What mode to shoot in?

The beauty of the Digital cameras, DSLRs as well as some of the high end point and shoots, is that you can have a lot of modes to work with. Since most of us have been shooting with a PnS, a lot of us have a very little idea of these modes. Most of the people after tinkering with the new modes, give up soon and end up shifting back to the automatic mode. True it’s a lot less hassle, but I would rather have my camera follow my whims and fancy rather than the other way round.

These settings are quite easy to understand, and takes a very little time to get the hang of, if you know what they do. You might get to hear a lot how photographers must always shoot in Manual mode, but that’s not really true, there are times when Aperture/Shutter priority makes more sense.

The two settings you need to understand here are Aperture and Shutter Speed. Aperture is the size of the hole that lets the light in for your photo. The larger the hole, the brighter the exposure. The shutter speed is the length of time given to each exposure. Slower shutter speeds allow more light, resulting in a brighter exposure. By finding the right balance of these two settings, you and/or your camera control whether your photo is overexposed, underexposed, or just right.

With your camera set to Manual mode, you control both settings. If this seems daunting, you can start with the semi-automatic functions, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority.

Aperture Priority

Let us begin with Aperture Priority. This function allows us to set the aperture in our camera, while the camera controls the shutter speed for us.

The aperture controls depth of field (the range in front and behind the main subject that will be in focus). When we set a wide aperture, we reduce the depth of field (very small region will be in focus) and when we choose a smaller aperture, we will have a greater depth of field (much larger region will be in focus).

Obviously when we change the aperture, we most importantly change the level of light in our exposure. The camera now compensates by adjusting the shutter speed. So when we operate our camera in Aperture Priority mode, we have control over the depth of field, but the camera still makes sure the exposure is correct.

The important thing to keep track of is what the shutter speed is. If it falls to a very slow speed, we need to use a tripod to eliminate camera vibrations.

Shutter Priority

What does Shutter Priority do? Here as we set the shutter speed, the camera balances the exposure by setting the aperture. This is a great system when working with moving subjects. Sometimes we may want to freeze a moving subject with a fast shutter speed, or create a motion effect with a slower shutter speed. All during this the camera compensates for the changes in shutter speed by adjusting the aperture.

Shutter priority is slightly a better option for some beginners. It is much easier to stay aware of when to use your tripod. Also, when your camera manages the aperture, it controls the depth of field, which is not usually as critical as the shutter speed. We may not always get exactly what we want, but we are less likely to end up with very bad pictures.

These two semi-automatic functions appear to offer us the best of both worlds. We get to be a bit creative, and try out our photography skills, while our camera’s high-tech hardware makes sure we don’t overexpose or underexpose the photo. e.g. Quite often I forget to keep track of the metering system when shooting musical gigs, and these two seem to help me keep my mind off one thing less and let me think more in terms of what I should shoot. I also shoot in RAW so I get additional controls when post processing.

 So far, it sounds perfect. So why should you learn to operate your camera in Manual mode? The answer is simple.

Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority both work on the assumption that our camera’s reading of the exposure is always correct. Unfortunately, that is not always true.

Manual Mode

Imagine you are photographing a subject in the sun, but the background is in the shade. This simple situation can be all it takes to confuse the camera. It may meter for the background, brightening the exposure and totally overexposing the subject. (This can also be compensated with setting the metering mode, which I shall touch upon in few weeks.)

In this situation, semi-automatic settings will not solve the problem. We could reduce the brightness of the exposure by say reducing the size of the aperture, and the camera would simply adjust the shutter speed to compensate, maintaining what it believes to be the correct exposure.

What we need to do is switch the camera to Manual. Then we can adjust both settings and create an image that is slightly darker, bringing the subject into perfect exposure.

When shooting regularly and varied subjects, situations arise all the time that require us to out-think your camera. If one understands how to operate the manual settings, they won’t be left blaming the camera for ‘the one that got away.’

One more setting in our cameras, denoted by P (Programmed Auto) is a quite versatile feature. Overlooked by most of us, and something I have recently tried to learn more about last few months, once I get a better understanding of it, will surely share more about the same.


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