Shooting Modes Explained: What M, AV, TV, P, and B Really Mean :: Digital Photo Secrets

Shooting Modes Explained: What M, AV, TV, P, and B Really Mean

by David Peterson 12 comments

Good news, you’ve got a fancy new camera. Bad news, you have no idea how to use it or what any of the settings do or mean. Making the jump from a point and shoot to a DSLR requires you to embrace a massive learning curve. Below is some information to demystify the shooting modes and help you differentiate each mode from the others.

Automatic mode

Usually this mode is signified by a green box with or without the word “AUTO” in it or a little green camera icon. Automatic mode is exactly what it sounds like; it allows you to turn your DSLR into a fancy point and shoot camera. In this mode, your camera will survey the area within your frame, (what you see when you look through the viewfinder,) for lighting conditions. Then it makes an educated guess on what your focus point or points, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, ISO and any other pertinent settings should be. Modern digital cameras are so smart this whole process takes less than a second. While easy to use, auto-mode gives you little to no control of anything including what your camera focuses on.

Aperture priority mode

Aperture priority mode is typically denoted by A or AV depending on what brand of camera you have. This mode allows you to set your aperture and then the camera automatically changes the other settings to make them work with the aperture you’ve chosen.

The aperture is actually the width of the hole inside the lens that opens and closes. As the aperture widens (and the number indicating the aperture gets smaller) more light is let in. The aperture controls two main components of your photograph; the first is the amount of light that reaches the camera’s internal sensor. The other element of your photograph that aperture modifies is the depth of focus. Very simply put, the wider your aperture the smaller your depth of focus. If depth of focus is your main concern, this might be the right shooting mode for you.

Program mode

Okay, so program mode is kind of confusing for two reasons. The first reason is that on some cameras the P stands for auto mode instead of program mode. If your camera doesn’t seem to have an automatic mode, it’s a pretty good bet turning that dial to the P will do the trick.

The other reason it’s a wee bit puzzling is that program mode is like automatic mode except you have the ability to change select settings like turning the flash off or on, and manually setting your white balance. The capabilities of the program mode differ by brand and camera model. Some will allow you to adjust settings like the ISO and focus points, others will allow you to an aperture/shutter combination, while others again will have more limited options. I use this mode when I want to turn my flash off but keep the rest of the settings in auto.

Shutter priority mode

Shutter priority can be selected by turning the dial to S or TV depending on your camera. Shutter priority mode allows you to select the shutter speed and then the camera adjusts the aperture to a value that will work with the shutter speed you’ve selected to create a properly exposed photograph.

Shutter speed controls how quickly or slowly your shutter closes. This allows you to control that amount of light that goes into the lens. The longer the shutter is open the more time the light has to get into the camera and hit the sensor to create the image. It also controls how much movement is visible in your photo. As the shutter speed increases movement is frozen, whereas decreasing the shutter speed increases the visibility of motion. If portraying or freezing movement is your main concern, shutter priority is a good place to start.

Manual mode

Manual mode is almost always marked with an M. This is the bicycle without the training wheels. The camera is done whispering the answer when the teachers back is turned. Manual mode means you get to have complete control over every aspect of your photograph including choosing your shutter speed, ISO, aperture, white balance, and focus points. Essentially, you can change pretty much everything and in doing so, fine-tune the resulting photograph.

Bulb mode

Bulb mode is a mode used for extended exposure and is indicated by a B. Usually anything over thirty seconds falls into this category but there aren’t any stringent rules about what is and what isn’t extended exposure. When using bulb mode you can press the shutter button down and release. The shutter will remain open until you press the shutter down again to close it. When using bulb mode, I recommend using a tripod and a remote shutter release. If the shutter is open for longer than a small fraction of a second your pictures can become very blurry. The tripod adds the needed stability to keep your photo crisp and in focus while the remote shutter release keeps you from moving the camera when you press down the shutter.

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  1. mark says:

    What is the way to shoot high school football games at night under stadium lighting?

  2. Rajesh Rane says:

    My company produces concerts, etc & we have a tough time capturing the action on stage with various sources of lights in different colors.
    Any suggestions on what settings I could try?

  3. Kristie YBarbo says:

    I need to know what is the best setting for my camera for a concert. Going this weekend to Paul McCartney and next weekend Barry Manilow. I have taken pretty good pictures but I would like to improve if possible. I have a Nikon Coolpix P900...

    Thank you
    Kristie YBarbo

  4. Stephen S says:

    Wolf, the reason they use TV is from the older original film days of photography, but its based off what it really means "TIME VALUE", which is exactly what it is,changing the TIME the shutter stays open while the exposure is being done on the film/sensor

    Each mfg has different ways to name things.
    Its not wrong, just different
    Sometimes its for branding to tell one mfg apart for the the other
    Like how Canon has their signature WHITE colored barrels on their pro level bOG lenses. Its to brand/market them to show off how many pros use Canon in professional sports photography

    • LeRoi says:

      Thanks Stephen. Even Google couldn't quickly tell me what "TV" stood for. At first I thought it was Television Mode. I was like, what the heck - TV mode? (Although, a TV or Film move would be handy for setting the best values for video recording, such as automatically matching the "best" shutter speed to the frame rate we've chosen.)

      I think what most of us want, though, is for camera manufacturers to use a "standard" where they name everything sensibly and is the same across brands. After all, cameras are cameras, not brands. ;) Take aperture value for example - I'd be happy if, going forward, they'd use a high number for a wider iris, rather than being counter intuitive. They'd just have to give it a different name to avoid confusion with the current convention. For example, call the new way "Aperture Width - Aw" or "Aperture Super Size - Ass". OK, I'm just being silly now. But I would definitely appreciate the change. :)

  5. pAUL bEDOR says:

    The info is very informative. The missing points are how to use the shooting modes.

  6. RMF says:

    This article is very helpful for us old guys, as we learn very slow or not at all. I trust it's permitted to copy this article for my camera bag.

  7. Wolf says:

    A modern DSLR camera isn't confusing enough for a beginner. No, someone had to name 'Shutter priority mode' "TV". Thankfully, the idiot has been fired before Program, Aperture and Manual were named. They most likely would have ended up being "Q", "X" and "S", or something like that.

    • Wendy says:

      LOL.....My thoughts exactly. How hard is it to keep something simple.

    • Sim says:

      Very true.. I found Sony's naming and instructions far superior than Canon, specially for new users..

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