How to Choose an Exposure Mode on Your Camera

How to Choose an Exposure Mode on Your Camera


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Your camera has lots of exposure modes, but how do you know which one to use in any given situation? A good tip is to follow the keep it simple principle. Give yourself permission to use Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes, and to ignore any others that your camera may have. Let’s take a deeper look at why this works.

Fully automatic exposure modes

Many digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras have several fully automatic exposure modes. These are aimed at people who know very little about photography. If you don’t know the difference between an f-stop and ISO, then it is quicker and easier to use modes like Landscape or Portrait than it is to learn how your camera works.

For example, the instruction manual for the Canon EOS Digital Rebel 8Ti (called the 850D in Europe) lists the following automatic exposure modes:

  • Fully Automatic Shooting
  • Special Scene Mode
  • Portrait Mode
  • Smooth Skin Mode
  • Group Photo Mode
  • Landscape Mode
  • Close-up Mode
  • Sports Mode
  • Kids Mode
  • Food Mode
  • Candlelight Mode
  • Night Portrait Mode
  • Handheld Night Scene Mode
  • HDR Backlight Control Mode
  • Creative Filters Mode

Yes, seriously. I’m not joking.

Why you shouldn’t use a fully automatic exposure mode

Exposure only has three settings – ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Those 15 listed modes all offer different ways of setting those three basic settings. They make something that’s simple (picking your three exposure settings) much more complex than it should be.

Some offer extra features, like skin smoothing, but it’s much better to do portrait retouching in Lightroom Classic than let your camera try and do it.

Fully automatic exposure modes do more harm than good. Good luck trying to pick one of the exposure modes listed above if you own a Digital Rebel 8Ti. Canon used to put its fully automatic exposure modes on the Mode dial, so you could choose one without going into the menu. Now there’s so many they don’t fit on the Mode dial.

The automatic exposure modes are restrictive. For example, on Canon EOS cameras you can’t adjust the ISO. You can’t change the camera profile, or apply exposure compensation if the camera gets exposure wrong. The camera sets file type to JPEG and you can’t use Raw. You can’t even decide whether to use the camera’s flash. The camera makes all those decisions for you.

Other camera brands may have less restrictions, but the point remains that their fully automatic exposure modes still make creative decisions for you.

It’s convenient, but it’s not what creative photography is all about.

The SLR and mirrorless camera difference

Think about why you bought a digital SLR or mirrorless camera in the first place. One is to explore the creative possibilities offered by different lenses.

Another is because these cameras give you complete creative control.

To gain creative control you have to learn to set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed yourself. You need to understand what each of these settings does.

Thankfully, this is easy. Once you can do it, you’re getting involved in the creative side of photography.

This is exciting because you are starting to make photos, rather than just take them.

Why pro cameras don’t have fully automatic exposure modes

Cameras aimed at advanced hobbyists and professional photographers don’t have all these fully automatic exposure modes. That should tell you all you need to know about how useful they are.

For example, the Canon EOS R5, one of the most advanced mirrorless cameras you can buy (with an instruction manual over 900 pages long) has just seven exposure modes:

  • Fully automatic shooting (this replaces the 15 modes listed above, and you’ll never need to use it)
  • Flexible Priority (a new exposure mode that emulates the way exposure works on Fujifilm X cameras)
  • Program Auto Exposure (a fully automatic mode that’s occasionally useful)
  • Shutter Priority
  • Aperture Priority
  • Manual Exposure
  • Bulb (a variation of Manual Exposure)

I’ve italicized the three useful exposure modes.

Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority exposure modes

The best (and easiest) way to select an exposure mode is to stick with the three main ones: Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority.

You might occasionally use something else. Bulb is a variation on Manual that lets you keep the shutter open for as long as you want for long exposure photography. Program mode is fully automatic, but without the restrictions that the fully automatic exposure modes have. But you won’t use them often.

Note: Every camera brand has a different name for Program mode. Nikon uses Programmed Auto. Canon, Fujifilm and Sigma use Program AE, Sony uses Program Auto, Olympus uses Program Shooting and Pentax uses Hyper-Program.

Now let’s take a look at Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority exposure modes in more detail.

Manual exposure mode

In Manual mode you set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed yourself. It’s the opposite of a mode like Program where the camera sets each setting automatically.

Manual mode is easier to use with a mirrorless camera, as you can see a live histogram that helps you see how accurate your selected settings are.

You can also use it with Auto ISO (if your camera has that feature). With this technique you set the aperture and shutter speed yourself, and let the camera set the ISO (using Exposure compensation if needed).

Strictly speaking, it’s not fully manual, but it’s a useful way of working. You can set the aperture and shutter speed according to what you want to achieve creatively regarding depth of field and subject movement (more on those below), and let the camera set the ISO. The excellent high ISO performance of modern digital cameras makes this a viable option.

Aperture Priority exposure mode

In Aperture Priority, you select the aperture and ISO and your camera sets the shutter speed. You can control the shutter speed indirectly by changing the ISO.

Aperture Priority is suitable for the following subjects.

Landscape photography

Depth of field is important in landscape control. Normally you want the entire scene to be in sharp focus. The best way to do this is to set a small aperture (like f11 or f16) and a low ISO (for the best image quality).

This may give a shutter speed that is too low to hand-hold the camera without camera shake. In this case you can either raise the ISO (to get a faster shutter speed) or use a tripod.

If you’re not convinced already here are some more reasons why you would want to use Aperture Priority instead of landscape mode.

  • You can apply exposure compensation if the camera gets the exposure wrong.
  • You can set the camera profile you prefer to use, not the one your camera thinks you should use.
  • You can set the camera to use the Raw format, for better image quality.
  • You can make sure your camera uses the lowest available ISO setting, again for image quality.

Use aperture priority to create landscape photos like this, made with an aperture of f6.3 (small enough for a hand-held photo taken with a wide-angle lens on an APS-C camera).

Landscape photo made in the Andes in south-west Bolivia.

Portrait photography

You can also use Aperture Priority for making portraits with bokeh. This is particularly effective if you use prime lenses (or have a f2.8 aperture zoom). Set the aperture to f2.8 (or thereabouts), focus on the model’s eyes and let everything else go out of focus.

The advantage of using Aperture Priority is that you can adjust the aperture to give more or less depth of field. It gives you complete creative control.

Here’s an example of a portrait taken at f2.8.

Portrait taken with 85mm lens set to f2.8 in aperture priority

Close-up and macro photography

The closer you get to your subject with your lens the less depth of field there is at any given aperture setting. That makes aperture critical. Depending on your creative goals, you might want to use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus and create beautiful bokeh. Or you might want to use a small aperture to give more depth of field.

Either way, you can control shutter speed indirectly by changing the ISO setting. This is important as you need a fast shutter speed to prevent blur caused by camera shake.

Alternatively, you can use Manual mode with Auto ISO, which is what I do now as it’s an easier way of setting both shutter speed (to prevent camera shake) and aperture (for depth of field).

I made this photo using an aperture of f2.8.

A close-up photo of a red flower made in aperture priority

Shutter Priority exposure mode

In Shutter Priority, you select the shutter speed and ISO and your camera sets the aperture. You can control aperture indirectly by changing the ISO.

I often use Shutter Priority when I’m hand-holding the camera. It lets me set a shutter speed fast enough to prevent camera shake. I increase ISO if I need more depth of field.

Shutter Priority is suitable for the following subjects.

Street and travel photography

Shutter Priority comes in useful for travel and street photography, where aperture and depth of field are not as important as using a fast shutter speed to prevent camera shake.

I made this photo using Shutter Priority and a shutter speed of 1/125 second.

An alternative is to use Manual mode with Auto ISO. This is better in many ways because you can set an aperture that gives you sufficient depth of field. For example, with the scene in the photo below I would set shutter speed to 1/125 second and aperture to f8, and let the camera set the ISO.

A street photo taken in shutter priority mode in Shanghai, China

Action and wildlife photography

Shutter Priority comes in useful when shooting action or moving wildlife. You need to use a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action and prevent camera shake with telephoto lenses.

I made this photo using Shutter Priority and a shutter speed of 1/1000 second. It was fast enough to freeze the motion of the galloping horse and rider.

A photo taken in shutter priority of a knight riding a horse in a jousting tournament at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.

Panning

Another example of where you could use Shutter Priority is for exploring intentional camera movement – photos made by selecting a slow shutter speed and deliberately moving the camera during the exposure.

I made this photo at a beach in Spain using this technique. I set a shutter speed of one second and panned the camera from right to left. You can use panning techniques to create blurred photos of all sorts of interesting subjects.

A creative landscape photo made by panning the camera in shutter priority

Creative Exercises

Now it’s time to put these tips into practice with some creative exercises.

Aperture Priority

Choose a lens, put your camera into Aperture Priority mode and set the widest aperture on the lens. This works best with a prime lens but you can also do it with a zoom.

Make some photos at this setting. The subject can be anything you like, but portraits and close-ups are a good place to start. What happens to the background as you get closer to your subject? What happens if you move your subject away from the background?

I made this photo of a lizard with an aperture of f1.8. The wide aperture defocused the background completely. This makes the lizard the focal point of the photo even though it’s positioned in the bottom right corner.

Photo of a lizard made with aperture priority

Shutter Priority

Now try a similar exercise in Shutter Priority. There are two extremes to try.

1. Set a fast shutter speed and use it to freeze action.

2. Use a slow shutter speed to turn something that moves into a blur.

I made this photo of a waterfall with a shutter speed of four seconds. You need to put the camera on a tripod to make photos like this without camera shake.

A landscape photo of a waterfall in Covedonga, Spain made with shutter priority

Manual mode with Auto ISO

Repeat the above ideas using Manual mode and Auto ISO. In which situations does this work better for you than Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes?

You can try these techniques out over a period of time. The aim is to get used to using the Aperture and Shutter Priority modes on your camera, and take creative control by selecting the aperture or shutter speed setting yourself.


Mastering Exposure ebookMastering Exposure

My ebook Mastering Exposure gives you the knowledge you need to get the correct exposure every time you take a photo. Reading this ebook helps you master your camera’s exposure modes and metering tools. You’ll learn why your camera gets exposure wrong, and how to put it right when it does.


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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

Comments

  1. Excellent description and examples. Very helpful,
    Thank you.

  2. Fabulous. I have been feeling completely overwhelmed by too many choices, but you have given me permission to leave the ISO up to the camera’s discretion and just focus on the other two variables – much more manageable for a beginner! Tutorials and teachers have all told me to never under any circumstances use auto-ISO, so thank you SO MUCH for giving me the OK to do just that!!

    1. Author

      Hi Kelly, glad it was helpful. I can’t understand why anybody would tell you not to use Auto ISO. The only thing I’ll add is that even while using Auto ISO you still need to keep an eye on the ISO setting. If you set aperture to f16, for example, then notice ISO is at 12800, then you need to ask yourself whether you can use a wider aperture to get a lower ISO. Lower ISOs give better image quality, so it’s always worth trying to keep ISO as low as you can. Deciding which exposure settings to use is often about compromise, and it’s up to you to decide where to make it.

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