Getting to Know Your Camera

I'm going to start our series with an overview of the PASM settings and what you can/cannot control in each setting.  In "Auto" mode, most settings are preselected by the camera, giving you little control over exposure or any creative elements of the image.  So, on a spectrum of control, Auto is at one end - giving the camera almost complete control; and Manual ("M") is at the other end - giving you complete control.   The "P", "A", and "S" modes are in the middle of the spectrum.  So, why not shoot in Auto?  Doesn't the camera know what it's doing?  Well, the camera is like a computer - it is programmed to take a set of circumstances that it can detect and calculate what it thinks is the best exposure for those circumstances.  But, the camera doesn't have a brain, and therefore, it lacks creativity.  It cannot see that you are shooting a bride in front of a window and you want her to be very back-lit; what the camera sees is that you have a ton of light that needs dimmed to yield what it thinks will be the proper exposure.  So, let's talk about the different settings, and what control each gives the photographer.  Keep in mind that if there are terms you are unfamiliar with (i.e. ISO, white balance, etc), those will be covered in future posts.

"P" - Program Mode   Program mode is the setting that is most related to Auto.  The camera still chooses the aperture and shutter speed based on what it thinks will be the best result.  However, you can now change the ISO setting (which is how much light the camera can detect), the focus mode, and white balance.  Many cameras will also have other creative settings that can be changed in this mode.  My camera (Sony Alpha 500) has settings for color (standard, vivid, etc), and within these settings, you can change the amount of contrast, saturation, and sharpness.  In Auto mode, these settings cannot be changed by me, but in Program mode, they can.  You can also use a handy dandy setting called "exposure compensation".  Let's say you snap a picture, and it is darker than what you would like it to be.  Turn your exposure compensation up, and the camera will adjust the shutter speed and/or aperture setting to attempt to give you the brighter picture you are looking to get.  Program mode also adds the "flash compensation" feature.   This feature makes your flash more or less effective, depending on where you set it.  Both exposure compensation and flash compensation are changed in 1/3 increments (+0.3, +0.7, +1.0, -0.3, -0.7, etc).  0 (zero) is what the camera thinks is perfect.  You can also change the metering mode and focus area (these will be covered in future posts).  So, Program mode definitely hands over more control to you, the photographer, than Auto mode does.

"A" - Aperture Priority Mode (If you shoot with a Canon, you will be looking for "Av" on the dial for Aperture Value) This mode allows you to control the aperture (or f-stop) setting, along with all of the settings you can control and change in Program mode.  The camera still controls the shutter speed; it takes the aperture you set and sets the shutter speed according to what it thinks will give you the proper exposure.  The aperture is the opening of the lens.  Here's the tricky thing that you have to wrap your mind around:  A smaller f-number (f/1.7) means a bigger lens opening.  A larger f-number (f/13) is actually a smaller lens opening.  Aperture will be covered in more depth soon.  It is an important concept because aperture affects how much light is allowed into the camera, and it also affects your depth of field. 

"S" - Shutter Speed Priority Mode (If you shoot with a Canon, you will be looking for "Tv" on the dial for "Time Value")  This mode allows you to control the shutter speed along with all of the settings you can control in Program mode.  The camera controls the aperture setting.  The shutter speed is how fast the camera opens and closes it's shutter to take a picture.  This is another aspect that will have it's own post in the future.  Shutter speed affects how much light is allowed into the camera, and it also affects how well motion is frozen or not frozen.  You may have heard the term "high speed photography" - shutter speed is what they are referring to.

"M" - Manual Mode  In manual mode, all of the control is yours!  You set the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, etc to the values that YOU think will produce the best image.  Another difference is that the "exposure compensation" setting does not work in manual mode.  The camera doesn't have a way to change to aperture or shutter speed to do that work for you if you are in complete control of both settings.  So, if you want a brighter picture, instead of turning up the exposure compensation, you change the aperture or shutter speed settings to give yourself the desired result.  Many people are afraid to shoot in Manual mode, but it just takes some knowledge and practice.  After you get used to Manual, you will likely never go back.

After a quick overview of the PASM settings, I hope this post has giving you an idea of what control you have in each setting.  I think it's important to know what each one does, and to try shooting in each.  If you have never changed your dial from Auto, I would give Program mode a try first.  Change the dial to "P", and go shoot something.  Then turn your exposure compensation up or down to see what it does.  You can also play with your flash compensation.  In the next Getting to Know Your Camera post, I will go over exposure - what it is and how it is affected.
Happy Shooting and Playing!!

Guest blogger is Corrine Corbett of Timeless Blessings, is a stay at home mom and photographer wielding a Sony Alpha 500. As a guest blogger she hopes to teach you all things that will take the frustration out of photography and leave you more and more satisfied with your art. Her current eye candy comes from Morgan Kervin, Denise McCabe and Isabelle LaFrance
"I have learned so much from other photog bloggers out there.
I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to pay it forward with anything that I learn! :)"


  1. I shoot in AV mode on my Canon... my hubby constantly turns it to M & I get so frustrated. I really need to learn how to shoot in manual mode, but AV is what I was shown when I took a photography class. :-\ Thank you for the tips! I look forward to future posts! :-)

  2. Thank you so much for blogging about this topic-great article!

  3. I LOVE the way you Teach!! NOW...I can understand!! Thank You!


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