What do the camera modes actually do?

Look, in a perfect world we’d all be experts on the manual settings on our fancy cameras… but in the mean time, I”m all for cutting corners with preset camera modes like Portrait, Sport, and so on. My goal with the Better Pictures Project is to get good, blogable pictures every time. Photography is a means to an end, and the end is blogging!

Back during MMM, I asked Heather how she got her pictures so sharp and in focus. Her answer was “Portrait mode!” I’d been shooting in Program mode (where the camera controls shutter speed and aperture, and you control the rest). Since then I’ve switched over to Portrait, and I have to say, I really do think there is a difference! Since Heather is my photography “muse” for the month, I thought it was the perfect time to test the modes and see if they really do make any difference.

Close up 1-5

Can you see the first problem? Why are 4 of the settings so dark? Turns out, I’d left the camera set to underexpose. That’s really my problem with these manual settings in a nutshell – when I’m thinking about everything else on a photoshoot, it’s too easy to make a mistake with the settings and ruin all the pictures. (I actually think this is what happened on the project which could not be photographed…)

Close up 1-5 (1)

Now, if we ignore the darkness, can you see how the whole background is in focus? I could change that with the aperture settings, but, um… I don’t really understand how. I will learn eventually!

Now on to the automatic modes… Let the camera do the thinking!

(Oh, and I’m not making gang signs – I’m showing which mode we’re using so I don’t get confused!) 

CLose Up 6-11

You can really see the different depths of field in these photos, eh? The backgrounds in Night Landscape, Landscape and Macro are all in focus, Personally, I think that distracts from the clothes, so I prefer a blurry background. I’m surprised that the night settings work just fine in the day – I thought they’d be blown out and way overexposed.

Full Length 6-11

In both the close-ups and the full length pics, I think Portrait is just a smidge brighter than the others – though Action seem quite similar in exposure and depth of field. Which one do you like best? 

I’m quite pleased with this little experiment – in truth, I expected even less difference between the modes. I think Portrait is a winner. According to one site, “[Portrait] is all about a single main subject at a moderate distance away and a background you want out of focus.” That sounds perfect for blogging, right?

A couple of tips:

  • I set the camera to focus automatically on multiple points – before I figured that out, I was manually focusing on a spot on the ground, then dancing back and forth where I thought that spot was to try to be in focus. (Please tell me I”m not the only one doing that? I’m so embarrassed. At least 2/3 of all my pics were way out of focus!)
  • I think Portrait mode works best when you stand far away from what is behind you. There’s a real temptation to go stand just in front of a wall, but then the wall is in focus just like you. If you stand a few metres in front of the wall/tree/etc, it will be nicely blurred behind you. On the flip side, Heather mentioned that her camera focuses more reliably when the background is close, so it’s up to you and your camera!

But don’t just take my word for it – here are some useful resources I’ve found online!

Do you shoot on Auto, Manual, or somewhere in between? If you have experimented with modes, I’d love to hear which one works best for you. And if you try Portrait, let me know how it goes, and we can all thank Heather for her tip!

PS. I’m so thrilled to see a few blog posts popping up inspired by the Better Pictures Project! Three cheers for Stephanie, Tasha, Teri, Elizabeth and Leigh for taking pictures out and about!❤


39 thoughts on “What do the camera modes actually do?

  1. Very interesting! I tend to put my camera in auto and just leave it there. I’ve been trying to work out why my photos come out seriously overexposed each time and I think its from not taking pics in full shade but I should try some of the different modes too and see what turns out better.
    Did you use a remote for each of your photos above?

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    1. Do you have DSLR? There’s a button that lets’ you manually force over/under expose pictures – my Nikon has a little plus/minus symbols. You hold it down then use the circular dial to adjust it up or down. I’m not sure if it works in Auto (it doesn’t in portrait) but it works for manual, program, or aperture/shutter priority. It might be worth exploring?
      I usually use a remote, but in this case I bribed my husband with ice cream and he took the pics. I didn’t want to be running back to the camera to adjust it for every shot!🙂

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  2. I hardly ever touch manual mode. I’m stuck on aperture! I finally have a pretty good handle on it (smaller number = bigger aperture = less depth of field i.e. more blur). If I’m inside for my pictures, I like to put some sort of object (usually a lamp) right where I’m going to stand. I focus on it with auto focus. Then I switch to manual focus, which means the camera won’t change where it focuses. Then, all I have to do is hit my mark. Oh, and I keep my aperture at about 4 for self portraits (doesn’t that sound fancier than selfie?). That way, I’m still in focus if I don’t perfectly hit my mark but the background is still blurred. Outside, I haven’t quite figured it out (unless I’m close to home and can use an object from home to focus). I try to get the husband to take my picture but well, he lacks practice…

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    1. Thank you for explaining exactly how you take your pics! It sounds like a good system for inside – maybe I’ll try exploring aperture mode more this winter when I’m doing indoor pics!

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  3. I usually go with aperture mode, mainly out of old habit. I would use portrait mode, but it usually opens the aperture wide open while most lenses are sharper a stop or two down. On my less rushed days I hook my camera up with Lightroom and turn my laptop screen towards me, that way I see immediately if the pics are out of focus or too dark without having to check the tiny little camera display.

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    1. Oooh, what a brilliant set up! Do the pics go live from the camera to the computer that way? I’m assuming you are doing this all inside – what would you do if you were taking blog pics outside?

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  4. Thanks for opening my eyes on portrait mode! I was not sure why it was there. To be honest with you, I never read manuals, which is probably a big mistake. Your gang hands can become a trademark🙂

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    1. With your photo crew on hand you don’t have to worry about any of this!😉 (And I’ve never read my manual either. I wonder if I have it? I should really look!)

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  5. Thanks Gillian! I vary between the priority modes (Shutter/Aperture) and Manual depending on what (what i’m shooting, where, light) I’m trying to achieve. If I want to focus on motion – then Shutter speed, if I want to focus on depth of field, then generally aperture. If I have time to use Manual, then I will, but generally only for things like landscape shots where things don’t change too quickly.

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    1. You might like the auto-overexpose button, since you are so often taking sewing pics inside! It looks like a little +/-. I think it might only work on the manual or semi-manual settings? It’s good tho!

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  6. Thanks for going through the effort of taking test shots of each mode. I learn way better by seeing the different modes and being able to compare them. I have a Nikon and I always stick to the auto – now if I can figure out where portrait mode is…

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  7. What a nice collection of reference pics! Until now, I’ve usually used auto mode with my dslr (although pretty much all of my pics this year were cell phone photos taken by my boyfriend…) but I will definitely try out portrait mode! I also got a 50 mm lens a while ago, after you wrote about using one. But my rooms are too small to use it for indoor pics…
    The aperture thing is really just basic physics. It’s how wide the shutter opens (the smaller the aperture, the wider the opening, if I remember correctly). A wider shutter means more light can get in, thus you can use a faster shutter time (good for low light). At the same time, because the opening is bigger, the “beams” of light from any single point of the object you’re photographing have a wider hole to get through, so instead of hitting the sensor in a sharp point, they disperse in a fuzzy circle. The lenses can make points a certain distance away come into focus, but the rest gets fuzzier (and the explanation for that unfortunately requires a set square and a mechanical pencil…😉.
    Can you tell that I wanted to be a physicist instead of a physician at one point when I was a kid?😉

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    1. Thank you for the physics lesson! i wish i could see your demo with the set square and pencil too!
      I have the same issue with my 50mm inside, too… it’s great for doing waist-up shots, but it can only do full length if I put it way down the hall!

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  8. I really like how your portrait setting looks. I always shoot in aperture mode. I usually get my husband to stand in so I can do all the settings then I swap with him to do the shoot. The easiest way to remember how to work aperture is the smaller the number the more blurry your background will be. I much prefer a blurry background because as you say it lets the focus be on the outfit. I also shoot with a 50mm lens which is great in low light. I am a fan of nice bright photos so I tend to do some editing on them on my laptop too before I post them.

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    1. I use a 50mm too – except during MMM, when I just want quick easy pictures and no chance that I’ll be totally blurry!😉 I like your partner system with your husband – good idea!

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  9. I’ve been shooting on program mode ‘no flash’ because I find my camera really wants to use the flash if it’s even a teeny bit dark. Like if it’s a bright day but I’m standing in the shade. I’m SURE there’s a way to change this but I haven’t gotten around to figuring it out – I really need to sit down with my manual and have a play, but I find it a bit intimidating, tbh.

    At least my auto settings do some of the focusing for me! With my old camera I only had a timer, and I had to set the focus myself, so there was a lot of running back and forth, and a lot of fuzzy shots!

    I photographed my most recent dress out and about. I never would have done it without this project, so thanks! I actually had a ball doing it, although I have another couple of projects I will blog soon that I just took in my yard, because of time limits. But even then I think the photos are better than they would have been without your encouragement!

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    1. My camera loves flash too! What’s with that?
      I think I was over on your blog commenting just about the time you were here commenting! I love reading your post about taking pics out and about – I’m glad to have given you a bit of a push and excuse to try!

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  10. Auto settings really are a friend to those of us who don’t know that much about photography. Thanks camera industry! Oh and I do dance around in front of the camera to try and get it to focus. Sometimes if I take 2 shots in the same position the second one will be in focus on me.

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    1. Oh that’s interesting! I wonder if mine focuses better that way too? I accidentally changed it off auto focus somehow recently, and coudln’t figure out why nothing was focusing… let’s not ask how long it took me to figure that one out, ok?

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  11. This is a really great post thank you, sooo useful to see the actual differences between the modes side by side like this. When I first read the post on my phone I really liked night portrait but looking again on a proper monitor I see what you mean about portrait being brighter. Though I generally take my photos with my phone these days as the camera on my phone is actually better than my two old cameras (16MP vs 10MP). I am obsessively looking at DSLRs online though…

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    1. I honestly didn’t think there’d be a difference in the settings – but there really is! Then again, I don’t understand how, as you say, the night settings can be so good in the day. Mysterious.
      For what it’s worth, my DSLR is at least 8 years old, and it’s very reliable. Buying used a good option! I know the newer ones are fancier, but if I don’t find out what I’m missing, then I don’t mind!😛

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    1. I’m glad you are enjoying it! There’s just so much info out there on photography – this is finally giving me the excuse to take time to understand it all!

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  12. This is a great post. I have the opposite problem. I never use all the modes on my camera. Absolutely no idea what they all do. I learnt to use an SLR on a very old one that was completely manual so it has just stuck with me when using my dSLR. I am sure that it does lots of fancy things but I am still so intimidated by the fact that it is not a film camera. Going to have to get my act in gear and get out for some photos. Xx

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    1. Oh, to have the problem of too much knowledge!😛 I remember watching my dad teacher my sister to shoot on his SLR when I was young, but since my dad is a techie, we had a good digital camera pretty early. It’s his DSLR that i use now – thankfully he’s moved on to iphone photography! Lucky me!
      DO you like the ritual of doing all the settings manually? Or would you enjoy making it easier?

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      1. I am a bit of a control freak so I quite like setting things up. I miss film photography if I am totally honest. Still I have so little time I would love to know how to speed things up a bit and still get some decent shots. Loving this series. Xx

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  13. What a handy experiment! We just got a new lens (50mm?) so, we were planning to focus on the aperture settings but, we’ll definitely have to try portrait and action now too, particularly if we’re in a hurry. Thanks for sharing!!🙂

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  14. You are certainly getting us to understand our cameras better and thankfully in a lot plainer English than the manuals. I really appreciated seeing the different modes you used, and the portrait does look very good.

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  15. This is very cool. The manual (or leaflet, I should say) that came with my Fuji point & shoot doesn’t explain how the different modes are different, just what they are used for. I tend to use the natural + flash setting , which takes two photos in the “natural” setting — one without flash, then one with. Which is really helpful with the self-timer because then I can tell when it’s safe to move. I like the natural setting because I find it’s brighter than the program or auto settings. I use the flash pictures sometimes, even outdoors because of a tip I read… I think on your blog a few years ago you were talking about taking good pictures. It brightens things up just a bit more but doesn’t look flashy, if you know what I mean.

    My camera also has portrait and baby settings. I should try these out. It also has a burst setting, but I’ve only used it once and now I can’t figure out where it is! I tend to look for interesting graffiti to pose in front of, but maybe I should try shooting down alleyways and stuff. Croft Street would be good for this.

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  16. What a cool comparison, and thanks for the hand sign explanation. When I saw the pic on Instagram, I was pretty sure you weren’t flashing gang signs, and yet…:D My Dad has worked with TV cameras professionally my whole life and non-professionally has always been a camera nut, so when I invested in my camera, he got me comfortable with manual. I love being able to adjust everything, and I recently switched to RAW because I realized that my Nikon has some handy RAW processing built in that cuts down my post production by a lot.

    I’d love to try the portrait modes though for my kids…it’s impossible to shoot manual for them moving targets that they be.

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  17. Great post! I should be trying different settings with my camera. I use a 50mm and change aperture to suit the lighting. I also prefer a blurred background…

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