Choosing Exposure Mode

Choosing exposure mode with your camera gear is a decision that all photographers face. Like most things photographic, there are different opinions about which exposure mode to use. This article discusses some of the basics about choosing exposure mode.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-160

Most cameras have four basic exposure modes that can be selected: P (Program), A (Aperture Priority), S (Shutter Priority) and M (Manual). Let’s have a look at each of these modes.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 42 mm, efov 113.4 mm, f/8, 1/50, ISO-160

P – Program

Program is a fully automatic mode. When we choose the P (Program) mode we give exposure control to our camera. It decides which aperture and shutter speed to use to obtain a proper exposure for our image. If your camera has very accurate metering, using its Program mode may give you very good results.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 23 mm, efov 62.1 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-400

Many photographers, especially when starting out, find this exposure mode to be a good choice as it allows them to concentrate on composing their images, while not worrying much about exposure.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-160

On the positive side, using P (Program) can help avoid major exposure blunders with images. The downside is that using this fully automatic mode can reduce the opportunity for a photographer to learn and fully understand the impact of aperture and shutter settings on their photographs. Having said that, some cameras do provide ways for a photographer to easily intervene as needed with program settings.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 24 mm, efov 64.8 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-160

A – Aperture Priority

When using A (Aperture Priority) a photographer takes control of the aperture setting that will be used for their photographs. This can be important from a creative perspective as aperture is one of the key factors with depth-of-field. Depending on a camera’s sensor size and its pixel density, controlling the aperture setting can help avoid the image softening effects of diffraction.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO-160

Aperture Priority is a semi-automatic mode as your camera decides which shutter speed will be used. When using this mode it is important to always check your shutter speed before capturing your image. This helps ensure that the shutter speed selected by your camera is appropriate for the amount of subject movement.  For example, on a windy day your landscape images may require a faster shutter speed to deal with moving foliage.

Belvedere House Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 13 mm, efov 35 mm, f/5.6, 0.8 seconds, ISO-3200

Using Aperture Priority when shooting handheld indoors can also be problematic at times. If you forget to check the shutter speed that your camera has automatically selected your may end up with blurry photographs. This can happen if your camera chooses a shutter speed that is slower than your handheld capability.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 4.2 metres

S – Shutter Priority

When capturing images of moving subjects photographers will often use Shutter Priority so they can avoid subject motion blur. Shutter Priority is also a semi-automatic setting as your camera decides which aperture will be used to obtain the proper exposure for your image.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 46 mm, efov 124.2 mm, f/9, 1/500, ISO-400

Depending on the creative intent that a photographer has with a specific image, the aperture automatically selected by their camera when using Shutter Priority mode may not be optimal. So, it is always prudent to check the aperture setting when using Shutter Priority.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-3200

M – Manual

Using Manual mode gives a photographer the most direct control over the exposure of their images. It allows a photographer to choose both shutter speed and aperture settings.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300mm, efov 600mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H Mode, subject distance 8.2 metres

Having a good understanding of the impact of shutter speed and aperture settings on an image is required to use this mode effectively. When using Manual mode many photographers will do so in conjunction with a live histogram, exposure compensation, and exposure warnings from their camera. Some photographers use an Auto-ISO range when using Manual mode. Others like to set their ISO manually as well as their exposure settings.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 83 mm, efov 224.1 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, extension tube used

Which exposure mode is best?

The best exposure mode to use is the one that most consistently enables a photographer to achieve proper exposures with their images. There is no one ‘best exposure mode’ that applies to all photographers.

The choice of exposure mode can sometimes be impacted by the ease with which external body controls can be used to fine tune exposure settings.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 75 mm, efov 202.5 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-400

Some photographers use more than one exposure mode, often choosing different modes depending on subject matter. Other folks consistently use one, preferred exposure mode. The key is to find the mode that best suits your shooting style and consistently produces properly exposed photographs for you. This is a personal decision that transcends “should use” advice you may hear from other photographers.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Image were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-160

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4 thoughts on “Choosing Exposure Mode”

  1. PS. I love your shot (2nd last, above) of the red/green geometric pattern; so simple and symmetric … eye-catching.

  2. Hi again, Tom … Picking up on our earlier conversation;

    Program mode can be used as a fully-automatic mode (which, I guess, is why OM-D EM-1 models newer than the Mk.ii no longer have an Auto option on the Mode dial) …

    … BUT, when used with Program-SHIFT it’s actually a nifty combination of both Aperture Priority AND Shutter Speed Priority modes – in which case, just like for the A & S modes, it becomes a semi-automatic mode.

    As you explain above;
    – In Shutter Priority mode the photographer sets the shutter-speed and camera logic determines the appropriate aperture setting for the exposure.
    – The opposite logic applies for Aperture Priority mode; the photographer sets the aperture and camera logic determines the shutter speed setting.

    Program mode is a combination of Shutter & Aperture priority:
    – Initially, camera logic assigns both the shutter-speed AND aperture settings for the exposure … and if the photographer proceeds with these settings then he/she is taking advantage of the camera’s automatic capabilities.
    – However, one can also consider those initial settings as simply **suggested combinations of shutter-speed and aperture** for the exposure … and one can then use Program-Shift to switch emphasis to either Shutter-Priority OR Aperture-Priority;
    — Rolling the Rear Dial (on an OM-D EM-1, in standard configuration) will move thru all the different combinations of Shutter-Speed & Aperture for the *same exposure setting*.

    *** So, if one’s intention is to achieve a specific aperture setting then all one has to do is roll the Rear Dial until that aperture setting appears, and voila! it will be associated with the appropriate shutter speed setting for the exposure (just like in Aperture priority mode).

    *** Similarly, if one’s intention is to achieve a specific shutter setting then all one has to do is roll the Rear Dial until that shutter speed appears – and beside it will be the appropriate aperture setting for the exposure (just like in Shutter priority mode).

    I’ve experimented quite a bit with all modes, and I find Program-SHIFT to be preferable to Manual mode – as it means I can use a consistent method to get automatic assistance when I need it (when I don’t have time to think about camera settings, or when I’m just being lazy !) OR I can quickly and easily take control over shutter/aperture settings when I want/need to do so … via Program-SHIFT.

    Regards, John TKA

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for taking the time to explain your experimentation using the Program-SHIFT feature… it certainly appears that this exposure mode suits your style of photography very well!


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