you're reading...
General Stuff, Theory n Technique

PASM: Using Your Camera’s Mode Dial

Another post on different camera controls (this is turning out to be a little series!), here’s a quick look at the mode dial, and more specifically the four manual modes found on the dial of most good cameras: Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual…often labeled P, A, S and M

These are the modes you should be using! Don’t let the camera decide how your picture should look by using the unimaginative full Auto mode, or the boring and inflexible scene modes – you, the photographer…you decide how the shot should look! That’s why these four modes are so great, and so important – in some way or the other they let you take control of what’s going on, so that you, and only you, will have the final say in how the result will look. This is not to say that Auto modes are all that bad – these days some auto modes and even scene modes work very well – but being a photographer, it’s all about your creativity, and your ideas, your vision. You don’t want your camera to fix the settings for you, even if the result will look good. Your idea of ‘good’ is what you want, not the camera’s. So start using these modes and let yourself go. That’s when you’ll start seeing something special!

Of course, like anything in photography, knowing when and how to use these different manual modes is crucial – so let me just briefly go through each one and give you a rough idea of how to use them, and in which situations you should switch to which mode – once you figure that out, it’ll be easy

Program Auto

I rarely use this mode. Why? Well, you see the word ‘auto’ in there? It’s an auto mode! It sets both the aperture and the shutter speed for you, just like the Full Auto mode. But…BUT…with a few important differences. That’s where the “Program” bit comes in. The Program Auto mode sets exposure for you, yes…but it allows you to program other aspects of the picture, and gives you full control over all other settings, such as ISO, exposure compensation, white balance, and so on. In fact, I often think of it as an “ISO Priority” mode – you set the ISO, and the camera does the rest

But wait! Your control over this mode doesn’t end there. The camera sets the aperture/shutter speed combination, yes – but it also allows you to cycle through various other combinations of shutter/aperture to get exactly what you want! This is a very useful feature. What this means is that if your camera meters a scene, and sets f4.0 and 1/15 sec, you can sort of override this, and cycle through other combinations of shutter speed and aperture, which give the same exposure value, but show the different benefits that come with different aperture or shutter settings. For example, if the depth of field at f4.0 is too shallow for you, and you want to get a deeper DOF, cycle through the combinations until you get f8.0 and 1/4 sec – if you want a faster shutter speed than the original 1/15 sec, cycle through until you get f2.0 and 1/60 sec. See how it works?

Of course, if I was always going to be do this, I’d much rather switch to aperture or shutter priority (see the next two modes) – but there are some times when you wouldn’t be too bothered about depth of field or the exact shutter speed, situations where all you want is a snapshot as a keepsake. In these cases, the P mode works great. It doesn’t require much attention, but it also gives you control over important settings like ISO, white balance, picture style, exposure compensation, and more – and in the sudden moment where you DO want that shallow depth of field or fast shutter speed, it lets you quickly adjust the settings without having to switch modes. Add to that the fact that you can use exposure compensation in this mode, and it’s clear why I find Program Auto a much better mode than Full Auto. Way better

Summary: it’s an auto mode with flexibility. When to use it? For snapshots, I’d say – snapshots where you’d like to retain that bit of control…just in case!

Aperture Priority

The Mode Dial. Image by Althepal

My favorite and most used mode. It’s a very rare moment to find my camera not set on this mode. Even when I’m shooting film, I always set the aperture first before checking the corresponding shutter speed. Why do I love this mode so much? Well, let’s go through this, and the other modes, before I answer that

Like the name suggests, in this mode you have full control of the aperture setting used. Set the aperture and the camera sets the corresponding shutter speed for the correct exposure it determines. You retain full control over the other setting such as exposure compensation, ISO etc. when shooting in aperture priority mode

Aperture, as you know, controls the amount of light entering the camera. It also plays a big part in the depth of field of your shot. Alright…that should give you a good idea on when you should use this mode: use it when you want to control depth of field, and when shooting in rather extreme (dark or bright) lighting conditions

If you want a shallow depth of field, open the aperture up wide…if you want deep DOF, stop it down! If you’re shooting in low light and you want more light to get a faster shutter speed, open up…if you’re shooting in bright sunlight and your camera can’t cope with the excess light, stop down! Easy

Well, things obviously won’t be so easy in real life; sometimes you’d want to shoot in low light but want a deeper DOF…or shoot in very bright sunlight and want a shallow DOF. In these cases, other techniques besides the mode come in to play, so I will not be discussing them here…but this should give you enough info to know how and when to use the aperture priority mode…right?!

Summary: this mode allows you to control how much light enters the camera, and the depth of field. Use this when you don’t care too much about the shutter speed and how it affects the picture, but instead you want full control over the aperture and how it affects the picture!

Shutter Priority

Shutter priority – you guessed it – gives you full control of the shutter speed. Again, you set all other settings as well, but the camera will set the aperture to go with the shutter speed you selected

The shutter speed determines how long the image sensor is exposed to light. You know this! By changing shutter speeds, especially to rather extreme settings, interesting effects can be got. For example, if you’re shooting a fast moving object, freeze the object in motion by setting a very fast shutter speed! To show a hint of motion in the same moving subject, set a slow-ish shutter speed! If you want to show long trails of a moving object (like car lights on a street), set a super slow shutter speed! And when shooting in low light and you want to avoid camera shake, you want a faster shutter speed to avoid blurry photos while keeping it slow enough to get enough light

All this stuff is actually covered in my post on the basics of exposure…so check that out if you’re not getting some parts of what I’m talking about here…but I’m trying to put all those ideas into use here, and combine it with the use of these different modes…that’s how you’ll be using them in real world shooting, isn’t it? Yeah

Summary: this mode lets you control the shutter speed. That’s it, basically. Shutter speeds give various effects to various shots, mainly to moving objects, so I guess this mode lets you control that. And similar (and opposite) to aperture priority, use this mode when you don’t care about the aperture setting and how it affects the picture, but instead you want to control the effects of shutter speed


Full manual control means…well, full control over everything. The camera doesn’t do anything automatically – you do it all. Aperture, shutter, ISO, white balance…and everything in between, it’s all you

It’s the ultimate photographer’s mode. However, you don’t necessarily HAVE to use this mode just because it’s the ultimate photographer’s mode and you want to be the ultimate photographer. Going fully manual and doing it fast enough to get the shot is going to take a lot of practice, and comes with experience. I rarely use this mode, just because I’m not really fast enough to get it right fast enough on some occasions, and I don’t want to miss a shot when my camera’s meter could’ve done the job perfectly well enough using one of the priority modes. So yeah: use this mode only when your camera meter struggles to cope with a particular situation, and ideally when you have sufficient time to do the job yourself. With experience, you could end up being faster than your automatic camera!  But until then, use the priority modes when possible!

Remember, even though you’re in manual mode, you still have the assistance of the camera’s meter. There’s a little guideline that shows you how close (or far) your current setting is from the camera’s idea of the optimum exposure – so you’re never really completely on your own. Experiment when you’re not under pressure to get the shot perfectly. Your bedroom is the best place to start

Without experience, don’t try to use this mode in situations where the light is inconsistent and the subject is in motion, etc. I’d use the Manual mode mainly when my meter fails when metering backlit subjects, or scenes with high dynamic range – landscapes in bright sunlight, etc. – and I always like to have a bit of time to do the metering manually

To summarize: this mode gives you complete control over aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and all other settings you can think of. The camera sets nothing automatically (unless you set auto white balance?!). Use this mode when the meter on your camera is not doing the job, or you really have plenty of time to get the shot while metering manually, or both

Ok, so that’s P, A, S, M. The four manual modes on your camera. Yeah, so why do I always end up with the Aperture Priority mode? Well, like I said in the beginning, Program Auto is an Auto mode of sorts, and I have no use for that most of the time. Shutter priority, well – in my kind of work, I rarely need a specific effect from the shutter speed; and if I do, I’d just set the aperture such so that the shutter speed lowers anyway, using the Aperture Priority mode – it’s the same thing. And manual, I’m pretty slow when using this mode, and I only use it when I have to – that doesn’t happen all that often

But I always fiddle around with the aperture. I’m always conscious of depth of field and how it’ll affect my shot, and I always like control over how much light enters the camera…and I just prefer to use aperture to do all this. It’s easy. It’s just how I feel like doing it. Why do anything else?! Unless I have to

And that’s all I got for you today. I hope all this helped. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post – let me know which modes you find you regularly use, and which you rarely use…and if you use auto modes, if you use manual modes – anything really! Thanks for reading. Check out my post on Exposure, if you haven’t already – that should complete the whole topic! Until next time

Did you know that I’m currently working on this site full-time? Please consider making a small donation if you can – thank you!

By Heshan Jayakody
All content in this post is my own, except where noted
Enhanced by Zemanta


14 Responses to “PASM: Using Your Camera’s Mode Dial”

  1. Great write up, thankyou.

    Posted by james | September 27, 2012, 08:29
  2. Good post! Newbies always mistake Manual as the one to go for – whereas you really should be looking at one of the priority modes!

    Posted by Robert | November 21, 2012, 08:12
    • Absolutely – you spend so much on a digital camera with its fancy metering mode, and then stick only to manual? like with every thing else, use the best mode for the job. sometimes manual is best, but very often a priority mode like Av works best

      Posted by pixelogist | November 21, 2012, 09:27
  3. super post! unique and interesting. thanks for sharing!

    Posted by Placido | December 30, 2012, 15:20
  4. very interesting! to be honest, i was stuck in auto and P auto modes for a long time now, and only recently started to get around to the A, S and M modes. this post, i found to be very helpful

    Posted by Dave M | January 10, 2013, 08:40
    • The A, S, and M modes are the ones with the most creative potential…you will discover a lot when using these modes…and really get your creative side going crazy!

      Posted by pixelogist | January 10, 2013, 12:55
  5. Good post!! I use the Aperture mode primarily too.. and sometimes Shutter..never Program, and rarely, VERY rarely..Manual! I like how you break down each mode, it makes it easy to understand for many beginners – i’m kinda a beginner myself!

    Posted by Christy | March 5, 2013, 21:02
    • Thanks Christy 🙂 Yeah, aperture priority is fantastic, isn’t it? I rarely use shutter priority, but I sometimes turn on Manual, when it gets hard to get the right exposure, or if i’m shooting long exposures

      Posted by pixelogist | March 6, 2013, 12:31
  6. Top post! Thanks for sharing this. I shoot a lot in Manual mode, but I was finding it hard. I thought that’s all professionals used. Haha! Guess I was wrong! I’ll give aperture mode a try soon

    Posted by Cairn | May 8, 2013, 15:43
    • Ah yes, a lot of people make that mistake, and try shooting in Manual mode, without understanding anything about light metering and how to use the M mode. The Aperture Priority mode is a great one to start with. I still use this mode 99% of the time, and rarely go into manual unless the situation calls for it. I have a fancy camera with a fancy metering system that promises great auto exposure – why not use it? Haha

      Posted by pixelogist | May 8, 2013, 18:20


  1. Pingback: Depth of Field: An In-Depth View | pixelogist.me - November 25, 2012

  2. Pingback: Shutter speed, Aperture, ISO: Understanding Basic Exposure | pixelogist.me - January 25, 2013

Share your thoughts...leave a comment!

Follow Me on Pinterest


Feeling Generous?