Your digital camera comes equipped with an arsenal of automatic and semi-automatic modes designed to make your life as a photographer easier. Aside from the fully automatic mode, aperture priority mode, and shutter priority mode, your camera gives you a variety of scene-specific modes. Each mode has a specific purpose. You can easily switch between modes for portraits, landscapes, macro photography, sunset photography, and more. In this article, you’ll get a behind the scenes look at what your camera does when you work with one of its many automatic scene modes.
You may or may not know it, but most cameras have a pre-programmed landscape mode that sets everything up for perfect pictures of endless cornfields swaying in the breeze. You can usually get to it by turning your camera’s top dial to the little picture of a landscape, but it’s not the same for all cameras. With some point-and-shoot models, you have to access landscape mode from the main menu.
Landscape mode works by closing your camera’s aperture to a tiny hole, which is the same as increasing the F-number of your aperture. When your aperture is smaller, less light gets through it, but the light that does get through forms a sharper image. This is ideal for landscape photography because you ultimately want to see far and wide when you’re looking at a landscape photo. The added depth, due to the sharpness, invites your viewers right into the picture.
Do be careful when switching to landscape mode. Because your aperture is now more closed, your camera lets in less light. To compensate, your camera will sometimes dial down your shutter speed, and this can result in camera shake issues. Whenever I’m using landscape mode, I make sure to use a tripod of some sort - even if it means resting my camera on a surface nearby.
This mode is the exact opposite of landscape mode. It’s designed for taking pictures of faces and people. You can find it by locating the little picture of a face. Portrait mode works by opening up the aperture as much as your camera will allow, effectively blurring out the background and isolating your subject’s face.
With a more open aperture, your camera takes in more light, but your image is less sharp overall. That is to say, it has a shallower depth of field. This decrease in the depth of field makes the objects in front of or behind your subject appear blurry. This is rather nice thing when you’re trying to draw attention to someone’s face.
When you switch your camera to sports mode, it only cares about one thing, and that is freezing action. To freeze the action in front of you, your camera has to increase the shutter speed to a number somewhere near 1/500s (at the very least). As your camera does this, it sometimes opens the aperture to let in a little more light. You might not get as much depth of field, but whatever you’re focusing on will be sharp.
Sports mode isn’t just good for sports. I like to use it when I’m photographing fast cars, cliff jumping, fast moving animals, and anything that requires you to freeze action.
A lot of cameras also feature a pre-programmed macro scene mode that makes it easier to take pictures of bugs and flowers from a very up close and personal perspective. Macro mode can be accessed by finding the flower shaped icon, either on the top dial or in the main menu.
Macro mode works by changing the focusing distance on your camera’s lens. When you have a very close focusing distance, you can get right next to objects while keeping them in focus. This allows you to get a little more magnification out of your subjects.
In macro mode, your camera also tends to pick a wide open aperture, meaning you’ll have a depth of field that’s a little more shallow than what you’d get with portrait mode. Without much breathing room, you’ll probably need to use a tripod in your shoot because the slightest movement can render your subject out of focus.
This one is pretty fun when you’re out on the town with your friends or at a party. Night mode takes advantage of a technique known as slow sync flash. Here’s how it works. Your camera takes the picture using the flash, but it also keeps the shutter open a little longer to capture some of your surroundings. As a result, you get a kind of cool looking motion blur effect.
Night mode is by no means the best mode for taking serious night time pictures. To do that, you’ll want to learn about manual photography and long exposures. I’ve got a tutorial on that, and it’s also covered quite extensively in Digital Photography Secrets.
Some cameras have more scene modes than the ones I’ve listed here. There are scene modes for underwater photography, pictures of kids and dogs, snow, fireworks, beaches, indoor photography, fall foliage, sunsets, sunrises, and possibly more. I'll go into those further in a future tip.
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