digital camera settings
digital camera modes

Digital camera settings dial

Here's a simple explanation of digital camera settings and a guide telling you when to use each one of them.

This make it easier for you to get your camera to perform like the brilliant computer it was designed to be. Digital camera functions are sophisticated and it can be confusing when you have so many options.  

Some of the camera settings make all the decisions for you and some make some of the desired settings. This article will give you a breakdown on your options and how you can get your camera to perform like a finely tuned race car.

automatic digital camera settings

Automatic and Program camera settings are thought to make all of the decisions for you but there are differences between these two modes.  

When you're in too much of a hurry to put any thought into the photographic process you can turn to either one of these modes for the quick snapshot. "Just set it, and forget it."

automatic mode

Probably the most widely used mode of all digital camera setting. The automatic mode has your camera decide on just about everything for you.

That includes aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus method, and color balance.  It is generally a good safe setting in most situations  but learning the other modes will advance your photography to a new level.

Without giving it any information the camera is evaluating the scene, guessing what it is and making the decision based on complex mathematical algorithms. 

Program mode gives you some of the controls on your camera

program mode

Program mode is an automatic mode but it gives you control over several things. Technically I think you would really define it as a semi-automatic mode.

Typically the setting you make include the use of flash, the setting of the ISO, and exposure compensation (adjusting to make lighter or darker). You make those settings and then the camera takes over and decides the rest.

I am a big fan of using as little flash as possible. I like natural lighting as a portrait photographer, but when fill flash is needed it's nice to have the ability to turn the flash on or off.

New cameras with bigger sensors make the use of higher ISO settings. That means you can avoid using flash in darker situations without the huge loss in quality with sensors made just a few years ago.

Program mode varies with each camera model and needs an entire article dedicated to it so look for that one to be coming soon.


As the name implies, use this for photographing individual or small groups of people. This setting will set the camera to have a reduced depth of field.

In other words, it will favor your camera to focus on the subject closer to the camera and will allow the background to be less focused.

Depending on the lighting situation the camera will put a priority on a small f-stop number

That gives you a sharp subject and visually separate it from the slightly blurred background.

landscape camera setting

It's usually desirable to have a large range of things in focus for landscape photography. This camera setting prioritizes a large depth of field and using a small aperture.

Holding the camera very steady is important because the shutter speed may be a little slower to get a properly exposed photograph. You will want to avoid any motion blur so a tripod is always a good idea, particularly if you are not shooting a bright scene.

Higher ISO settings are another way to stop motion blur because your camera can use a higher shutter speed and still have enough light to get a good exposure.

macro  -  close-up

Macro mode allows you to get good photos when photographing things close-up. Tripods are almost always a necessity when shooting macro photos.

Manual focus, if available is, much better to use with macro photography. Accurate focusing is critical because there is such limited depth of field at close distances.

Macro is one of the instances where I  highly recommend using the optical viewfinder to focus manually. Unfortunately many of the newer cameras only have an LCD screen to use.

When shooting close ups, the regular viewfinder may not give you a perfectly accurate view of what you are actually taking a picture of. Start by checking your camera instructions to see what the closest distance is that you can get to your subject.

Sports or Action mode puts an emphasis on a fast shutter speed to freeze the action

sports - action setting

Use this camera mode to "freeze" the action. Your camera will use a high ISO setting and a high shutter speed to minimize blur from fast moving athletes or balls.

Sports mode is needed for action photos, but also helpful for high speed photography is situations where you have have lots of light.

This is to get a very fast shutter speed to stop motion blur and still get a good exposure.

In darker situations, using a dslr equipped a "fast" lens are a big advantage.

A "fast" lens means it has a very wide lens opening or aperture and lets a large amount of light into the camera.

This means you can use a faster shutter speed and still get the right photo exposure.

Sports mode-high shutter speed priority

night scene

This is one of the really unique digital camera settings to use. Night mode will have a slow shutter speed to create the right exposure and will use the flash as well.

It changes the timing on when the flash fires during the long exposure for a better effect.  You can get some really cool photos in night mode.  It is a lot of fun to play around and experiment, combining blur from movement and sharpness created by the quick burst from the flash.

Since I grew up using film cameras, before the programmed settings above were available, I prefer the settings described below.  Aperture and shutter priority modes are really semi-automatic in that once you make a setting then the camera automatically calculates the correct exposure.

semi-automatic camera settings

aperture priority setting

Aperture priority means you have control of the aperture.  It's my favorite of all the digital camera settings.

Aperture is the size of the opening that the light travels through to hit the sensor inside your camera. You set that and the camera will set the shutter speed to give you the best photo exposure.

This is my favorite digital camera setting and I use this setting primarily in two photography situations:

1. When I am shooting portraits. I use a wide open (small f-stop number) to have my subject in focus and my background be blurry.

2. I use a small aperture when I am doing landscape photography. I want to be sure that things close to the camera AND things that are far away from the camera are in focus. Using a high f-stop number like f-16 or higher gives us a large depth of field.

3. In addition to the definition of aperture priority, you can learn other photography definitions here: Photography Definitions.

shutter priority

Shutter priority mode is indicated by an "S" or sometimes  "Tv" (for time value). With shutter priority, you choose the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture.

This is a popular digital camera setting in sports photography. Different sports or activities will require different shutter speeds to "freeze" the action.

Look at the difference in the two photo below. I used the shutter priority setting for these two photo of water running my my kitchen sink.

In the blurry photo of the running water, I set the camera on a one second exposure and it determined the right aperture to get the right exposure.

In the second photo I set the shutter speed to 1/200 of a second to freeze" the action. The camera decided on the right aperture to get the right photo exposure.

Good example of a photographic situation where you want to use shutter priority setting to control motion or blurNot a great photo, but look at the different effect
you can create by using shutter priority and controlling the shutter speed.

This is a popular digital camera setting when photographing waterfalls, fireworks and similar time exposure photographs where the length of exposure has a dramatic effect on the final photograph.

I played around with my shutter priority settings while photographing a bike race.  You may be interested in how I controlled the amount of motion blur in these Bike Race Pictures.

manual mode

M is for Manual mode - a camera setting where you get to decide on everything

Shooting in Manual gives you complete and total control of your camera's settings.

It also gives you the most chances for screwing up the exposure. ;-)

Using the LCD monitor to check your exposure is a good idea.

Using the camera's histogram is even a better idea  idea if you are shooting in manual mode.

For more sophisticated use and understanding of shooting in a manual setting, here is a link to an article by a professional photographer on using manual mode:  Manual Camera Setting.

Manual mode works great with your camera's Auto ISO setting.


Auto ISO is not really a camera mode. It's more of a setting, but I recently (I was way passed due) just discovered how incredibly powerful it is, particularly when used with your camera set for Manual mode.

You set the aperture to get the right depth of field and you set the shutter speed to freeze (or intentionally blur) and the camera sets the right ISO to give you a good exposure. Here's more on the reasons why you should definitely consider setting your Camera ISO on AUTO.

Exposure override

This camera function is usually not included on the camera's setting dial. It is often found within the menu you view on the screen on the back of point and shoot cameras. With a professional dslr it can be found in a variety of places. I use this function quite a bit.

Most cameras are programmed to read a scene as typical and give a good average exposure. There are instances though, because of the unique subject matter, this will result in a bad exposure.

Camera set on Beach mode makes exposure brighter

Here are two examples.

With beach scenes or snow scenes where most of the photograph is light or white, you may want to overexpose by one f-stop.

With scenes that have almost all dark colors and background with a few small light areas, you may want to underexpose a little.

Understanding the different digital camera settings for your camera and when you should use them will help you become a better photographer. As with all of the topics covered on this web site, enjoy the learning process. It takes time, but remember the time flies when you're having fun.

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Happy Shooting!


p.s.  Individual cameras may have slight variations on these digital camera settings, such as snow scene mode, fireworks mode, or sunset mode where it's use becomes obvious by its name.

The best way for you to see how your digital camera settings handle a situation is to

  1. Choose the recommended mode first.
  2. Look at the resulting photo carefully.
  3. Try a different mode.
  4. Look at the change compared to your first photo.

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