All the dials, buttons and displays on digital cameras – point and shoots, mirrorless and DSLRs – can be overwhelming, especially for someone just starting out with photography. In this post, you will learn about the programmed auto (P), shutter-priority (S or TV), aperture-priority (A on Nikon or Av on Canon) and manual (M) camera exposure modes, and when to use each of them. These modes offer varying degrees of control over both shutter speed and aperture, giving you flexibility for different types of photo situations.

Camera exposure mode dial on a Nikon D610.
The camera exposure mode dial on my Nikon D610 DSLR.


Programmed Auto

With programmed auto mode (P), your camera sets the shutter speed and aperture to achieve an optimal exposure. It is somewhat similar to full auto mode, but gives you more control by letting you adjust the aperture, as well as the ISO. With programmed auto mode, you have more flexibility than you do with full auto mode, but less than with shutter/aperture-priority and manual modes. It is ideal for snapshots and situations where you have little time to adjust your camera’s settings, but want more flexibility than full auto mode provides.


In shutter-priority mode (S or TV), you select the shutter speed you want to use, and your camera matches that with the proper aperture to expose the image correctly. It is perfect to use when you want to freeze or stop the action in sports photography. Generally, a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second will freeze a fast-moving subject. It also works well when you pan with a moving subject (e.g. a passing car or cyclist for example). Take some test shots and you will see how varying your shutter speeds produces different results. You can also use shutter-priority to ensure your hand-held shots are crisp by not going under 1/60 second exposure time.


Using aperture-priority mode (A), you choose the aperture you want to use, and your camera will set the shutter speed to get the exposure just right. With aperture-priority mode, you will want to adjust your depth of field based on what kind of subject you are shooting. Are you taking a landscape photo? Then you’ll want to use a small aperture (large f-number) to capture a deep depth of field. If you’re shooting a portrait, you may want to use a larger aperture (small f-number) to make your subject more prominent, and stand out from the background. With some practice, you’ll have a good understanding of aperture, and know when to use either a small (large f-number) or large (small f-number) one to get quality results shooting various subjects.


Manual (M) mode gives you ultimate flexibility, letting you set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. To use manual mode effectively, you need to have a good understanding of the exposure triangle, and how the combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO combine to create the ideal exposure. It may not be a good fit for a lot of photo situations where your lighting changes often and you need to be able to shoot relatively quickly without worrying about changing numerous settings.

Scene Modes

You may be asking, “what about the cute little icons I see on my camera dial?” Do yourself a favor, and forget that these modes even exist. I have never used any of them, and you will learn much more by using the above-mentioned camera exposure modes.


The above-mentioned camera exposure modes will work for any kind of photography you intend to shoot. Forget about all the scene modes with their cute little icons, and focus on learning how to use your camera in a “more manual way.” Knowing why to shoot certain subjects using particular settings will be much more useful in the long term than using scene modes that choose your settings for you. Look through your camera’s user manual, and become familiar with all of the different exposure modes, and much more.

Use google – or some other search engine if you’d like 🙂 – to search for photography-related tips, techniques and settings to use in different situations. A few examples could include the following:

The internet is filled with amazing resources to learn about anything you want, so take advantage of it.

Which camera exposure modes do you use most often and why? Leave a comment or question below and I will respond to it as soon as possible.

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