The Exposure Modes

All digital cameras whether it is a simple point-and-shoot or an SLR, offer you a variety of exposure modes however you can organise them into 2 categories:
  • The Basics
  • The Creatives
Exposure mode dial as seen on Canon 20d

The Basics

These modes are aimed at beginners, but I’d rather say they are merely meant for people who are just interested in taking shots for Facebook or Twitter but nothing to hang on the walls. Am I harsh? Maybe a bit but it is for your good dear reader!

The Green Rectangle (aka FullAuto)

This mode is the fully automatic mode. When you set your camera to this, you have lost all will power over the exposure. The camera takes the driver’s seat and chooses everything for you: ISO, Aperture, Shutter and even whether you need the flash or not.

The Head (a.k.a Portrait)

This mode is to instruct your camera to stay fully in control of the exposure but with an FYI “I want a portrait”. The camera is going to decide what should ISO, Aperture, Shutter and Flash setting be. The camera knows as much as you when it comes to the important role that a wide Aperture (small F-number) has on the depth of field (DOF) and how a shallow DOF is usually preferred for portrait. However, it does not know how deep you want the DOF to be and that is where it shows its limit. What if you do not wish to fully blur out the background? The camera does not see Creatively.

The Mountain (aka Landscape)

This mode is the opposite of the Portrait in the sense that for Landscape Photography you would tend to use a deep DOF to ensure the maximum ground to be in focus in your image, from front to back. Nonetheless, how will the camera know when much is too much. When using a small Aperture (big F-number), the image tends to lose some of its sharpness (what is called deflagration), and that is caused by the lens. Every lens has a sweet spot and while it could be argued that it is lens specific in general it is around f8. So in this mode, the camera could go to the maximum f-number and while your DOF would be the deepest the image quality would be impacted. But that could be argued that it all depends on of the lens. Bottom line is that in this mode you have nothing to say, the camera is the pilot.

The Flower (aka Macro)

This mode is for Macro Photography. We will cover Macro in another episode, but there is one thing I can tell you is that in Macro Photography also known as Close-Up Photography, your lens can be very close to the subject and in Photography the closer the lens is to the subject the shallower is the DOF. Hence Macro lenses offer a very big f-number such as f32 and beyond to add more DOF. Therefore with this mode, the camera is most likely going to set a narrow Aperture for you. However, you cannot choose how much opening is enough.

The Running Man (aka Sport)

Finally, after focusing so much on the Aperture, in this mode, your camera is going to focus on the Shutter speed. However, how can it know what speed is the correct one that is the question. When shooting a moving subject, depending on its direction, the notion of speed may vary. For example, a person running towards you or going from right to left, all at the same speed will appear differently. Besides, the distance from you to your subject also has an impact on the speed perception so how can your camera know how fast the Shutter speed should be? Well, it guesses it and then you are left with a guess of your own, whether the exposure is creatively valid or not. Although it might be too late.

The Man and the Star (aka Night)

Remember that for all these Basic modes; the camera chooses the ISO, and for Night Photography we can imagine that the first thing your camera will do is trying to widen the Aperture, increase the ISO and reduce the Shutter speed. To which extend that remains a mystery but then why would you care since you gave up your right to complain since you set the Exposure mode dial to one of those Basic modes. NO serious photographer would ever use the Basic modes since choosing one of them would be accepting defeat under the powerful, master minded camera! While the camera can assess a situation brightness and that is its internal metering system (which we will cover in a future episode) which we all love and need, it CANNOT assess the level of creativity of a scene. Creativity is a human faculty. But no worries, Photography is fun and if the Basic mode aren’t good and there aren’t, you still have the Creative modes.

The Creatives

While all respectable enthusiast, professional photographers would use the Creative modes undoubtedly, it does not mean you need to be either an enthusiast or a professional photographer to understand their functioning and use them. On the contrary, there are much less confusing, less frustrating, more expectable and therefore more trustworthy than any of the Basic modes.

The P (aka Program)

This mode might be for those who are not fully comfortable with making their choices. It works quite similarly to the Green Rectangle, in the way that the camera is going to choose the ISO, Aperture, Shutter and Flash but before pressing the button fully, you can override the camera’s choices for the exposure. If you do not override and simply press the button, then the P mode is functioning as the Full Automatic mode.

The Av (Canon), A (Nikon and others) (aka the Aperture Priority)

This is by far the Exposure mode the most commonly used by photographers. The way it works is that you choose the ISO and the Aperture value and the camera’s set the Shutter speed to compensate and close the Exposure Triangle, so you end up with a Correct Exposure. This is the mode I used for the episode on the Creative Aperture: The Depth of Field. The reason why it is many photographers’ favourite mode is that if there is one thing you can easily be sure of when you about to take a picture is whether the background behind your subject needs to be in focus or not (i.e. portrait => shallow DOF or Landscape => deep DOF).

The Tv (Canon), S (Nikon and others) ( aka the Shutter Priority)

This mode is the opposite of the previous one. You choose the ISO and the Shutter speed leaving the camera’s to set the Aperture for you to finalise the Exposure Triangle. This is very useful when shooting sport photography or Landscape photography since Time matters.

The M (aka Manual)

This is the last mode of the Creative category, and in this mode, you need to manually set everything: ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed. This mode is not more complicated than the other Creative mode; it is just slightly longer to set while giving you all ability to set all the components of the Exposure Triangle the way you want. Who chooses the Manual mode? Photographers with many years of experience and knowledge who have built an ability to assess a situation and recognise the correct Aperture and Shutter setting for a given scene. Usually, they have specialised themselves in a photography domain (fashion, sport…) Most of the time, 80%-90% of the cases, the priority mode works for me. While I do not trust the camera to read my mind regarding Creativity, I do trust it (to some extent) with the light metering, therefore, having chosen 2 out of the 3 component of the Exposure Triangle gives me enough comfort. Note: With all Creative modes, you can always override the Exposure settings your camera sets for you by using the Exposure Compensation tool and we will see this feature in a near future episode. This feature, however, does not work when using any of the Basic modes! Hence their limit! I cannot recommend you enough to discard the Basic modes and start using the Creative modes. The camera does not know what you want. But the real question is Do You? I hope by now you should be in a position to have a pretty good idea of either what you want or at least not want. You now understand how each component of the Exposure Triangle works individually and together to achieve a Correct Exposure. And this is all the camera knows. You do know what is nice and what is not, what a beautiful exposure is or is not when looking at a scene otherwise you would not have even thought about capturing it at the first place. But what attracted your eyes in a specific scene only you know. Too many times have I heard people blaming their camera. Do not forget, now matter how modern and how many features your camera comes with, it does and always will remain just a tool. Would you trust your car to know where you want to go once you stepped into it? Same with the Mighty box that is your dear camera.

© 2020 Tom Migot Fine Art All rights reserved​

28 Grange Crescent West, Prestonpans EH329LU UK +44(0)7850 324 811 - [email protected]