Thinking Outside of the (Green) Box

tim-head One of the best things you can do in your quest to take better photos is to start thinking outside of the dreaded Auto / Green Box mode.  In order to understand why you should get out of the box, you need to understand what each mode does and when to use one mode over another.  As I often tell people, you must tell your camera what to do as opposed to it telling you what to do.  Hopefully, once you read and understand what the other modes do, you will feel more comfortable to set outside of the box.  Here we go! 

For starters, let’s describe the major shooting modes:

AUTO –  Auto is the basic point and shoot mode.  In auto, your camera will use it’s best guess and use a shutter speed and aperture combination based on what the camera thinks is best for your scene.  Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s not.  With auto, you often lose the ability to change the ISO or white balance.  Auto is usually depicted by a green box, a green camera, or the word AUTO in green.  I encourage folks to experiment and learn and get away from this mode as soon as possible; one of the best ways to start taking better pictures is to get away from auto!  

PROGRAM – Program mode (depicted as P or P-AE), aka Program AE or Program Shift is pretty much full auto with the added ability to adjust certain settings, such as ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, and many other modes that are usually locked out in full auto.  You can also “shift” the program by changing the shutter or aperture while maintain the same exposure values, but this for the most part a beefed up auto mode with some added custom abilities.

APERTURE PRIORITY – In aperture priority (depicted as A, Ap, or Av), you determine the camera lens’ working aperture and the camera determines the appropriate shutter speed.  This is my 95% all day walking around mode.  In aperture priority mode, you set the aperture (and ISO) and the camera does the rest.  Aperture priority mode is used when you want to select the depth of field for your scene – the area that is in acceptable focus or sharpness.  For example, if you want a shot with a lot of depth of field (foreground to background is all sharp) then you want to use a smaller aperture, which has a higher f/ number.  Recall that smaller apertures have higher f/ numbers and larger apertures have smaller f/ numbers.  f/11 will give you much more depth of field than f/2.8.

SHUTTER PRIORITY – Shutter priority (depicted as Sv or Tv) is the exact opposite of aperture priority.  Using shutter priority mode allows you to select the shutter speed and the camera returns the appropriate aperture based on the brightness of the scene.  You would use shutter priority when you want to stop the motion of fast moving objects (cars) or keep the camera open to allow for creative uses of blur (see moving water article).  Shutter priority is the mode of choice when I am photographing parades or fireworks at night.  Faster shutter speeds freeze movement and stop action; slower shutter speeds cause blur and streaking.  Either one can be acceptable or undesirable depending on the situation.

MANUAL – Here you control it all, baby!  YOU set the aperture, shutter, and ISO.  This can be a very difficult, yet rewarding mode to experiment with.  I rarely use this mode, except for when using an external flash.

BULB –  Bulb mode is not always found on all camera modes but is a form of manual in which you control all aspects of the camera with one major change:  the shutter stays open as long as you hold down the shutter button or similar button on an external remote.  If you release the button, the shutter closes.  This mode is for experienced photographers and is usually used for photographing fireworks or similar activities.  

Your camera may have other shooting modes, as depicted by a series of pictures or icons on the mode dial.  These may include:

PORTRAIT – (icon of a face) Selects a larger aperture (smaller f/ number) to try to blur the background to make the subject stand out.

LANDSCAPE –  (icon of mountain) Selects a smaller aperture (larger f/ number) to give you more depth of field from near to far.

SPORTS –  (icon of runner) Will try to return a fast shutter speed in order to stop action.

NIGHT PORTRAIT – (icon of person with a star) Will use a combination of flash plus a slow shutter speed (known as slow sync flash) in order to illuminate the subject and try to capture some ambient lighting around the subject.

MACRO – (icon of flower) Attempts to magnify small objects such as flowers, insects, coins, etc. to show great details and allow for much closer focusing distances.  Special macro lenses greatly enhance this effect.

By learning how and when to properly use each mode, you are on your way to telling your camera what to do instead of it tell you what to do. 




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Graphic of camera mode dial was created by Althepal and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. 

Image originally located at

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