject.

If the light drops so that speed is not fast enough, then the ISO increases. Consequently, the camera immediately sets the shutter speed, and then increases the ISO if there is still insufficient light.

This means the camera will get the exposure nearly right without you having the think about it. You still have control over the shutter speed by using the second command dial you have set for exposure compensation. (I use the back dial for aperture and the front for exposure compensation.)

With this method, if you fire off a shot without checking the settings, it's won't be far wrong and certainly within the scope of being able to correct it in processing.

.With a mirrorless camera, you can see the histogram in the viewfinder. If you need to change the exposure for creative effect, you can add or subtract compensation much faster because you are already closer to where you want to be.

To reduce exposure, this will decrease the ISO first and then increase the shutter speed. To increase the exposure it will slow the shutter speed until it reaches the stop point, and then increase the ISO. This prioritizes image quality.

It works similarly to manual mode, but the camera is getting you much closer to the correct exposure from the start, it's doing the heavy lifting.

This method only works effectively if you can set the minimum shutter speed in your menus.

I hope that clears it up for you. Why not give it a try and practice with it? If it doesn't suit your way of working that's fine. With photography, there are nearly always at least three ways of working! If you are happy with manual mode, don't change.