What mode should I use?

The most common question I hear is “what lens should I buy?”.

Boy, that is a tough one – a bit like asking “what car should I drive”. The answer: “It depends”!

Almost as often, I hear “what exposure mode should I be on?”. That one is much easier.

Photographers taking photos in Oakville, photo by Michael Willems

WHAT MODE? Photographers taking photos in Oakville

I should start by saying that here too, of course the answer is “it depends”. So instead of giving you a canned answer, I am going to explain a bit about what modes I use in my daily photography practice.

And these are:

  • The green “Auto” mode: never – but I could use it if anyone asked “let me take your picture with your camera”. The green auto mode turns your expensive SLR into a point-and-shoot.
  • Scene modes (portrait, landscape, sports, etc): never. None of my cameras have these, but even if  they did, I would not use them. They are useful learning tools, and good for people with little experience, but they take a lot of power away from you, and you should learn how to do it yourself. Use them while learning, but as soon as possible, free yourself from these “canned” modes.
  • Program mode (P): occasionally, when I am in a hurry. Like when shooting while driving a car, or when covering a rapidly unfolding even where “get the shot” is the essence. P mode means the camera sets aperture and shutter, but you can override it in this and in many other aspects, like white balance and flash use.
  • Aperture Mode (A/Av): Almost always in many situations. When I am in an environment with changing light, I will likely use aperture mode. Because of what I shoot, I am in this mode maybe 70% of the time. Aperture is very important to me.
  • Shutter Speed Priority (S/Tv): when covering some sports. When I want to freeze or blur motion. Sure, those are obvious. But also when shooting flash outdoors and I want to be sure I do not exceed the flash sync speed. In those cases I often set my shutter to 1/250th second (the fastest flash sync speed, depending on which camera I am using) and I know that I will not be needing “Fast/Auto FP” flash, which reduces my power by at least half.
  • Manual (M): Always in studios. Always when shooting indoors flash. And usually when in a controlled environment. Manual (often combined with spot meter, incident light meter, and grey card) is my second most common mode.
  • Bulb: when shooting fireworks, or other events that take a long time and cannot be metered or timed.

So that means typically I might do this – a few examples:

  • Outdoor event: A/Av mode
  • Outdoor event with flash: S/Tv mode
  • Indoor event with flash: M
  • Studio: M
  • Outdoors rugby game: S
  • Indoors hockey game: M
  • Family snaps: A/Av
  • Product: M
  • Panning shots: S/Tv

Try them all, and learn how each mode works. Especially, do not underestimate Manual, where you get full control. You need to know what you are doing, but it pays to learn.

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