Your Camera's Settings: P mode :: Digital Photo Secrets
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Your Camera's Settings: P mode

by David Peterson 15 comments

Do you own a digital SLR and wonder what its “P” mode does? If you’ve been using automatic settings your entire life, and you aren’t quite ready to learn everything you need to know about manual photography, this mode will come in handy. Your camera’s “P” mode has a lot to teach you. In this article, we’ll show you why.


In Automatic mode, (usually marked with a green rectangle) your camera chooses all your camera's settings. The “P” in P mode stands for Programmed Automatic. It’s a shooting mode that’s halfway between automatic and manual. When you shoot in P mode, you only get to control a few settings. You can choose whether to use flash or not, your ISO speed, exposure compensation and white balance. Your camera will adjust the other settings to make sure your image is correctly exposed. Don’t worry if you don’t know what some these are yet. We’ll explain them as we go along.

Use P mode to learn which shooting settings your camera automatically picks

When you’re in P mode, your camera will show you which aperture and shutter speed settings it has decided to use for your picture. This can be really helpful when you don’t know much about manual settings. Instead of guessing which aperture and shutter combination will work in manual mode, you can shoot in P mode for a little while, take some notes, and then use the same settings in manual mode. You’ll get the same picture!

When in P mode, your camera won’t always “guess” the right combination to get exactly what you want, but it’s definitely a nice starting point. Once you switch over to manual mode, you can make some tiny adjustments to get the picture you want. Work from your starting point and keep experimenting until you get an image you like.

Remember that as you increase you shutter speed, the image will get darker. As you decrease your shutter speed, the image will get brighter and possibly more blurry. Your aperture controls how much light gets into your camera. When it’s low, you’re letting in a lot of light, and most of your scene will be out of focus. When it’s high, you’re letting in less light, and your scene will be mostly in focus.

P is a great intermediate step

P mode has a few settings that give you a little more control than automatic mode. You can adjust what is known as the exposure compensation. What exactly does this do? In a nutshell, your camera makes your images brighter or darker by adjusting the aperture and shutter speed for you. All you need to is give it an exposure compensation value.

Start off by switching to P mode and taking a picture of something you see. Next, look at the picture on your LCD and determine whether it’s too bright or too dark. If it’s fine, keep it. But if it isn’t quite right, it’s time to adjust your exposure compensation.

You can change your exposure compensation on most SLRs by holding down the (+/-) button on the top and sliding the dial on the back to the left or right. These instructions might not hold for all digital cameras, but it’s a sure bet for most of them. If you don’t know how to adjust your exposure compensation, just look it up in your manual.


EV -2

EV -1

EV 0
Normal Exposure

EV +1

EV +2

As you can expect, an increase in exposure compensation will give you a brighter picture, and a decrease will give you a darker picture. Keep playing with these setting and taking pictures until you like what you see. All the while, continue to pay attention to the way a change in the exposure compensation will change the aperture and shutter speeds the camera automatically picks. Now you’re learning how to take pictures with the ultimate goal - manual mode!

P mode also lets you adjust your camera’s ISO speed

Sometimes there just isn't enough light in a scene. Usually this is because you're shooting at night, or indoors with low light. When you’re shooting in P mode, you will sometimes encounter these situations and you want a brighter image without resorting to the use of a flash. There’s nothing wrong with using your camera’s onboard flash in moderation, but it often overpowers everything else in the image and makes your subjects a lot less colorful.

Thankfully, you can increase the brightness images by increasing your camera’s ISO speed. To do this, switch over to P mode and go to your camera’s main menu. From there, you can pick a higher ISO setting (larger number) that will make your images brighter.

Don’t go overboard and pick the largest ISO possible. Subtlety is key. Your camera’s ISO speed controls the rate at which your sensor picks up the light information it gets from your lens. If you increase it too much, your images will start to look grainy. Keep experimenting. What I do is increase it by one setting position each photo until I get an image I like. I almost never use the highest ISO setting, as it produces a very grainy image (called noise) on my camera.

So, if you haven’t strayed from automatic mode just yet, P mode could serve as a bridge to bigger and better things. This is the time to start paying attention to your camera’s shutter speed and aperture settings. That way, you’ll move into manual mode knowing exactly where to start.

Do you like P mode? Have you found it particularly useful in certain situations? I want to know! Leave a comment or send me an email with your story. Or take part in this week's Photography Challenge all about P mode.

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Comments

  1. Nick English says:

    Great write-up on P mode, which is a valuable mode to have available and at your finger-tips in SOME situations where you dont have time to manually work it out yourself

  2. Steve B says:

    Hi David:

    Very interesting info as it relates to using the 'program' mode. One should always bear in mind that the bigger the number for the EV, the slower the shutter speed. This is nature, so as to allow more light in.
    However, one of the important thing that one should not forget is that because of the slow opening and closing of the shutter, it makes it vulnerable to produce a blur photo. Which of course, would defeat the whole purpose.

    Therefore, if possible, a tripod may become handy at this point. Failing that, one may have to seek support from a wall or some other stationery object so as to minimize possible jerk or shake of hands while shooting.

    Steve.

  3. Jim says:

    I have used the "P" mode setting to help with my learning of Manual settings. I use P mode to see what the camera would use for shutter and aperture and then go to manual and use the settings as a starting point to see if it gives me what I want.

  4. John D says:

    Turning my Canon DSLR to P mode and pressing the shutter button have way the camera doesn't appear to be focusing on the subject, are we for going auto focus in the mode?

    • Jim says:

      You might be set up for back button focusing.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi John,

      You might have disabled the 'half press to focus' function on your DSLR camera. I have a Canon DSLR and the focus definitely still works when I half press in P mode.

      David.

  5. Philip says:

    On Pentax DSLR cameras with two control dials, P-Mode is amazingly flexible - the camera is effectively in an auto mode, so it is always ready for that unexpected instant grab shot, or it is fully controllable when you include use of the +/- and ISO buttons. In P-Mode, adjusting the aperture dial instantly puts the camera in Av-Mode, so the camera adjusts the shutter speed. Similarly, in P-Mode, adjusting the shutter speed dial instantly puts the camera in Tv-Mode, so the camera adjusts the aperture. Pressing the green button instantly returns to P-Mode.

  6. Ken says:

    Man I am so dumb. I try to avoid using a flash so when I'm taking pictures indoors I've been changing the ISO to the highest setting. Then I get grainy pictures and wonder why I waste my time trying. Thanks for the tips... I can't wait to try P mode.

  7. Neville says:

    IF YOU ARE IN MANUAL MODE AND HAVE SELECTED A F-STOP AND SHUTTER SPEED, THEN INCREASING THE ISO WILL RESULT IN THE BRIGHTNESS INCREASING. OR DECREASING THE ISO WILL DECREASE THE BRIGHTNESS. ALL THIS IF THE SHUTTER SPEED AND THE F-STOP REMAIN CONSTANT. THIS IS WHAT THE ABOVE TEACHER WAS GETTING AT EXCEPT HE WASN'T CLEAR. THE ISO IS USUALLY INCREASED OR DECREASED SO YOU CAN SELECT A, LETS SAY, BETTER SHUTTER SPEED AND/OR F-STOP TO SUIT YOUR PHOTO YOU'RE BUSY WITH. IN P-MODE WHEN THE ISO IS SAY INCREASED, THE CAMERA WILL AUTOMATICALLY SELECT A FASTER SHUTTER SPEED OR HIGHER F-STOP NUMBER BECAUSE OF THE SUBSEQUENT INCREASE OF BRIGHTNESS.

  8. David Peterson says:

    Davelaw,

    Yes, you can minimize noise by reducing the ISO setting, but as you have found, that leads to other problems with a slower shutter speed. I talk about a few ways to reduce noise (have your cake and eat it too) in my Noise bonus to Digital Photo Secrets.

    David.

  9. DaveLaw says:

    I've got a Canon 20D and like taking Steam Trains.In the winter and these dull cloudy evenings I try and get as much depth of field as possible, but going up to the 1600 ISO does fuzzz things. Is there an easy solution?

    • Jim says:

      Dave, sometimes easy fix is costly, what I mean is a faster lens. You don't say if you use a tri/monopod or not. This might help you lower the ISO.

  10. Aldis says:

    A short response to Roger.

    In Latvian we use the saying to scratch the right ear with the left foot: there is no need to play with P mode and ISO in order to achieve the right F stop, as beyond P mode there is also Aperture priority (or called whatever in any particular make): set the one you desire, then check what the camera is going to do about the rest of the parameters.
    But regarding the changing of ISO setting: yes, indeed, making the image brighter or darker actually depends upon the exposure compensation, while higher ISO only allows for shorter exposure with the same results.
    Every word about that graininess is true. But also in the days of yore (film, that is) the benefits of higher speed brought the same malady with them... Loved using DIN 18, but had to use ISO 400 and higher as well. And there is a notable difference...

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