These days, most digital cameras allow you to select from among a number of shooting modes.
Shooting modes determine how various camera settings for your shots are determined. These settings typically including the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed and ISO), as well as white balance, bracketing, exposure compensation, and the onboard flash settings.
The camera mode can be changed using the mode selector, typically a wheel or dial located somewhere along the top of the camera body near the shutter button. Rotating this dial allows you to select from among the available modes.
Most cameras offer a variety of modes ranging from fully Automatic to fully Manual, with semi-automatic and scene-specific modes filling in the gap.
Realistically, though, most folks live their photography lives almost completely on Automatic (A on the mode dial). And that's understandable to a point. The appeal of Automatic is obvious. The camera makes all of the decisions for you.
But that's also the downside to shooting on Automatic. While Automatic mode can certainly come in handy and works well with lots of shots, it also robs you of the chance to take real creative control of your images by deciding for yourself exactly how the camera will take those shots.
So what to do? What do you do if you need help with the exposure parameters but still want to start taking more control of your photography?
Well, there is a middle ground and it's called Program mode (sometimes called Programmed Auto mode), which is usually indicated with a P on the mode selector dial. Program mode is a great first step for anyone who wants to start controlling his or her camera settings.
In Program mode, you can override some of your camera’s basics settings. The settings that you have control over varies by camera brand and model. But, in most cases, Program mode allows you control over all of the camera settings except the aperture and shutter speed. And some cameras even give you a bit of control over those parameters too, using a feature called Program Shift. Program Shift, also known as Flexible Program, allows you to take advantage of the reciprocal nature of the exposure parameters and choose between different shutter speed and aperture combinations, all of which produce the same overall exposure.
The great thing about Program mode is that it gives you as much control over your camera settings as you want. You can change any of them or all of them, depending on how involved you want to get.
With that in mind, here are some of the settings that you will probably want to start adjusting when you first begin shooting in Program mode.
The ISO setting determines the light sensitivity of your camera's image sensor. The higher the setting, the more sensitive the sensor is and the less light that is needed to properly expose an image.
You may want to consider cranking the ISO up when you are shooting in a low light situation. Increasing the ISO may allow you to capture a dimly lit scene without added light when you would rather not use a flash. Increasing the ISO might also be a good option when you are hand holding your camera in a low light situation and you are concerned about a long shutter speed causing camera shake.
Conversely, there may be times when you want to decrease the ISO to make the image sensor less sensitive to light. The decreased sensitivity allows you to use a longer shutter speed—for times when you want to capture the motion of your subject—or a wider aperture when you want to shoot with a small depth of field.
But here's something to keep in mind about ISO. Shooting with a very high ISO setting can cause your images to be grainy. So keep that in mind and try to avoid setting it to the high end of your camera's ISO range. I personally try to keep my ISO setting at or below the second highest setting available on my camera.
And here's one more note of caution on ISO. If you decide to tweak the ISO setting, be sure to reset it to 100 before putting your camera away. ISO is one of those settings that is too easy too overlook. So to avoid shooting at a too-high or too-low, be sure to reset it when you're finished for the day.
When you are shooting in Automatic, your camera controls when the on-board flash is used. If the camera determines that there is too little light in the scene you are photographing, the flash will fire. Otherwise, it won't.
Program mode gives you back control over the flash, allowing you to decide whether or not the flash fires. And, in Program mode, you can choose the type of flash—red-eye reduction, fill flash, etc.—used.
Personally, I try to avoid using my camera's on-board flash as much as possible. And when I do, it's often fill-flash. For that reason, flash control is the single biggest reason I recommend moving away from Automatic and using Program mode instead.
But keep in mind that, if you decide to disengage the flash when your camera says it want to use it, you may be risking an underexposed image. In that case, consider increasing the ISO setting or look for ways to add light to the scene to compensate for the lack of flash lighting.
Program mode lets you use your camera's exposure compensation feature.
Exposure compensation is a feature that allows you to override your camera's exposure meter, tweaking the recommended exposure parameters to under- or overexpose the shot.
Exposure compensation can be helpful because your camera's exposure meter doesn't always get exposure right. Certain lighting conditions will confuse it. One example of this is a snowy scene. The large areas of whiteness fool the exposure meter into thinking that there is more light in the scene than there actually is. The result is an underexposed image. The same goes for white, sandy beach scenes.
You may also want to use exposure compensation when your subject is significantly brighter or darker than the rest of the scene. So this could be the case if your subject is lit from behind by the brightness of an open window or when your subject is standing in bright sunlight on the edge of a large shadowy area. In either case, the camera will calculate exposure parameters that make the entire scene neutral gray. And those exposure settings will underexpose the backlit subject and overexpose the subject in bright sunlight. By using exposure compensation, you can tweak the settings to properly expose your main subject.
We've already talked about how your camera's exposure meter can make mistakes. One way to work around that is exposure compensation. Another way is to use exposure bracketing.
In exposure bracketing, your camera will take three or more shots of the scene, varying the exposure with each shot so that you end up with series of images taken at a range of exposure values around the correct exposure value. With exposure bracketing, you are shooting an image using the recommended exposure settings and then taking additional shots under- and overexposing the scene.
The idea behind exposure bracketing is that, by taking multiple shots using different exposure parameters, you are increasing the likelihood that one of those images will be properly exposed. For that reason, exposure bracketing can some in handy when you are shooting in a challenging lighting situation. Bracketing is also needed for shooting HDR images.
In addition, bracketing can be used with exposure compensation to really extend the exposure range available in Program mode. And bracketing can be made virtually automatic when used with your camera's continuous shooting mode. With that setup, your camera will automatically fire all the bracketing shots in a single burst, with one push of the shutter button.
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We've seen how managing the ISO setting allows you to control the amount of grain that shows in your photos. But it does more than that. Understanding and working with the ISO setting gives us added flexibility in terms of setting the other two exposure settings–aperture and shutter speed.
The bottom line is that ISO is an important and useful tool, and one that you will want to be comfortable with if you are looking to take creative control of your exposure.