Basic DSLR Camera Modes Explained for Beginners

The letters on your camera can be confusing to you. What they do and how they can improve your own photos can feel like a mystery.
These letters you see are called the camera mode dial. Understanding the modes of the camera will help you learn about the exposures.

Before you start reading about the camera modes, I have created a list of common terminology and definitions in photography. Understanding and applying the terms listed below and how they can improve your photos and You will start to learn” about exposure; aperture, shutter speed and ISO and how it can help you with your photography. .

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Words Related to the Camera Modes

Words with definitions for you to better understand the camera modes and their functions

Aperture ïn photography refers to the small hole in the lens that allows the light to enter the camera’s image sensor. As you take photos, you will begin to see how important just the right amount of light you need for the proper exposure.


  • It is referred to as the f/numbers. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,..these numbers are known as f/stops.
  • These are represented as fractions; f/1.4 (a very large aperture, to let in as much light as possible), f/2.0 (lets in half as much light as f/1.4) through f/32.0 (the smallest standard aperture, lets in almost no light .


  • The Lower f/stops give more exposure because they represent the larger aperture.
  • The higher f/stops give less exposure because they represent smaller apertures.
  • The Aperture affects the Depth of Field and the exposure in your images.

Depth of Field (DOF) is the distance between the closest and farthest from the subject in focus.

There are three camera settings that will affect the outcome of the depth of field:.

Aperture, focal length, and focal distance.

  • The smaller f-stop = larger aperture = narrower DOF
  • The larger f-stop = smaller aperture = deeper DOF

The video below does a very good job explaining depth of field.

please watch it!

Shallow Depth of Field refers to the narrow or smaller area in focus. You can accomplish this by lowering the f-stop The subject mattern stays in focus while the other areas usually it is the background, is blurred.

Seê example under the portrait mode) this , shows the people are in focus while the background is blurred.

Exposure in digital photography refers to the brightness or the darkness of the photo you have taken. It means how much light is taken in through the lens to the camera’s sensor.
Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO work together to make the exposure of your photos.

There are two types of unwanted common exposure:

  • Overexposure, when this happens your photo, loses highlight detail and you will notice the bright parts of your, photo are washed out. If this has happened to you it is because when the light hits the sensor it is exposed to too much light.
  • Under exposure when this happens you will notice that your pictures look like you have lost shadow details and darker areas are looking like they are blackened. This is caused by not enough light going to the cameras sensor.

Focal Length in photography describes the lens and is the distance from the light entering the camera lens meeting at a point, called convergence point (or focal point) to your camera’s image sensor, when the subject matter is in focus and the lens is focused on infinity.

  • The smaller the number on the lens, the more scene you can see; wider angle of
  • The larger the number the less of the scene you can see; a narrower angle of view.
The diagram above shows the light source going into the lens and meeting at a convergence point. Then after meeting at point the of convergence the light source goes on to the sensor. The focal length of the lens is represented by the red dotted line.

Focal Distance is the distance between the camera and its subject. This is one of three different components, along with aperture and the focal length, these

three work together to create the depth of field.

ISO (International Organization for Standardization ) in digital photography means that ISO controls the sensitivity to light by digitally controlling the light it needs.

  • ISO is measured by numbers, the same numbers that were used to represent film speed in the older cameras. 400 Film speed back in the days of camera film is the same as 400 ISO is in today’s digital cameras.
  • The lower the ISO the more light the digital sensor needs. This why you use the lower ISO on brighter days and you don’t have to worry about using a flash
  • Compared to the low film speed back in the day.
  • When you are in manual mode and choose a lower ISO number, the cameras sensor (digital sensor) sensitivity to light is very low.
  • Unless you are looking for a specific look in your image, no additional light is needed.
  • Your image will appear more smooth and colorful.
  • You will see a little bit or no “digital noise” in your images.
  • Low ISO are numbers between <100 and 400 as listed on the ISO chart
  • Higher ISO numbers will increase the brightness of the image. This is one reason why you use the increased ISO at night.

Shutter Speed It is the amount of time the light is exposed to the camera’s digital sensor.

  • Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second
    • For example, the shutter speed is 1/80 means that the shutter speed is one-eightieth of a second of the light exposure to the sensor.
  • A majority of the cameras can regulate up to 1/4000 seconds shutter speed, some cameras as quick as 1/8000 of a second.
  • In bulb mode, depending on the length of time the shutter button is pressed, the shutter speed can be up to 30 seconds.
  • Fast Shutter Speeds< 11000 per second
  • shorter exposure time to the cameras digital sensor
  • allows less light into the cameras digital sensor
  • everything is in focus
  • FREEZES the Action in wildlife, sports, and raindrops
  • Slow Shutter Speed is longer the exposure of light to the cameras digital sensor
  • allows more light into the cameras digital sensor

Now that we are finished with the terminology and definitions, we will start talking about the modes of at the camera

What is a Camera Mode?

The camera mode gives you the ability to choose how you want to take a photo. There are a variety of modes to choose from depending on the image you would like to capture.

Learning the camera modes is essential for you to grasp so that you may begin to comprehend how exposure works with the images.

Where do I find the Camera Mode Dial?

On top of most DSLR cameras is a round roary dial, called the camera mode dial. This dial allows the photographer to choose between manual or automatic modes on the camera. Depending on the DSLR camera you May be able to see it on your LCD screen

Automatic Program Modes

Starting out with the automatic mode is a good way to learn the exposure including; ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

By writing it down on paper after you take the photo, write down the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, you will then learn to transfer it on to manual mode next time.

Both the new photographer and a seasoned photographer will appreciate the convenience of these programs.

Auto Mode – green rectangle or the word ”Auto”

Auto Mode is also called ”point and shoot” mode, is illustrated by a green rectangle or the word ”Auto” on the camera mode dial.

Japanese Oak Tree
  • Just like as it states, this mode is available
  • for snapping a photo at a minute’s notice
  • This mode configures the exposure which includes: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and flash settings.
  • camera flash goes off depending on how much light passes through the lens to the cameras sensor .
  • Auto mode is a great camera mode for any photographer, whether a new or seasoned photographer, both of which will enjoy the ease of use.

Scene Modes

Most of the DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras have four scene program modes:

There is a brief description of the different modes below:

Portrait Mode illustrated by a Sideview of a persons head.

Mother and Daughter

  • Best for taking images of people. .
  • This mode blurs the background by widening the Aperture while it tries to focus on the human face near you
  • The built-in flash is convenient when you photograph darker subjects. It may help in sunny situations
  • The Portrait Mode chooses a shallow depth of field

Landscape Mode illustrated by a mountain


Action/Sports Mode, illustrated by a person running

Squirrels playing tag
  • This mode increases ISO and has a faster shutter speed,
  • great for capturing wildlife, (including birds flying)
  • and Sports action.
  • The higher shutter speed freezers the frames to get a great image.

Macro Mode illustrated by a flower

Snow Crocus
  • This mode allows the photographer to capture an image closeup.
  • Macro Mode is commonly used for a closeup of insects or flowers.

Manual Modes

Manual modes allow the user to control more of the exposure (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) of the image. Knowing how to use the manual modes helps the photographer capture an image of their creation.

Depending on the camera chosen the camera mode dial may read P, S, A, M or P, Tv, Av,M

Program Mode (P) The camera decides the aperture and shutter speed. The ISO is determined by the photographer either by choosing manual ISO or auto ISO.

Aperture Priority or Aperture Value (A or Av) allows you to control the aperture while the camera configures the shutter speed. The ISO is determined by the photographer either by manual ISO or auto ISO.

Shutter Priority or Time Value (S or Tv) allows the user to adjust the shutter speed and the configuration of apertures is automatically established by the camera. ISO is determined by the user who chooses either the auto or manual ISO.

Manual (M) allows the photographer to adjust the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture and ISO).


Whether you are a new to photography or a seasoned veteran, mastering all the camera modes will open your pictures up to new expressive images.

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