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À la mode … but which one?

À la mode … but which one?

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My first camera didn’t have a built-in light meter, didn’t use a battery and had one mode. Today’s cameras often have more modes than I have fingers, and one of the most-asked questions in my photography classes is, “Which mode should I use?”

This, of course, is a question that has as many answers as there are modes. Users of entry-level, mid-level, mid-level mirrorless and dSLR cameras, in general, have four modes that allow some levels of adjustment. They also have many fully automatic modes, some of which bias the settings for specific types of photography such as sports, portraits, landscapes and other subjects.

Let’s look at the fully automatic modes – briefly. Almost all control is left to the camera, other than pressing the shutter button. The camera decides the exposure, shutter speed, aperture and ISO, white balance and focus point(s) – for the specified “scene.” The drawback? Let’s imagine we’re in the National Archives or in a church where flash photography is forbidden. Chances are, the automatic mode selected will recognize there probably isn’t enough light, pop up the flash, and you will either be escorted out by a guard or thunder and lightning will rock the church.

Those fully automatic modes work in many situations, but wouldn’t you really rather use your camera’s amazing capabilities and capture exactly the image you’ve imagined?

Program (P), Shutter Priority (S or Tv), Aperture (A or Av) and Manual (M) are the modes that provide the most creative control. Personally, my favorites are the A mode and the M mode, depending on the subject.

When cameras first became “automated,” Konica and Canon each made shutter priority/manual cameras – great for sports and action photographers. With the advent of digital cameras capable of shooting crisp images at higher ISOs, it became possible to use the A mode for sports and action pictures while maintaining a shutter speed fast enough to stop action and select an aperture for a specific depth of field.

The ability to use the M mode with a specific shutter speed, a specific aperture and Auto-ISO opened the door for shooting indoor sports, rapidly flying birds and/or underwater photography without needing auxiliary lighting. The ability to shoot underwater with a preset shutter speed to stop fish movement and an aperture to ensure a desired focus area with the ISO automatically changing, or to shoot a tennis match indoors using a shutter speed of 1/1,000 second without worrying about exposure, is an incredible breakthrough in technology.

If exposure is an issue, the exposure compensation control can tweak the exposure to perfection! Not all mirrorless or dSLRs have this ability, but more and more are adding it to the long list of built-in options.

What’s my favorite? It’s a toss-up between aperture priority with a set ISO, and fully manual with Auto-ISO, setting the lowest possible ISO and letting the camera do the rest.

Dr. Photo – aka John Keller – operates a full service photography studio and gallery at Studio 5 in the Mission Arts Building in Lincoln. He teaches introductory and advanced courses in digital photography, cell phone and tablet photography and editing at Doane College in Lincoln, and for the OLLI program at UNL. He also offers single and group digital photography and editing lessons. Email your digital photography and computer questions to


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