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Take Pictures, Tell Stories Part 3: A la Mode

Submitted by Cindi Trainor on April 21, 2010 - 11:35am

Modern digital cameras, whether small hand-held models or digital SLRs, often have more modes and options than the average picture-taker needs, but knowing a bit about how modes work can improve photos.

As explained in the previous post, three measurements work together to ensure a properly-exposed photo: ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Most cameras have various modes that enable photographers to give weight to either shutter speed or aperture, while allowing the camera to dictate the other measurements. If you aren't yet comfortable experimenting with aperture or shutter speed, you can try using some of the automatic modes. Ever wonder what those little icons on the settings dial mean?

Below is an explanation of typical camera modes:

  • Auto or Program - these fully-automatic modes allow the camera to set the shutter speed and aperture based on the light measured by the built-in light meter. Fully-automatic mode typically also uses the on-board flash when there is not enough ambient light for an exposure. You might have to rely on this mode during library events if you are in a dimly-lit room or if you are unsure whether you can get away with turning off the flash. Newer Fuji point-and-shoot cameras have an automatic mode that will take two exposures--one with flash and one without.
  • Portrait (head and shoulders icon) - this mode is best used when taking close-up photos of an individual. Portrait modes typically default to wide apertures so that the subject is isolated from the background. Many small digital cameras have face-detection technology and will adjust the focus and exposure to give faces priority. Some cameras can even detect cat and dog faces.
  • Landscape (often a mountain icon) - use this mode to take photos outdoors or of an entire room, where the entire scene is the star of the show, rather than one person or object. Landscape mode usually defaults to a narrow aperture so that more of the photo is in focus, from foreground to background.
  • Macro (usually a flower icon) - this mode is used for taking extreme closeups, particularly of small objects like flowers or insects. Some digital SLRs have a macro setting, but hard-core macro photographers tend to use special lenses as well.
  • Sports mode (a running person icon) - this mode defaults to a low ISO and fast shutter speed and is best used to capture action, as at sporting events or of small children.
  • Night modes -the camera to the right also has two night modes that would assist in taking photos in low light. A night portrait mode is useful when taking photos of individuals in front of a sunset: the camera exposes for the sunset, then uses a brief flash to shed light on the people in the frame.

Using portrait mode when taking photos of only one or two people, but switching to Auto or Landscape mode when shooting an entire room full of people may result in a better end product. The biggest secret in digital photography? Take as many photos as is required to get the shot that you like best.

Partially-automatic modes offer some control for the photographer. With aperture priority, the photographer sets the desired aperture, and the camera sets the shutter speed needed for a good exposure. Speed Priority or Time Value mode lets the photographer set the desired shutter speed, and the camera sets the aperture needed for a good exposure. Many digital cameras also have a fully-manual mode, but for point-and-shoot cameras, what "fully manual" means can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Typically, the camera's built-in light meter will provide visual feedback as to whether the dialed-in setting will result in a proper exposure.

Up next: Fun with photos at library events

Photo courtesy Cats-eye-view; CC:by-nd