How to choose the best shooting mode

Many cameras come with several shooting modes from fully auto to entirely manual control and they all have their uses. Most likely, as you get more comfortable with your camera, you will find yourself leaning towards a shooting mode that suits your style of photography.

Despite which shooting mode you use, fundamentally, you camera will meter a scene, determine an exposure value and then suggest a shutter speed and aperture combination based on the ISO being used by your camera to record the scene being metered.

Trade off between Aperture, Shutter and ISO

As a photographer, you can then accept or adjust the suggested exposure setting depending  on your desired outcome. There is a correlation between aperture, shutter speed and the ISO being used. We call this the exposure triangle.

When you are using your camera’s programme modes (except manual mode) you can make an adjustment to either the aperture, shutter speed or ISO and your camera will then adjust the aperture, shutter speed or ISO to ensure the correct exposure.

The different programme modes provide provide varying degrees of control over your camera settings.

Let’s take a closer look at the different modes.

Intelligent Auto-mode (iA)

Different camera manufacturers have different names for these modes. Most cameras offer an intelligent automatic mode that can handle all camera settings. The camera takes care of everything and can recognise several common shooting situations. Like, landscapes, people (portrait mode), macro, sport etc and then optimises your cameras settings in relation to the scene it has recognised or interpreted.

When to use this mode: I prefer to use this mode when shooting everyday scenes, casually.

What file format should I use: JPEG

In order to fully exploit all the functionality of your camera in this mode, it is preferable to shoot in JPEG. Some cameras allow you to use this mode and shoot both RAW and JPEG but there is usually some loss of functionality. For example, when in Intelligent Auto(iA) mode my Panasonic Lumix GX8 has an intelligent HDR function but this is not accessible when shooting RAW. So, if I set my camera to iA mode then shoot JPEG and RAW combined, I lose the functionality of intelligent HDR.

There is a very important concept to understand here and it does not just apply to your cameras auto intelligent mode. And that is, JPEG’s are processed in your camera, RAW files are processed by you and whatever post-processing software you use.

Whilst there maybe reasons to shoot both RAW and JPEG together, when in iA mode and  in order to exploit all the built-in functionality of your camera ability to interpret a scene, optimise your camera settings and then process the resulting data captured by your camera’s sensor into a JPEG image, you may want to forgo combining JPEG and RAW files when using the iA mode.

Programme Mode and Programme Shift (P)

Programme mode gives you a little more control over your camera. Exposure is set by the camera changing aperture, shutter speed and if you have selected auto ISO, ISO also. But it gives you the flexibility to modify certain settings and use exposure compensation. If you have set your ISO manually, on most cameras you can also take advantage of ‘Program Shift’. This allows you to quickly select different aperture and shutter speed combinations,usually by the turn of a dial.

When to use this mode: I like this mode for shooting all scenes. I often see articles encouraging people not to use Programme mode and use aperture priority, shutter priority or manual mode. I disagree, you should use whatever mode meets your shooting needs at the time.

The Programme mode is flexible and fast to work with and it tries to provide you with the best aperture, shutter and ISO combination inrelation to the lighting conditions. Camera manufactures normally bias their algorithms for the Programme mode to keep the ISO as low as possible.

And as mentioned, by using Programme shift and setting your ISO manually, you can quickly bias your exposure towards either smaller apertures or faster shutter speeds and you never have to turn to aperture priority or shutter priority shooting unless you have a specific need.

What file format should I use: Personally, if your camera can shoot RAW and you can post-process your files, I would stick with RAW format whilst in Programme mode, so that you have more flexibility to make any necessary corrections or adjustmentswhen post-processing your RAW images.

Sensitivity Priority Mode (SP)

This is not really a mode but when shooting in Programme mode, setting your ISO sensitivity manually, means that the camera will choose the best combination of shutter and aperture according to the scene being metered and you can make use of Programme shift.

When to use this mode: When you are in Programme mode and want to make use of Programme shift or limit your ISO to a particular value, for example ISO 200.

What file format should I use: If you are shooting using high ISO settings and noise may be a concern, use RAW, otherwise you can shoot JPEG, RAW or JPEG & RAW

Aperture Priority Mode (A)

I think that this may be the most used mode on cameras after iA and Programme mode, I might be wrong of course.

Aperture priority mode lets you select the most suitable aperture depending on your subject and depth of field preference for a given scene or photo-shoot. Wide apertures are used to isolate subjects, whilst small apertures are used to increase depth of field and to have as much of the subject in focus as possible.

When to use this mode: Use this mode when you want ‘absolute control’ over which aperture you want or need to use.

What file format should I use: JPEG, RAW, JPEG & RAW. No preference here, it depends on your intended use of your images will be.

Shutter Priority Mode (S)

This is just the opposite of aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode lets you select the most suitable shutter speed depending on your subject and whether or not you want motion blur in your image. Faster shutter speeds freeze movement, slower shutter speeds create motion blur with moving subjects.

When to use this mode: Use this mode when you want ‘absolute control’ over which shutter speed you want or need to use.

What file format should I use: JPEG, RAW, JPEG & RAW. No preference here, it depends on the intended use of your image or images.

Manual Mode (M)

Once you understand the relationships between aperture, shutter speeds and ISO then you may want to begin shooting in manual mode.  You will need make use of your camera’s metering system ir a handheld meter in order to set the right combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. I suggest that you keep your camera in Matrix Metering mode if you are just beginning to use manual mode.

Shooting in manual mode gives you precise control over your c amera settings. Some photographers (I’m one of them) use a handheld light-meter to measure the light when using manual mode. If I am using my camera’s metering, the way I use manual mode on my camera is to

  1. Consider the overall lighting conditions and set my ISO as appropriate (as Low as possible).
  2. Decide whether my use of aperture or shutter speed is the most important consideration.
  3. Aperture most important consideration
  4.                Set my aperture, check to see how far out my exposure is using my histogram and camera’s metering system.
  5.                Adjust my shutter speed to obtain the correct exposure.
  6. Shutter speed the most important consideration.
  7.                Set my shutter speed, check to see how far out my exposure is using my histogram and cameras metering system.
  8.                Adjust my Aperture to obtain correct exposure.

Learning to shoot in manual mode takes time and there is a lot to consider, too much for this post, I will create another post on the approach to shooting manually.

There is another good use of manual mode, supposing that you want to use a particular combination of aperture and shutter speed. How do you do that and why would you do that?

Let’s say I’m walking around a market-place and I want both good depth of field and I also want my shutter speed to be fast enough so that I do not get motion blur. I would

  1. Set my preferred aperture and shutter speed
  2. Adjust my ISO up or down to give me the correct exposure. You could (you can set your ISO to auto, that way as the shooting conditions change your aperture and shutter speed remain constant but your ISO changes accordingly). Of course, if you are using high ISO settings then you need to watch for noise. 

So which mode should you use?

It doesn’t matter which mode you use if you get the results that you want!

I personallyI tend to stick with three modes

  • Intelligent Auto-mode and JPEG
  • Programme mode with Programme shift and RAW
  • Manual mode and RAW

Personally, I think Programme mode gets a bad name and we are always being told about not using our cameras in programme mode to have more control over our picture taking. if you think about it though, in Programme mode, you can change the selected aperture value and shutter speed without changing the exposure value. That’s what Programme shift is for, it provides you with a range of aperture and shutter speeds combinations for an exposure value, you can then make the background more blurred by decreasing the aperture value or record a moving subject more dynamically by slowing the shutter speed, creating motion blur and you never have to switch to aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode.

Using these three modes will cover most, if not all of your shooting needs.

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