Each camera has its own unique way of naming its exposure modes, but there are a few common concepts that will make choosing the right mode (however its named) easier.
First of all, remember that the purpose of shooting modes is to get a sufficient amount of light onto the sensor for it to record an image. The digital camera does this in three main ways: by changing the opening inside the lens, the aperture; by changing how long the shutter stays open, allowing light to pass; and by changing the light sensitivity of the sensor, like changing film speed. Since the objective is to get a certain amount of light on the sensor, you can see how increasing one aspect would call for a decrease in another. All of these methods have pros and cons and your camera is constantly balancing them.
All digital cameras, even professional models, have a fully automatic mode. Usually called Auto or Program, it allows the camera to balance all 3 aspects of exposure. This a good choice for general shooting and for just starting out, but before long you’ll want to experiment with the other modes. This is where a digital camera really shines. With a preview screen on the back, you can make at least a preliminary judgment on whether your experiment worked or not and start over. Don’t be afraid to delete a picture and try again.
In looking at the picture information on my camera, I can tell it is biased toward keeping the ISO (light sensitivity) setting as low as possible for better color and less “noise” and toward keeping the shutter speed as high as it can to help keep movement, either mine or the subject’s, from blurring the picture. Not a bad compromise, but sometimes I need something a little different.
Most digital cameras have some variation of a Sport setting. This digital camera mode tells the camera to keep the shutter speed as high as possible to freeze motion. To enable this, the ISO is allowed to go higher, giving greater light sensitivity for faster shutter speeds at the expense of slightly more “noise.” On our recent vacation, I shot most of our pictures on Sport, as I was often shooting from the car. I could tell a real difference in the number of pictures that were sharp because a fast shutter speed “froze” a moving subject or covered for my own movement. The “noise” which can look like film grain or inaccurate colors, especially in dark areas, was generally not enough of a problem to render the picture unusable.
Landscape is another common digital camera mode. Typically a smaller aperture is favored in the lens to increase depth of field, the area of sharp focus, this is referred to as “stopping down the lens.” Also the flash is generally turned off. No matter how good, a flash isn’t going to light up that mountain scene in front of you. This mode is good for broad scenes that are not very close and don’t feature a lot of movement. With the digital camera working to keep the aperture and ISO down to increase depth of field and decrease “noise”, the results is often longer shutter speeds.
A brief discussion of camera shake and flash use – No one is perfectly steady. Our hands shake a little and even our breathing and heartbeat can jog the camera. Having a proper shooting stance will brace the camera better and minimize (but not eliminate) camera shake. Hold the digital camera at eye level using both hands. Keep your elbows firmly at your side and plant your feet about shoulder width apart so you are centered and balanced. Hold your breath and gently press the shutter release. You can also find things to brace either yourself or your camera against. A tripod is the most stable camera platform, but often it is too cumbersome to carry around while shooting. Also, the flash on your digital camera is only intended to work in a space about the size of a normal room. Even then, you may notice that nearby things are washed out with glare while farther things are too dark. I generally try to leave the flash off as much as possible. It helps the batteries go further and seems to give a more natural look to the picture. Just remember, when the flash is off, the camera may have to bump up the ISO so the shutter speed will stay high enough to minimize camera shake. As always, it’s a trade off and balancing act.
On the other extreme from Landscape is the Macro setting. Often symbolized by a flower, it’s for shooting objects that are very close; usually within an arm length. This shooting mode does less to the exposure and more with focus as it tells the digital camera to pay more attention to the subjects closest to the camera. The aperture is also kept more open (a lower f/stop) for a shallow depth of field. Then the subject being focused on will be much more noticeable against a soft, blurry background. On higher-end digital cameras, the color processing is also sometimes tweaked for brighter, more vivid colors.
Night or High ISO is another useful shooting mode. This allows the digital camera to set the ISO much higher and open up the aperture to get as much light as possible on the sensor. Even with this, shutter speeds will be substantially longer making a good shooting stance and bracing (or a tripod) a necessity. On the other hand, who wants to shoot pictures only at high noon? Some of the most interesting images occur when the shooting conditions are less than ideal.
A favorite mode of mine is the Museum setting. This turns off the flash and all camera beeps and signals so as to not create a disturbance. The camera is then biased toward higher shutter speeds to prevent camera shake. As a side note, using flash in an aquarium or anyplace where you’re shooting through glass (like a museum) is pretty useless. Most often the only thing that shows up is the reflection of the flash on the glass obscuring everything else. Save yourself a lot of frustration and turn off the flash.
Generally as one gets toward the upper end of the digital camera spectrum, the cameras feature better, faster (lower minimum f/stop for greater light transmission) lenses, more sensitive sensors that are able to operate at high ISO’s with less “noise” and shutters that can work at both faster and slower speeds. The way the pictures, and particularly the color, is processed is generally better. Don’t feel obligated to mortgage the house and buy the top of the line camera, but do look at purchasing the best digital camera you can consistent with your projected use of the camera and your budget. Once you get your digital camera, play with it. Have fun and try out all the shooting modes. Don’t be afraid of it because almost all digital cameras feature a Reset mode that will undo any mistakes you have made to the settings.
Becoming familiar with your digital camera’s exposure or shooting modes will enable you to choose the mode best suited to capturing the scene before you. Have fun and happy shooting.