What is program mode and how do you use it? :: Digital Photo Secrets

What is program mode and how do you use it?

by David Peterson 16 comments

Unless you exclusively shoot landscapes and still-lifes, you know that photography is an art of capturing life in motion. People are always moving - their faces change expression, their interest shifts from one part of a scene to another, they walk away, they run off or they simply stop being interesting. If you're going to capture that once-in-a-lifetime moment, you need to be quick. And for many of us, that means there just isn't enough time to mess around with dials and settings.

Contrary to popular belief, though, you don't need to go fully automatic to achieve that faster-than-mere-mortals ability to capture the moment as it happens. Fortunately, modern camera manufacturers give us a range of settings to choose from, from auto to full manual and several in between. But when should you make that switch from auto and what mode should you try first?

Once you feel comfortable with your camera, you might start to notice that you're not always happy with the photos that your camera produces when shooting in auto mode. You may find, for example, that your images are inexplicably noisy, a result of your camera choosing a higher ISO than you would have chosen if you'd had the option. You may even decide that you'd like to shoot photos with a shallow depth of field, but your camera is always opting for that larger f-stop number, which leaves far too much of the background in focus. But still, you don't want to go fully manual for fear of spending more time tweaking dials than shooting photos.

If this is you, try switching to "program" or "P" mode before venturing into the world of manual mode. Depending on your camera, this will give you a few or more basic controls without requiring you to adjust your dials before every shot.

What does program mode do?

The program setting on most cameras allows you to do at least four basic things:

  1. It gives you control over your flash. This is an important one, because even in low light, as a general rule, flash should be used sparingly, and only when all else fails. In bright, direct light, flash can also be useful for filling in shadows, which is not something that your auto mode will generally do for you. So it's good to have the option of choosing or denying flash for specific situations, rather than relying on your camera to make that choice for you. Program mode will also let you choose the type of flash (like rear curtain, red-eye reduction. See all flash modes)

  1. You can set the ISO manually. ISO is an industry standard that originally referred to film sensitivity, but now simply refers to the digital equivalent of overall light sensitivity. The higher the number, the more sensitive your camera will be to light, which will allow you to take photographs in progressively darker situations. A side effect of ISO is noise. With most cameras, noise doesn't become obvious until you get into higher settings like 1600. Your won't see noise on DSLRs until you use 3200 or 6400 ISO. My recommendation is, if you need to set your ISO high, to set it no higher than the second highest setting your camera will allow. That gives a compromise between noise and light sensitivity.

In auto mode, you may find that your camera is choosing a higher ISO instead of a slower shutter speed or wider aperture, and that might add unwanted noise to your image. Program mode gives you the flexibility to avoid this problem. And yes, dear camera, sometimes I may actually want to capture motion blur - in a fully automatic mode you can almost never do this, because the camera will automatically bump up the ISO to avoid that dreaded motion-blur-inducing slow shutter speed.

  1. It allows you to select exposure compensation. Exposure compensation is a function that allows you to overexpose or underexpose a shot by a certain amount, depending on your shooting situation. There are multiple reasons why you may want to do this, not the least of which is that your camera's meter isn't necessarily always going to get things right. In a situation where you are repeatedly getting over or underexposed shots, you may want to add or subtract a half stop or more with exposure compensation to improve your images. You may also need exposure compensation when shooting in the snow when the excessive light fools your camera sensor.

  1. It allows you to adjust white balance. Have you ever shot an image indoors and then discovered that it has a strange yellow or orange cast? This problem is associated with your white balance. Tungsten (indoor) lighting such as that provided by standard blubs (vs flourescent) and other forms of manmade light such as candlelight have an orange cast that we don't really notice with our eyes, but becomes painfully obvious in photographs. Most cameras do an OK job of adjusting white balance automatically, but in certain situations you may want to change this setting manually, especially if your camera seems to be getting it wrong with a fair amount of consistency.

Some cameras provide additional control in program mode, including the ability to adjust shutter speed or aperture. The beauty of this setting is that you can select from different shutter speed/aperture combinations that your meter has determined are correct for the lighting situation, and that can mean either choosing an aperture to give you greater control over depth of field, or selecting a shutter speed to give you the flexibility to freeze action or capture motion blur, depending on what you think works best for the situation. This ability almost makes the aperture and shutter priority modes seem obsolete.

Some photographers, especially those who learned their art with those old completely manual film cameras, are particularly adept at changing camera settings on the fly, focusing manually and still coming out on the other end with a handful of great shots. But today we have some amazing technology available to us that makes this unnecessary, so why not use all the tools in our DSLR arsenal to virtually guarantee that we get good images? And who knows, even as an amateur or hobby photographer, you may actually end up with some great shots yourself!

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Wayne Leary says:

    Well written and explained. Thanks

  2. Robin H says:

    Thanks for the P mode tips. planning on using it this weekend to try it out before my Christmas shoots.

  3. Marina Rutter says:

    Thanks for the article, as well as all the comments. I am also going to leave my camera on P mode - for the whole wedding shoot next week -

  4. Ridder says:

    I use P-mode at weddings, well most of the time..

  5. Skeet says:

    Thank you much for the succinct and clear explanations to options. I was a university professor in a neurologically complicated field for 45 years and found that KISS fills the bill much better than the teacher showing off with big words. Comprehension of new technique or concept is exhilarating and greases the skids for more learning. I love what I am learning and thank you for sharing your skill and knowledge simply and clearly. Out of here - it is the "MAJIC HOUR" of dusk in Louisiana. Skeet (PhD)

  6. Noel says:

    This is another reason why I should explore the program mode. Thank you for the practical tips.

  7. Nola Leonard says:

    I leave my camera set on "P" most of the time. This I fine is the best seeting when I have to take photos of shootrs and it can be 1-4 people in the photos. And they came out well for reprint in the national magazine I have to send to.

    Thanks for all your infro.



  8. martin faley says:

    Just like to thankyou for all the advice u have given so for and for putting in simple and easy to understand wording keep up the good advice

  9. JP Belanger says:

    Excellent! I use a D300s which does not have a Auto mode. I keep my camera in P mode becauseI do not want to miss a shot on something spontaneous.

  10. Brian says:

    Great tips. Yes shooting indoor getting the white balance right is a challenge .

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.