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Photography 1.11: How To Make Sense of Camera Exposure Modes

Updated on June 22, 2020
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Here's another article in my series teaching the basics of photography. I have over 30 year professional photography experience to share.

This article takes a look at the main exposure modes most cameras include. It’s an introduction and overview. I’ll add other articles going into more detail about each of these exposure modes.

On all digital cameras there are various ways to control the amount of light that enters the camera when you take a photo. Most of them are automatic of semi-auto exposure modes. The exception is the M setting. Using this setting allows you to control your exposures manually


Program and Scene Modes

Program mode is represented by the letter P on your camera’s dial. Scene modes are usually displayed as graphic icons.

In these settings the camera takes care of the exposures automatically. You will have no control over the shutter speed or aperture settings. If your ISO is set to auto, you will lose control of this too.

Program mode makes setting based on the information the exposure meter in your camera calculates. The settings are balanced according to the camera’s programming.

The various scene modes will give preference to using a faster shutter speed or wider aperture setting, depending on the mode you choose.


Aperture Priority Mode

This mode is indicated by an A or an Av on the camera’s exposure dial or screen.

Aperture priority is a semi-automatic mode. You must set the aperture yourself. Once you have, the camera will automatically choose the appropriate shutter speed. It will pick a speed that balances the exposure.

You can choose to set your ISO manually or let your camera choose it for you with the auto ISO setting.


Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter priority mode is indicated on your camera with an S or a Tv. In this mode, you set the camera’s shutter speed and the aperture setting will be controlled automatically. This semi-automatic mode allows you to manage your shutter speed when it is relevant to the style of photo you want to create.

As with the aperture priority mode, you can set your ISO manually or to auto. The camera will calculate what it determines is the best exposure.


Manual Exposure Mode

This is the M setting. Using this exposure mode you are in control. You must set the aperture and shutter speed yourself. You can still choose to set the ISO to auto, but this defeats any purpose for using other manual settings. With the ISO on auto, the camera still has control over the exposure.

Manual mode requires you to look at the information from the exposure meter in your camera. This tells you when you have chosen a good combination of exposure settings. The good thing about this mode is that you can set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO how you like.

Maybe you would like your photo a little lighter or darker than the exposure meter indicates. It’s up to you to make that decision. The camera will not override your choice as it would do in any of the auto or semi-auto modes.

Many new photographers are reluctant to learn manual mode photography. They often have the misconception that it is much harder and much slower than using auto. At first, it can be. But with a little understanding and some practice you can learn to really take control of how you set your exposures.


My Preference is Manual Exposure Mode

I pretty much always use manual mode when I am taking photos. I learned with a camera that had no automatic anything on it, so I had no option. Once I upgraded my camera to one that had auto-exposure modes, I tried them for a short time and then switched back to manual mode.

I much prefer having the creative control taking photos in manual mode gives me.

It does take some commitment to learn how to use manual mode well on a camera. But once you have it, you’ll never forget it. Like riding a bicycle. Practice at first and don’t give up. You will make mistakes and these are easy to see when you review the photos on your camera’s monitor.

If you get stuck with a poor exposure and can’t figure out how to fix it, switch to one of the auto or semi-auto modes. Take your photos, and then check what settings the camera chose. This will help you better understand what controls to set in manual mode for a good exposure.


Photography Challenge 1.11

Lens - Standard

Exposure Mode - Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program

Focus Mode – Any

Location – Outdoors

Time – Any time of day

Adjust your ISO setting to 400. This will give you more flexibility when completing this challenge. Experiment using the various exposure modes on your camera.

Begin with the Program Mode setting. Photograph a static subject for a while and take a look at how the photos are exposed. Then switch to aperture priority and take some more photos similar to the first set you made. Once you’ve done that, switch to shutter priority and do the same.

Move around your subject for each set of photos you make. Try and take some in each mode with the light in front of and behind your subject. This will demonstrate more clearly the different exposure choices.

Now do the same experiment with a moving subject. This will highlight other aspects about exposure modes that are not directly related to only the exposure settings.

Remember to make some notes about the settings you are using and what you are observing in each of the exposure modes.

When you are using manual mode you need to take notice of the exposure meter. It will look something like this:

On some cameras it will look different, but the aim is always to try and get the exposure meter to read ‘0’. If it is not, you need to adjust your aperture, shutter speed and/or ISO

Don’t worry if the photos you take in manual mode are poorly exposed. Keep reading this series of articles and I will teach you how to control your exposure using manual camera settings.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Photography Focus


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