There are many camera modes, but the four modes that are found on all cameras above basic point and shoots are P, AV (or S), TV (or T) & M. These are Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual. Let’s look at these four modes in detail, when they are best used, and their pros and cons.
When I undertook my Diploma in Photography, all the teachers advocated using ONLY Manual. I was already very comfortable with a camera in my hand at the time, so it caused me no issues, but I thought it a slightly strange approach nonetheless. A few years later , when I myself became a photography teacher at the same college, I decided upon a slightly different approach. I noticed that many of the students who were not familiar with photography, found Manual to be overwhelming, or at the very least, extremely slow to use. We even lost a few students who dropped out because of the complexity.
My approach to the students was to tell them to use whatever mode they could manage at first while studying the differences and appropriateness of each mode to specific circumstances.
When I started teaching in my own business, I knew I would be targeting beginners. And to this day, I suggest beginners start for a few weeks with the semi-automatic modes of Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority before tackling Manual. The reasons for this are many. But primarily, it enables people to start understanding the influence of aperture and shutter speed on their images, while keeping it fairly simple. They can decide to freeze movement, select TV, choose 1/1000th of a second and then take a photo. They get that, and as they are only influencing one setting, they understand what tey have achieved.
Likewise with aperture. They can choose AV, choose a wide open aperture and begin to get a blurry background. I explain that there are appropriate times for ALL modes, including P (well. maybe for a while anyway ;)). Let’s look at them one at a time.
P – Program (or Point and Pray, as I like to think of it as)
This is a fully automatic mode but is infinitely superior to the Green Auto mode found on nearly all cameras. That mode has many names, but essentially it is a fully automatic mode that will brook no interference from the photographer barring the pressing of the shutter. There are also the so-called creative modes that help you shoot sport or portraits or landscapes etc. These are just presets and are no fun at all! :)
P, on the other hand. offers an automatic mode where the photographer can still influence the shot in many ways. They can change the ISO, use exposure compensation, change the white balance and change the metering mode, to name just a few things. There is also a technique called Program Shift, where the main control dial is rotated to achieve any aperture or shutter speed desired, while the camera keeps track of the exposure by changing the other values.
This mode is suitable for when you are taking snapshots in good light. If you are not trying to be creative, and the lighting is decent (even lighting), then P will generally give good results, without you having to worry about anything other than composition and timing. You wouldn’t use it to shoot a wedding (though I’m sure some weekend warriors have done so), but it’s very quick and you don’t need to think.
AV / A – Aperture priority
Aperture priority is one of my favourite modes. This is because, in photography, you are essentially trying to control depth of field and / or movement, and for me, it’s more often depth of field than it is movement. And depth of field is largely controlled by aperture. So if you want to take a landscape, you can choose AV, select a small aperture (perhaps anywhere from f/9 up) and you get a shot where there is a lot of depth of field, i..e everything is in focus. Alternatively, if you want to shoot a portrait, you can choose a wide open aperture (f/2.8 for example) and you can get a blurry background. Combined with Auto ISO, this is a quick, easy to use mode.
Many professionals use this mode. Joe McNally, one of the most influential photographers alive, is a keen proponent of Aperture Priority, even with flash. Like most things on a camera, there is no right and wrong, but a myriad of personal preferences.
The main problem with the automatic modes is consistency. As the camera is essentially deciding the exposure on a shot by shot basis, your exposure can vary. You have control with exposure compensation, yet the exposure can fluctuate depending on what the camera’s light meter registers and what metering mode you are using. This is not usually a problem, but consistency is definitely one of the reasons Manual is king…
TV / S – Shutter Priority
Shutter Priority comes into its own with sport or any photography that involved movement. This can be freezing movement, or allowing movement. Of course, you can also use Manual, but sometimes, in some situations, shutter priority is much easier, as it is much faster to use than manual in fluctuating light. The idea with this mode is that you choose the shutter speed you desire, and the camera balances the exposure by selecting the aperture (and ISO if you have set that to Auto).
I don’t use this mode much as when I want to control movement, Manual is usually a better choice. But I don’t shoot sport in fluctuating light situations. That might be a situation, where Shutter Priority is the best way to go. Set 1/1000th of a second and just shoot. Let the camera fluctuate the aperture to control the exposure. It’s not going to be suitable all the time, but many times it will. Again, combined with AUTO ISO, this mode becomes even more powerful.
M – Manual
As I’ve said, the real bonus with Manual is consistency. You set the aperture or shutter speed you want (or both) and balance the exposure with the ISO. You are in complete control and the exposure will be consistent. With Manual, you set all three values. Auto ISO makes no sense in manual mode, even though in many cameras it is possible. In some ways, that actually gives a very powerful 5th mode, but that is way too advanced for this post.
The downside with Manual is speed. Unless you are a very experienced photographer, Manual mode can be rather slow. And sometimes life moves fast, If you have consistent lighting and a patient subject, Manual is the best mode to learn and understand how a camera works, but generally I advise beginners to leave Manual until they are a bit more comfortable with the camera. Most professional photographers will use Manual mode, at least some of the time. There appears a strong attitude amongst enthusiast photographers (misplaced if you ask me) that you need to use Manual to be a “real” photographer, but what is a real photographer? I don’t subscribe to such nonsense.
My advice is to use all four modes to understand and appreciate their strengths and weaknesses of each, and then start to apply the appropriate mode to the appropriate situation. Manual might be King, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use those trusty Knights sometimes :)