DSLR Basics: Understanding Camera Modes for Beginners

So now we’re experts in the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) and composition. Awesome! Now, what the hell are all of these buttons and dials on my fancy new camera?

It’s time that we actually discuss how to use a DSLR camera.

I know that it can be confusing, but I will take you step-by-step through the different camera functions. By the end of this, you will be permanently off of “Automatic” mode and completely understanding camera modes.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing some of my best photography work, check out the Gallery or my Instagram. Some of my images are also available as photo prints, with a selection of my favorites HERE.

What are Shooting Modes?

Shooting modes are what allow photographers to manipulate the exposure triangle. In other words, the different DSLR camera modes are what allow you to control aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Essentially, you have automatic, semi-automatic, and manual modes. Automatic modes fully automate the exposure and you don’t adjust any of the settings. On the other end of the spectrum, manual mode requires you to set all of the settings to achieve your exposure. Lastly, there are the semi-automatic modes where you set some of the settings and the camera adjusts the rest to optimize exposure.

Manual is “Manual”.

The automatic modes are “Automatic” and the “Icon Modes” (which we will discuss).

Finally, the semi-automatic modes are “Aperture Priority”, “Shutter Priority”, and “Program”.

How to change DSLR camera modes:

This may vary slightly by your camera brand and model, but is typically the same amongst entry-level and semi-professional DSLR cameras.

You should see a large dial on the top of your camera body. It will have the modes listed as “A”, “S”, “P”, “M”, etc. for most cameras. Or if you have a Canon camera (they need to feel special I guess), you will see “Av”, “Tv”, “P”, “M”, etc.

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If you happen to have a professional camera, the method of changing camera modes may be different. For example, there may just be a “Mode” button.

The Flaw of Auto and the Icon Modes:

You may be using “Auto” at this point in time and that’s okay. We will change that. “Automatic” mode may do a good job at selecting settings (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) that result in a properly exposed image, but that’s about it.

A major problem with “Auto” is that your camera can’t tell what you are photographing, and it certainly isn’t capable of reading your mind. For example, your camera isn’t smart enough to determine if you want to capture a portrait with a narrow depth of field and blurred background, or if you are going for a landscape shot with everything in focus. “Auto” will not react to these scenarios with f/2.8 or f/16, respectively, rather it will likely end up somewhere in between.

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As you can see, “Auto” mode makes it difficult to be creative and capture shots exactly how you want them. Plus, nothing pisses me off more about “Auto” than when it automatically pops up the flash in my face. Just saying.

So if not “Auto”, what should I use for portraits then? I see a mode with a picture of a person! Hold up, let me stop you there. Welcome to the “Icon Modes”.

The “Icon Modes” are similar to “Auto” where the camera will adjust all of the settings for you. The difference is the camera will “optimize” the shot for the given scene you select. I know this sounds great, but you should also resist using the “Icon Modes”, and I’ll tell you why.

Number one, the “Icon Modes” have a similar issue to the example we discussed with “Auto”. There is a lot of variety with similar types of scenes. For example, if you select the mode with the person the camera will likely select a small f-stop to blur the background. However, if you were attempting to capture a photo of multiple people you would actually want more depth of field (larger f-stop), and using this mode would result in some people being out of focus.

Number two, the “Icon Modes” are manufacturer specific. Even if you figure out how to use them effectively, if you change brands you will likely need to start from square one.

So what to do now? Well first off, welcome to the big leagues. I’m going to come right out with the mode that the pros use the majority of the time (Hint: it’s not manual). Also, I’ll tell you a secret that it’s barely harder to use than “Auto”. Welcome to “Aperture Priority” mode.

Aperture Priority Mode (“A” on most, “Av” on Canon):

With “Aperture Priority” mode you manually select the aperture and the camera will automatically select an appropriate shutter speed to let in the right amount of light for proper exposure. I think of this as a “semi-auto” mode because you need to adjust the aperture, but don’t need to worry about the overall exposure.

The biggest advantage of having control over the aperture, rather than shutter speed, is that the aperture affects depth of field. When it comes to producing creative images, aperture (and therefore depth of field) is the most important aspect of the exposure triangle in the vast majority of photographic scenarios.

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Carrying on with our example of photographing people, “Aperture Priority” is excellent. Want that blurred background portrait look? Turn the dial and select a low f-stop. Need to get a bunch of people in the shot? Select a higher f-stop. Once you get the hang of your camera and how photos with varying f-stops look, this will honestly be easier than selecting “Icon Modes”.

One of the best parts of “Aperture Priority” is that it is fairly difficult to have over or underexposed results. The reason for this is that your camera has a very wide range of shutter speeds it can select. This is from 30 seconds – 1/4000 of a second (1/8000 on some). This allows for very fine control of the amount of incoming light and the light meters on modern cameras are very good.

Shutter Priority Mode (“S” on most, “Tv” on Canon):

I’m sure you can guess how this one works now, but with “Shutter Priority” mode you manually select the shutter speed and the camera automatically selects an aperture value to achieve proper exposure.

I’ll start with one of the major drawbacks of this mode and why I rarely use it. It’s too easy to end up with under or overexposed images. Remember when we talked about the huge shutter speed range that “Aperture Priority” had to work with? That’s not the case with aperture. If the widest aperture of your lens is f/5.6 and you select a shutter speed of 1/4000, if you don’t have great lighting you will end up with an underexposed image. Unlike shutter speed, aperture can be very limiting in this regard.

If I am shooting wildlife or action and require a higher shutter speed, I will still often use “Aperture Priority”. This way I can make a conscious decision about the depth of field I’m going for. When I’m shooting this way I will just keep an eye on the shutter speed that the camera is calculating. If the shutter speed isn’t adequate for the action I’m shooting, I will simply bump up the ISO to compensate.

Program Mode (P):

So “Program” mode is a little bit of a weird mode. I will say that I never use it and I don’t think many others do either. However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t at least play around with it. I stand by my opinion that you should be practicing with “aperture priority” but feel free to play with “Program” as well.

At first glance, “Program” mode may seem like “Auto” and that’s because these two modes have a lot in common. If you set your camera into “Program” mode, it will automatically attempt to achieve a balance between shutter speed and aperture that results in a properly exposed photo. The difference between “Auto” at this point is that you have total control over ISO and focusing modes. Depending on your camera model/manufacturer, you may not have any control over these aspects in “Auto” mode.

Where “Program” mode really differs from “Auto” is once you start to rotate the rear dial. In “Program” mode you can fiddle around with aperture or shutter speed and the camera will automatically adjust the other factor to end up with a properly exposed photo.

If you rotate the dial to the left the camera will increase the aperture and automatically decrease the shutter speed. The opposite is also true, where if you rotate the dial to the right you will have an increased shutter speed and decreased aperture.

Manual Mode (M):

Lastly, you have “Manual” mode, where of course you are in charge of everything. You have full control of your exposure through manipulation of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. This may sound daunting, but it’s honestly not that difficult to end up with a properly exposed photo (if you have time on your hands!).

The reason I say it’s not difficult is when you switch the camera into “Manual” mode you will see the light meter pop up on your screen. If you adjust the elements of the exposure triangle so that the marker is centered on “0” on the light meter, the overall exposure of the resulting image will be the same as if you shot a photo in one of the other modes.

The difficult part is, as I also mentioned, time! Sure, if you are taking landscape shots and your subject isn’t going to move (or get annoyed that you’re taking too long) then go ahead and mess around with setting your exposure in full manual.

The reality is just that in the overwhelming majority of cases you can achieve the same results in a mode like “Aperture Priority” and do it so much faster.

In my book, “Manual” does have a few roles though. The time that I use it most often is in bird photography, where aperture and shutter speed are crucial. I will use “Manual” with “Auto ISO”, so it’s honestly not true “Manual” (this is a bit of an advanced topic that we can discuss at a later date). Otherwise, “Manual” can be useful for when you want to lock in a constant exposure, like if you’re shooting a panorama across multiple shots.


It’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to learn how to use a DSLR camera, but understanding camera modes doesn’t need to hold you back. As you can see, it’s actually very manageable and you only really need to master a couple of the modes.

I’m sure I already made this clear, but I STRONGLY recommend that you put your camera in “Aperture Priority” mode right now and leave it there for 95% of the photos that you take. I firmly believe that if you get yourself out of “Auto” mode you will see how easy these other modes actually are and will never go back!

If you missed my previous article about composition in photography, check it out Here!

Or read the next article about What Controls Depth of Field.

Thanks for reading to the end. Your support means the world to me! If you’re interested in seeing some of my best photography work, check out the Gallery or my Instagram. Some of my images are also available as photo prints, with a selection of my favorites HERE.

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  2. Pingback: What Controls Depth of Field in Photography - Mathew Macey Photography

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