P is for Program Mode :: Digital Photo Secrets

P is for Program Mode

by David Peterson 4 comments

Are you stuck shooting solely in auto mode? You have a sophisticated DSLR, but you are working on auto, letting your camera make all of the decisions for you. Besides choosing and framing your subject, you have no control over any of the elements that can make your pictures better or add an artistic flair. It is time to branch out! If you check out your dial, you will most likely see M, A, S, and P. At this point, a great first step is to turn the dial to P and explore the new world that opens up when shooting in program mode. Program mode refers to programmed exposure or programmed auto, and it is a great place to learn. It is not the same as auto! Your camera still makes critical decisions for you, but you have control over ISO, white balance, and flash. I will explain how you can ease into using more of the incredible features your camera has to offer!

Program Mode: Flash

When you shoot in auto mode, your flash will automatically pop up and fire in any low light situation. This can be a problem! Maybe you are in a museum or some other setting where flash photography is not allowed. Maybe you want to take low light pictures of people indoors and get a good result. When you are taking indoor photos of people in lower light situations, your flash will pop up resulting in harsh, unflattering light on your subject and a dark, obscured background. If you are in program mode, your camera will warn you that a flash is needed—look for a frantically blinking flash symbol, but it will not pop up on its own. I will explain in the next section how you can avoid using the flash in low light situations and take a better picture.

The other scenario involving flash is that you may want to use it when your camera does not think it is needed. If you go outside in the middle of the day to photograph someone standing on the beach, your camera would never call for the flash in auto mode. In this case though, the flash is just what you need to make the photo better. Have you ever noticed how harsh the midday light is and how your subjects have dark, unflattering circles under their eyes? Intentionally using your flash can reduce or eliminate this problem. So set your dial to P mode, frame your subject, manually pop up the flash, and shoot! The fill light created by the flash will eliminate shadows from the subject’s face and may add a beautiful catchlight to their eyes.

The photo below was taken in bright light, but the woman’s face is evenly well lit. The brim of her hat is not casting dark shadows on her face. Intentionally using your pop up flash under similar conditions can help you achieve this result. If you are shooting in auto your flash will not pop up, so switch to P and manually pop it up.

Program Mode: ISO

In the last section, I mentioned the bad results you often get when using a flash to photograph people indoors. If you shoot in P mode, you have an alternative in this situation. In P mode, your camera is still calculating the aperture and shutter speed. They are the factors that determine how much light gets into your camera, but you can change the ISO. ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. Low ISO is “slow” and is appropriate for conditions where plenty of light is available. Higher ISO settings are used in lower light conditions where faster shutter speeds are necessary to get a sharp picture.

In order to take a flashless photo indoors, your ISO may need bumping up. This allows you to get a faster shutter speed and clearer picture in the same available light—without the flash and its unflattering effects. Bump it up to at least 800 and try a shot. If the result is blurry, you need to bump it up more to get a faster shutter speed. Beware though that the higher you go, the more digital “noise” (colored speckles) you introduce into your picture. Noise can be reduced in post processing.

To obtain a soft, beautiful picture in a low light situation like the one below try shooting in P mode with a higher ISO setting. You will have to determine whether taking a flashless picture is worth the noise tradeoff.

You can also increase the ISO in other situations. This technique is useful when trying to photograph indoor sports in low light. You can bump up the ISO to "freeze" the action with a higher shutter speed. You may actually be able to take a good photo of that pee wee basketball game after all! In a gym setting, you will often find color casting is a big issue so read on to see how to adjust your white balance in P mode.

Program Mode: White Balance

White balance is what determines the color temperature of your photo—whether it is cool (more blue) or warmer (more yellow). You have probably noticed that indoor tungsten bulbs, bright sun, cloudy skies, etc. produce different colors of light. Your camera will automatically adjust the white balance for you, and it usually does a good job. If you have ever taken photos where your children look more like Smurfs than kids, you are experiencing white balance issues! If you are noticing strange color casts in your photos then shooting in P mode allows you to change this. Again, consult your manual but you should see a WB button on the back of your camera. You can press and hold it while turning the command dial to change the WB settings. You will likely see a picture representing different kinds of light situations: sun, clouds, light bulb, etc. You choose what is appropriate for your location, and you can achieve pictures where white is white and no color casting is present.

Hopefully your eyes have been opened to the advantages of shooting in P mode! This is a great stepping stone to taking even more control with S, A, and eventually M modes. You will love the increased options but still leave some of the technical decisions to your camera. This is a great leap towards actually using all of those cool functions your camera offers!

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  1. Debbie adams says:

    Hi dave, I am going into hockey season and am constantly fighting the bad lights what should I use? I shoot manual mostly f-1000 ISo depending... Should I try your p mode? What are the best settings for under the lights as well? I'm on TV ,auto,f-1000 but what should I use for lighting tungsten,awb? It's so hard to get the best pictures. I'm not a pro obviously just Hs,ms,for my kids fhockey,hockey teams.
    My camera is,70d canon. I have 100-400 canon,as well as a 70&200 2.8 canon.
    Sorry for multiple questions.
    Thanks so much in advance

  2. Tsebo says:

    Thanks a million for this tip Dave!!! I've been finding it particularly challenging in balancing the aperture and shutter speed in manual mode, P mode significantly assists in this regard and helps you gain more control. Fantastic!!!!

  3. Karen says:

    You are so awesome. You explain it plain English which helps me so due to how I learn. Thank you so much.

    Happy Shooting

  4. Rusty says:

    Hi I really enjoy your photo tips and often refer to them more than once. Especially as I am a relatively new user of a DSLR. I have just bought Paintshop pro and am enjoying it tremendously although some of the instructions are not terribly clear. In Pro 6 they are now including tutorials in the main menu which are very helpful. Looking forward to the tutorial on this post editing soft ware

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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+.