When you’re learning photography basics, it’s important to know the camera modes that are available to you. The camera mode dial is arguably the most important dial on your camera, and it certainly has the most options for changing the way your photos turn out.

No matter which brand you shoot with, your camera mode settings are going to be basically the same. They might go by different names, however. In the table below, you’ll see sample mode dials take from manuals from Canon, Nikon and Olympus.

Camera BrandAutoSceneProgrammed AutoApertureShutter Manual
mode canon
Green BoxGreen box with CA insidePAV (Aperture Value)TV (Time Value)Manual Mode
Nikonmode nikonAutoIndividual mode setting for sports, portrait, macro, etc.PASM
Olympusmodes olympusiAutoSCNPASM

These dials are likely to change among different cameras of the same brand, so yours probably won’t look exactly like mine. The options will change as well, so use this tutorial as a broad overview, and give yourself the homework of comparing how your camera stacks up to these generalizations. There’s no better way to learn what it can do!

Just as important is knowing when you should use each mode, right? In general, these modes control how you (or your camera) decides to set exposure on your camera. The automatic and scene modes make many other decisions too, incorporating control over where you focus, how colors are rendered, how much background blur there is, etc.

As you progress through the other modes (Program, Aperture, Shutter and Manual), you take more control from your camera.

  • AutoYour only choice when shooting on auto is where to point the camera. The camera decides what to focus on and how to set exposure. Use Auto when you are a complete beginner or when you don’t have time to change any settings (like when there is a bear in the front yard). Just know that you’ll soon feel limited by the quality of photos taken on Auto.photography basics camera modes
  • Scene/Creative Auto – Scene or Creative Auto modes generally offer you settings like landscape (which saturates blues and greens), portrait (which blurs the background) or sport (which freezes motion). Beginners wanting to explore the capabilities of their camera should use this mode, or beginners wanting the best choice at soccer games, for portraits, etc. These creative choices can be on the Mode Dial itself, or you might access them via the camera menu after setting the dial to Scene or Creative Auto.
  • Programmed Auto – Your camera still maintains control over the three main components of exposure (aperture, shutter speed & ISO), but you can choose focus points, whether your flash fires and whether the camera is on single shot or burst, among other things. Use the Program mode when you are ready to take control of focus point selection from your camera.
  • Aperture Priority – You tell your camera the aperture that you want, and it prioritizes this aperture in choosing the other exposure settings (shutter speed and ISO).  Use aperture mode to control how much of your image is in focus. Dial in a small number to have a smaller part of your image in focus (which equals more background blur), or choose a larger number to have a crisper image throughout.
  • Shutter Priority – You tell your camera how to handle movement in your image. Use shutter priority when your scene has motion that you want to freeze or blur. To freeze motion, like a running toddler or a soccer player, choose a small fraction of a second, like 1/250. To blur moving things, like taillights on a car or running water, choose a longer shutter time – maybe 1/2 a second or even an entire second.photography basics camera modes
  • Manual Mode – Use manual mode when you want complete control over your image. Choose the aperture, shutter speed and ISO amounts that work together to create a well-exposed image matching your creative vision.

Aperture, Shutter & Manual modes all give you control over camera settings like focus point selection, metering mode, etc.

Depending on your camera, you might have other options on your dial as well:

  • Art/Effect – Adds post processing to your image, like converting it to black and white or making it look like pop art.
  • Movie Mode – Like I need to tell you this one! Use this mode when you want to shoot movies instead of photos. Many Canons have a button on the back to turn on movie mode.

Which camera mode do you shoot the most often in? Are you working towards shooting in manual? You should be!

And besides camera modes, what other photography basics would you like to learn about?  I’m here for you!