Shooting Modes

If you’ve recently invested in a new SLR or high-end compact, you might be wondering whether you really need to learn what every last button, dial, switch, socket and menu option is for.

The majority of functions and controls are there for a good reason: to give you the freedom to shoot better, more creative photos of a greater variety of subjects in a wider range of conditions. So if you’re in any way serious about evolving as a photographer it’s crucial that you learn how to use them. To this end, over the following months we’re going to dissect every part of your camera in turn; examining how it works, why you need to know about it and how best to use it. The most logical place to begin is with your camera’s shooting modes, which commonly reside on the main command dial.

Auto (A)

You’d be hard pressed to fi nd a consumer compact that doesn’t feature an automatic shooting mode. It’s a godsend for beginners because the camera takes complete control of the exposure and works out the best combination of settings according to the conditions. All the user has to agonise over is composing the shot and pressing the shutter button. Auto mode will usually yield decent exposures provided the subject is lit simply and evenly and the shooting conditions are favourable.

Picture/Scene modes

Like Auto mode, Picture modes are designed for inexperienced users, but they offer more fl exibility by enabling exposures to be automatically optimised for specific subjects and/or shooting conditions. In ‘Sports’ mode, for example, the camera will automatically select a high ISO, large aperture and fast shutter speed to enable you to freeze a moving subject. In ‘Night time Portrait’ mode, the camera will emit a burst of fl ash to expose the subject and hold the shutter open to capture the background.

Picture modes almost always appear on consumer compacts, but it’s not unusual to fi nd them on many prosumer models and even the odd semi-professional SLR. Sports, Portrait, Night-time Portrait, Landscape and Macro are the most common options and are represented by standardised picture symbols. Less common, but equally handy options include Sand and Snow, Fireworks Show, Panorama Assist, Party/indoor, Sunset, Museum and Backlight.

Programme/Programme AE (P)

In Programme mode the camera is once again responsible for selecting the optimum shutter speed and aperture. When calculating these settings, more sophisticated cameras will take into account the focal length of the lens and whether or not the shutter speed is too slow for handheld shooting.

Where Programme mode differs from its fully automated bedfellows is that it enables users to access all remaining exposure controls, including ISO, metering, white balance, EV compensation, flash and auto-bracketing. It’s therefore the perfect choice for intermediate–level photographers who demand more advanced exposure control, but for whom setting the aperture or shutter speed manually is a step too far. Advanced photographers will also switch to P mode when there’s no time to set the shutter or aperture manually, such as when impromptu photo opportunities arise or the light is rapidly changing. Programme mode appears on most mid-range compacts but the associated ‘Programme shift’ function is only available on top prosumer compacts and SLRs.

Programme shift is a handy little tool that lets you rapidly generate multiple shutter speed and aperture combos, each of which allows an equal amount of light to enter the lens.

Shutter Priority (S, Tv)

Shutter priority is a semi-automatic mode available on mid-range compacts and advanced models. In this mode the photographer selects the shutter speed and the camera automatically selects the aperture that it believes will guarantee the optimum exposure. If a shutter speed is selected and the available range of apertures isn’t suffi ciently large to achieve the correct exposure, an exposure indicator will usually fl ash up in the viewfi nder or monochrome LCD. The user must then choose a different shutter speed, and/or employ exposure compensation, fl ash, a different ISO or a Neutral Density fi lter to avoid under or overexposure. By enabling users to control the length of the exposure, shutter priority opens up an exciting new world of photographic opportunities and creative challenges. It’s essential for sports, news and wildlife photographers who require fast shutter speeds to freeze subject motion. The ability to set slow shutter speeds is also vital for panning, artistic motion blur effects and low light photography. Shutter speeds are denoted in seconds or fractions of seconds and traditional settings are 1, 1⁄2, 1⁄4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1,000 and 1/2,000 sec. Each adjacent speed admits exactly half as much light as the previous speed, a quantity known as a ‘stop’ of light. Professional high-speed SLRs such as the Canon EOS 1D MK II and the Nikon D2H boast shutter speeds of between 1/16,000th and 30 seconds. Mid-range compacts tend to offer a far narrower range of exposure times (typically between 1/2,000th and 1-15 seconds), but fortunately this caters for a considerable range of subjects. For example, a car moving across the frame at 70mph can generally be frozen by a shutter speed of 1/1,000th sec, while you can capture fi reworks, create light trails and blur running water using shutter speeds of 1/15th-15 seconds and below.

Aperture priority (A, Av)

The reverse of shutter priority, aperture priority requires the user to select the aperture and the camera will automatically set the exposure time required to expose the image correctly. Apertures are incremental measurements of the iris diaphragm or ‘eye’ of a lens, and are denoted by a universal scale of f/numbers or ‘f-stops’. Confusingly, the larger the aperture the smaller the f/number and visa versa. Each adjacent f-stop admits exactly half the amount of light as the previous f-stop. Typical settings include f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f16 and f22, but some expensive SLR lenses will open up as wide as f/1.0 or stop down as narrow as f/45!

Apart from increasing the amount of light hitting the CCD, a critical side effect of increasing aperture size is that depth of field (that is, the zone of sharp focus) becomes shallower. Aperture priority is therefore favoured by portrait, wildlife and landscape photographers who need to control depth of fi eld for creative and aesthetic purposes. You’ll fi nd Av controls on most mid-range and prosumer digicams, but the range of aperture settings can be rather limited. Professional depth of fi eld control requires an SLR.

Manual (M)

Normally the reserve of the seasoned pro, Manual mode is available on most prosumer compacts and all SLRs. It provides absolute control over the exposure and requires you to calculate both the correct shutter speed and aperture. Studio photographers often work in manual mode because it enables shutter speed to be synchronised with fl ash while still offering full aperture control. Many cameras will display a flashing exposure indicator if the chosen settings appear likely to result in an incorrectly exposed image. However, most photographers who work in Manual prefer to use handheld light meters to calculate the required exposure.

Bulb (B)

Frequently featured on SLRs and top-of-the-range compacts, Bulb mode is a terrifi c device that lets you hold the shutter open for as long as the shutter release button is held down. Bulb exposures are essential for capturing lightning, astronomical phenomena, fireworks and all manner of nocturnal scenes. Some cameras allow you to make indefi nitely long bulb exposures, but others impose a time limit of 30, 60 or 90 minutes. The maximum duration of your exposure also depends on the lifespan of your batteries but, whatever happens, you’ll need a tripod and a remote controlled timer or locking electronic/mechanical cable release. One caveat with bulb exposures is that they increase the amount of noise in your photos, although some cameras are far better at minimising noise than others. To access Bulb mode, scroll down past the longest available shutter speed in manual mode.

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