Photography: What does that setting do?

Jay Town
7 November, 2011
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So you’ve bought yourself a digital compact camera, and it’s going great.

Straight out of the box you charged it up, turned it on and every time the button was pushed, you got a result that you were mostly happy with. Well, now it’s time to get even happier.


By default, most cameras are set to Auto. This is generally represented either by the word ‘Auto’ or a little symbol of a camera.

Auto does everything for you. It selects the shutter speed, the aperture, sometimes the ISO (depending on the brand of camera) and decides whether you need flash or not. It’s not called ‘idiot-proof’ (and occasionally drunk- proof) for nothing.

The first thing we need to do, to get the camera to do what we want, is to select another exposure mode. There are usually three other modes (and sometimes a fourth) to choose from.


The first one to try, if you are a little unsure, is the Program mode. This
is represented by a ‘P’ on the dial. Program, like Auto, selects the shutter speed and the aperture for you, but unlike Auto, it also lets you change the values to suit your creative needs.

It allows us to change shutter speed or aperture, while retaining a correct exposure. If you increase the shutter speed, then the aperture will open up to allow more light in to compensate for the shorter shutter duration. If you close the aperture, then the opposite will occur.

Either method will result in the same exposure, but the effects will be different.

The other advantage that Program has over Auto is in flash control. By changing to Program, you will notice that your flash options have increased.

In Auto, you can usually have your flash on or off, but that’s it. And with some cameras you don’t even have that choice. In program, you can stop the flash from firing, even in low light. You can tell the flash to fire in slow sync mode, and you can turn red-eye reduction on or off.


Moving around the dial, we can try out our next option, Aperture Priority. This is represented by an ‘A’.

In this mode, you select the Aperture that you wish the camera to use, and it automatically selects the shutter speed. You would use this whenever you want to have total control over depth of field (the distance between the closest and furthest sharp objects).

For a travel photo, you might wish for the flowers in the field near you to be sharp as well as the Alps towering overhead. For this you would choose a narrow aperture (which is actually represented by a higher number) to get maximum depth of field.

On the other hand, for a portrait, where you did not want the background detail to distract from the subject, you would choose a wide aperture so that only your subject was sharp.


The next mode on our dial is Shutter Priority, or ‘S’ on the dial. This does exactly the opposite of Aperture Priority. By choosing the required shutter speed, you allow the camera to choose the correct aperture. This is really useful for subjects where it is important to freeze motion, such as sports. It is also useful for those times that you want to pan with your subject to accentuate their motion.


The fourth mode, if you are lucky enough to have it, is Manual. This is represented by an ‘M’ on the dial. The Manual setting is usually only found on top-end compact cameras, and can be a bit tricky to master.

In Manual mode, you are making all the decisions and the camera is making none. You will have a light reading to guide you, and you had better pay attention to it, or you’ll end up with pictures looking like snow or midnight.

The beauty of Manual is that you can really let your creative juices flow. You can deliberately under-expose a subject against a sky to get a striking silhouette or, in the same scene, you could overexpose the sky to get detail back in the subjects in the foreground.

Turn Auto off. For this photo of his kid Fox being swung around, Jay Town selected a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second and put the flash on slow sync.

Unfortunately, most manual controls are tricky to use on a compact camera. Most brands opt for a push-button method to change both shutter speed and aperture, but there are couple of top-end models that have actually retained a ring around the lens to control aperture.

Have a play with each of these modes and see what you can accomplish. By playing around with the amount of light and the method of delivery, you can achieve some outstanding results. And once you have been playing around with the other modes for a while, you might as well forget that Auto is there … you’ll never use it.

Jay Town is Pictorial Editor of Melbourne’s Sunday Herald Sun.


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