Digital Camera Modes Explained

Last Updated on March 21, 2021

Understanding the modes of your digital camera will allow you to gain control of everything it has to offer. Once you know how these modes work you will be able to better capture high quality images and become a better photographer.

After reading this article you will have a solid understanding of how your camera modes work and when to use them.

back of camera

What Are Digital Camera Modes?

The primary function of the modes on your camera is to allow you control over the exposure of your images. This includes settings of aperture, ISO and shutter speed.

There are modes on modern DSLR’s that allow the camera to automatically set your exposure settings and there are modes that give you manual control over these settings.

In old camera models all settings were adjusted manually. This meant that a photographer had to learn how to optimize their shutter speed, ISO and aperture settings without the assistance of auto exposure modes. To set these manually a photographer needed to understand how the lighting of the room would effect their exposure. They used external light meters to evaluate the lighting conditions. These meters would take the lighting information and let the photographer know what exposure settings to use. A photographer would need to take multiple readings throughout there session as lighting conditions changed.

top view of Nikon camera

But in 1938 the first built in camera light meter was introduced by Kodak. This was the start of what would eventually become the modern automatic camera. In 1962 the SLR camera was produced by Topcon. This camera was able to measure the light that came through the camera lens while shooting. This largely eliminated the need for a photographer to use an external light meter (though there are still times where a light meter is used today).

Soon there were many automatic cameras available on the market that could process the lighting intensity within a room and make exposure adjustments for the photographer. With this technology came the need for the photographer to understand the modes of the modern DSLR camera.

There are dozens of cameras available for photographers now and each of these DSLR’s provide many setting adjustment options. Most offer similar automatic modes as well as manual options.

closeup of digital camera buttons

Types Of Camera Modes Explained

For the vast majority of modern digital cameras you will find four primary exposure modes.

  1. Manual Mode (M)
  2. Shutter Priority Mode (S) or (Tv)
  3. Aperture Priority Mode (A) or (Av)
  4. Program Mode (P)

What Is Manual Mode and When To Use It

When set to manual mode you have full control over your exposure settings. This includes aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These three settings can be placed where you want them. This mode is most commonly used when the lighting conditions are particularly challenging for the built in light meter to assess.

This could be when the lighting is extremely bright, and the automatic meter leads to over or underexposure of portions of the image. Scenes with extreme light sections and very dark portions may also require the use of manual mode.

When you find yourself shooting under challenging lighting conditions you will want to set your camera to manual mode and set your exposure settings to pick up the darker parts of your scene.

Another instance where you will want to use manual mode is when you need to maintain consistent aperture and shutter speeds when capturing images from multiple exposures. This comes in handy when shooting panoramic images as it will allow you to maintain consistent exposure across all sections of the shot even when the lighting changes throughout the image. If you do not shoot in manual mode you will risk there being much lighter and darker sections to your image. Setting your exposure manually allows you to achieve consistent exposure under these conditions.

As your photography skill improves you will use manual mode more frequently, but at the beginning you will likely only use it under the most challenging lighting conditions.

old leica camera

What Is Shutter Priority Mode and When To Use It

When your camera is set to shutter priority mode you will manually set your shutter speed while the camera adjusts the other exposure settings for you. The aperture and ISO is set based on the light info gathered by the built in light meter.

Shutter priority mode is best used when shooting moving subjects that you intend to freeze or create a blurred effect. When there is a lot of light in your scene the camera will narrow the aperture (increase the f stop number) which will in turn lower the amount of light that enters your lens.

When the lighting is low, the aperture will be widened (lowered f stop number) which will increase the amount of light that enters your lens.

Keep in mind that ISO will also not be manually adjusted and that the camera will be in control of your depth of field when in shutter priority mode.

The risk to using shutter priority mode is that you can have overexposed or underexposed images because ambient light is generally not enough to be adequately metered by your camera. This tends to force you to set your shutter speed to a very fast setting. This leads the speed of your camera to be limited to that of your aperture.

To illustrate this point lets look at an example with numbers. If your lens’s max aperture is f/4 then your camera will not be able to utilize an aperture lower than f/4 when in shutter priority mode. It will then shoot at the quick shutter speed that has been manually set which will lead to an image that is underexposed. With the same lens, if the shutter speed is set slower and there is ample lighting in the environment the image will be dramatically overexposed.

food photography studio

What Is Aperture Priority Mode and How To Use It

When your camera is set to aperture priority mode you will set the aperture manually and the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed. You have the ability to adjust the depth of field via the ISO. In this mode you will need to be conscious of matching your aperture to the appropriate shutter speed for proper image exposure.

In aperture priority mode your camera will increase the shutter speed as the light goes down and it will decrease as the light brightens. When shooting in aperture priority mode you will nearly always have properly exposed images.

Because this mode works so well in most modern DSLR cameras at achieving proper image exposre, it is the mode most beginners will shoot in the majority of the time.

What Is Program Mode and When To Use It

Program mode is when your camera assesses the environment lighting and automatically sets your shutter speed and aperture settings.

Program mode is most used for point and shoot situations. It is not intended for when you are taking professional photos but is best suited for quick snap shots for your own enjoyment.

When in this mode the camera will adjust the aperture and shutter speed attempting to strike a balance for the ambient lighting present. For example, if shooting a bright scene the aperture will be narrowed while the shutter speed will be kept at a quicker speed.

On the other hand, when shooting a darker scene the aperture will be widened while the shutter speed is decreased.

This mode does not allow you a lot of control over the exposure of your image so you will be unable to fine tune it. That makes this mode the one used the least often. Because of this modes limitations it should primarily be used in settings where having perfect image exposure is not a requirement. This could be for vacation or casual party settings. If you are shooting in a formal setting where exposure must be on point, then one of the other modes will be more appropriate.

Where Are Mode Settings Located On A Camera

closeup of dslr camera switch

On the majority of modern DSLR cameras you will find your mode adjustment dial on the top of your camera. It will usually be a round dial that has abbreviations for each available mode.

On Nikon cameras the modes will be labeled P, S, A, and M.

On Canon cameras the modes will be listed as P, Tv, Av, and M.

What Is ISO and How is it Used

Most modern digital cameras do not adjust the ISO setting automatically. That means you will need to get comfortable with assessing the proper ISO setting for your lighting.

Some cameras do offer an automatic ISO mode. When available, this mode will automatically set your aperture as well but you will need to manually set your shutter speed. When auto ISO is not available you should always set your ISO to the lowest possible setting for your lighting needs. For more info read the article on ISO explained.

Additional Digital Camera Modes

You may find more mode options on your particular camera model. Some other modes out there are Macro, Sports, Night, Landscape, and Portrait modes.

These modes are found on entry level DSLR’s and not professional models.

These additional modes are just preset exposure settings geared for the style of photography they are named after.

These modes are not necessarily going to provide you with the best exposure as they are not designed to adjust for changing lighting conditions. For this reason it is not recommended that you use these settings as you will be much better off learning the primary exposure modes.


The primary camera modes all have their place and should be practiced so that you are comfortable shooting under all lighting conditions in the different modes. For the beginner photographer I highly recommend shooting frequently in manual mode as it will provide you with invaluable experience that will allow you to improve your photography skill the quickest. Stay away from the modes such as portrait and landscape as they will not provide you with proper exposure and use can lead to a crutch that will be difficult to break later on.

For more photography guides and tips read these articles