Photography is all about exposure.
It's about capturing the right amount of light but it's also about capturing that light in such a way that the photo you create fits with your intended image. It's what Bryan Peterson refers to as "creatively correct exposure". Creatively correct exposure is about more than just the correct amount of light. It's about showing motion or maybe freezing it. It's about limiting the area of focus to isolate and enhance your subject or maybe keeping everything in the viewfinder sharp and crisp to showcase the expansive beauty of the entire scene.
The way exposure is determined and controlled depends on your choice of shooting modes. And, so, understanding your camera's shooting modes—what modes are available on your particular camera and how they work—can go a long way in helping you improve your photographic skills. Understanding the differences in camera shooting modes is also good information to have on hand when shopping for a new camera.
Many digital cameras allow you to choose from among a variety of mode settings. The modes are accessible through a mode dial usually located at the top of your camera. The shooting modes available differ between camera makes and models, but there are basically three broad categories of modes:
The first category is the fully Automatic mode. As the name implies, in Automatic mode, the user has no control over any of the camera settings. Instead, the camera makes all the decisions about the settings for each shot. This category includes a variety of scene-specific modes that are preprogrammed with settings for common shooting situations, such as sports, portrait, landscape and macro (close-up photography).
Sports mode, sometimes called Action mode, is useful when shooting fast moving subjects. Sports mode uses cameras settings that are ideal for freezing motion. In particular, this mode features high shutter speeds, usually on the order of 1/500 – 1/1000 of a second.
Portrait mode employs camera settings designed to create a flattering facial image. In Portrait mode, the camera automatically selects a large aperture (a small number) to create a shallow depth of field, keeping the subject in focus but the background blurred. Portrait mode sometimes also uses fill flash as necessary to reduce any shadowy areas.
In Landscape mode, the camera uses a small aperture (a large number) to create the large depth of field that is required to keep a wide landscape image in focus from front to back.
Macro mode is useful for photographing things that are close to the camera lens. In this mode, the camera uses it minimum focusing distance. This allows you to photograph objects close up while keeping them in sharp focus.
Semi-automatic modes are shooting modes where the user is able to override some of the camera settings. The most common semi-automatic modes are Program Mode, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority.
Program mode allows you to override some of your camera’s basic settings. The particulars of Program mode vary by camera brand and model, so be sure to check your user manual. But in many cases, Program mode allows you control over things like flash, white balance, exposure compensation and ISO. Some models even give you the option to select from among appropriate shutter speed/aperture combinations, which lets you control depth of field and the effect of motion in your images.
In Aperture Priority mode, the user sets the aperture setting and the camera selects the other settings in such a way to ensure a properly exposed image. Aperture Priority is a great choice when you want to control the depth of field in an image.
In Shutter Priority mode, the user sets the shutter speed and the camera automatically selects the other settings needed to create a well-exposed photo. Shutter Priority is a good choice when movement is an important element in your scene. So you would switch to Shutter Priority when you want to either freeze motion or capture the blur of movement.
The last category of shooting mode is the fully manual mode. Again this mode is just as the name implies. In manual mode, the user has full control over all three exposure parameters—aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Manual mode gives you lots of flexibility and full control over your image. But Manual mode also requires a certain level of experience and a solid understanding of the exposure functions.
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f you are just getting started in photography, exposure is one of the first things you need learn.
But even beyond that, getting a good handle on exposure and how the different components of exposure work together is essential if you want to take control of your photography and the images that you are creating.