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Photography a la Mode

June 27, 2010 - Michael Palmer

Various camera types and specific cameras have different modes or settings to make things simpler for photographers who want to take specific types of pictures. Most digital SLRs have a few manual settings and a small sample of automatic modes.

Usually marked on a dial at the top of the camera with icons are the Automatic Modes. A green marking usually indicates the most popular full Auto, the running man for Action (sports), the head for Portrait, a moon for Night, the mountain for Landscape, a person with a sun for backlight and a flower for Macro.

Braver readers may have also used the Manual modes: Manual (M), Program (P), Shutter priority (S or Tv), Aperture priority (A or Av) and some may add Adep for Aperature Depth of Field.

In automatic modes the camera determines all aspects of exposure, choosing exposure parameters according to the application within the constraints of correct exposure, including exposure, aperture, focusing, light metering, white balance, and equivalent sensitivity. For example in portrait mode the camera would use a wider aperture to render the background out of focus, and would seek out and focus on a human face rather than other image content. In the same light conditions a smaller aperture would be used for a landscape to increase depth of field, and any software for recognition of faces would not be enabled for focusing.

Sorry, that was a bit technical. Lets break down the Automatic settings.

Action or sport mode increases ISO and uses a fast shutter speed to capture action. If your son, daughter or subject matter is taking part in a sport or activity which takes place in bright sunlight, say baseball, softball or motocross, this is your setting. As the lights dim, the camera will not be able to stop the action sufficiently using the automatic settings with a lens aperture that is less than f2.8 and even then may require an external flash to deliver a quality image. We will talk more about basketball and football in later blogs.

Portrait mode widens the aperture to throw the background out of focus. The camera may recognize and focus on a human face and often the ISO is kept low to give a sharper image.

In contrast; Landscape mode uses a small aperture to gain depth of field. The ISO is also kept low to increase image clarity and may result in long exposures which could warrant the use of a tripod.

Night or Night portrait mode. Natural light or night snapshot modes attempt to raise the ISO and use a very wide aperture in order to take a photograph using the limited natural light, rather than a flash. While night portrait mode uses an exposure long enough to capture background detail, with fill-in flash to illuminate a nearby subject.

Backlight modes compensate for the misinformation the bright background gives the cameras internal light meter and increases exposure or activates a fill flash in order to properly photograph subjects.

Macro/Close-up modes will direct the camera's focus to be nearer the camera. In some cameras it will also shrink the aperture and restrict the camera to wide-angle in an attempt to broaden the depth-of-field to include closer objects.

Refer back to your exposure triangle and move on into the dial settings that give you, the photographer, control. The first three give you control over one side, or aspect of the triangle and Manual makes you the king of the castle, where you control all three.

P: Program mode: This setting allows the camera user to set the ISO or light sensitivity and gives the photographer partial control over the other two aspects of the photo; shutter speed and aperture.

Tv or S: Shutter priority: This gives the camera user control over the shutter speed (1/250), while aperture and ISO is calculated by the camera based on the photographer’s chosen shutter settings.

Av or A: Aperture priority lets the photographer control the aperture, and the ISO and shutter speed are calculated by the camera.

M: Manual mode gives you the complete control of your photograph. You set the ISO, shutter speed and aperture independently using the different buttons or screens on your camera. (Remember as you change one setting, you must also adjust the other two to keep your exposure triangle in balance.)

No matter which mode you choose, for full mastery of the camera one must experiment with each and learn to easily find and change the settings before becoming comfortable with moving away from full auto photography. Thankfully the digital camera makes this option both easy and affordable.

Instant display of the photograph on your rear view screen allows you to adjust your exposure settings as you shoot and the digital format allows this experimentation to be done much more cost effectively than in the past with film cameras.


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