This is the first in a series of articles by Andrew S Gibson, the author of Understanding EOS: A Beginner’s Guide to Canon EOS cameras.

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Your camera’s Mode Dial is the gateway to its exposure modes. Knowing which exposure mode to use, and why, is the key to creative photography, and to taking photos like the one above.

If you want to create beautiful images then you need to know how to control your camera’s settings. It all starts with your camera’s Mode Dial (not all cameras have a Mode Dial, but most do). Here’s what the Mode Dial from the EOS 650D (or Rebel X4i if you’re in North America) looks like. It’s fairly typical of many SLR cameras:

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As you can see, there are a lot of icons. This can be confusing, especially for newcomers to photography. If you’re new to using an SLR, then how do you know which mode to select?

Let’s start by looking at Full Auto. It’s depicted by the green A+ icon on the Mode Dial of the EOS 650D (the precise term for the fully automatic mode on this camera is Scene Intelligent Auto). With other camera brands the Full Auto mode is also clearly marked by using an icon of a different colour to the rest (Nikon uses green, Pentax and Sony blue).

Full Auto mode is aimed at photographers who don’t know how to use the camera’s more advanced controls. If you’ve just picked up a digital SLR for the first time you can set it to fully automatic and start taking photos even if you know nothing about photography.

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There are several other fully automatic modes on the EOS 650D’s Mode Dial (see above). Not all cameras have these modes (they are noticeably absent on many models aimed at semi-pro and professional photographers). They have names like portrait, landscape, close-up mode etc.

They are also aimed at photographers who don’t know how to use the more advanced controls on their camera. Their use is straightforward. If you’re taking a portrait, for example, then just set the camera to portrait mode. You don’t need to know anything about the camera or how it works to do this.

Fully automatic modes are very helpful for photographers that don’t know much about how their camera works. But they are too restrictive to be useful to creative photographers. On Canon EOS cameras, for example, you can’t change the white balance, Picture Style, autofocus mode or shoot in Raw in the fully automatic modes. Neither can you override the camera’s selected aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings. You can’t even use exposure compensation. You are locked into the settings the camera selects, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The fully automatic modes on other manufacturer’s cameras have similar restrictions.

The creative half of the Mode Dial

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Now, these are the modes that creative photographers are interested in! They are Program Auto Exposure (P), Aperture Priority (Av on Canon EOS cameras), Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon EOS cameras) and Manual (M).

I’m a great believer in keeping things simple. You’ll find the only exposure modes you need in this section of the Mode Dial.

If you’re new to photography, your task as a creative photographer is to move away from the fully automatic modes and start using Program, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority as soon as you can.

Once you’re comfortable with using these modes, you can also consider using Manual mode. There are some compelling reasons for doing so (I discussed them in another article here).

Let’s take a brief look at the benefits of Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes:

Program Auto Exposure (P)

Often overlooked, Program is a surprisingly useful exposure mode. It works like this: you set the ISO and the camera sets the shutter speed and aperture according to the reading from its built-in exposure meter.

Many cameras now also let you use Auto ISO. With Auto ISO activated, the camera also selects the ISO. You can usually restrict the upper (and sometimes the lower) end of the ISO range available to the camera so that it doesn’t set an ISO that is too high.

At first glance, Program seems nearly the same as Full Auto. But the differences are crucial. You retain full control over settings like image quality (ie Raw or JPEG), white balance and Picture Style. You can use exposure compensation to override the camera’s exposure settings. And if you don’t like the aperture/shutter speed combination selected by the camera, you can use Program Shift (that’s Canon’s term, check your manual if you have a different brand of camera) to nudge the selected settings one way or the other.

In other words, while the camera is in an automatic mode, you stay in control of the settings. This is crucial for creative photography.

This is the sort of photo you might take in Program mode. Neither the aperture nor the shutter speed are particularly important:

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The next two exposure modes really let you get creative:

Aperture Priority (Av)

I’m sure plenty of readers are already aware of the effect of aperture on the photo. For those of you who aren’t, here’s how it works. There are three approaches to using aperture:

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1. You use a wide aperture to take a photo with shallow depth-of-field. You know those beautiful portraits you’ve seen with the background completely out of focus? That’s the sort of thing you can achieve with a wide aperture. Some photographers buy prime lenses (which have wider maximum aperture settings than zoom lenses) just to take advantage of this characteristic. I created the above portrait with an 85mm lens set to f1.8.

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2. You use a small aperture to ensure that the entire scene is in focus from front to back. This is the opposite approach and one often used by landscape photographers who want everything within the scene to be rendered sharply. It’s the opposite to the first approach. I selected an aperture of f16 to create the above landscape image.

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2. You use a middle-of-the-road aperture, that is one somewhere in the middle of your lens’s aperture range, to create a photo where part or most of the scene is in focus. Parts of the background may be out of focus, even if you have to look closely to see it. This is the sort of approach you would take when you want the background to be recognisable, but it’s not important for it to be completely sharp. The above photo is a good example, taken with an aperture of f5.6.

Aperture Priority works very simply. You set the ISO and the aperture, and the camera sets the shutter speed required to give the correct exposure.

Shutter Priority (Tv)

You use Shutter Priority when you want to set a certain shutter speed to record any movement within the frame a certain way. Again there are three approaches:

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1. Set a fast shutter speed to freeze motion. This is what sports photographers do when they freeze the motion of athletes in mid-leap. I used a shutter speed of 1/2000 second for the above photo.

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2. Set a slow shutter speed to blur any movement within the scene. You would normally set the camera on a tripod to support it when you do this, although you can also use creative techniques like panning if you are hand-holding the camera. I used a shutter speed of 30 seconds and asked my model to stand still to create the photo above.

3. Set a middle-of-the-road shutter speed that freezes most motion and lets you take a photo free from camera shake. This is the typical approach that many photographers take most of the time. But exploring fast and slow shutter speeds is fun and creative.

Shutter Priority also works very simply. You set the ISO and the shutter speed, and the camera sets the aperture required to give the correct exposure.

Conclusion

There are only three modes you really need to use on your camera: Program Auto Exposure, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority (some of the others, such as Manual or Bulb mode, will come in useful as your skills develop). But as for the fully automatic modes on your camera, it’s best to forget about them completely. They will hold you back, and prevent you from getting the full potential out of your camera.

This article is the second in a series. The next one will take a close-up look at your camera’s colour and contrast controls.

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Understanding EOS

Andrew S Gibson is the author of Understanding EOS: A Beginner’s Guide to Canon EOS cameras. The use of the Mode Dial is one of the topics discussed in-depth within the ebook.