Camera Scene Modes Explained

Nearly every camera comes with a few scene modes, from sports to landscapes, they’ll help you take better photos without too much effort.

Scene Modes

You will probably remember seeing these icons on your camera dial, including a face, running man, flower and mountains. These are scene modes which automatically set the best settings for the specific subject depending on which mode you choose. Most DSLR’s have a few common scene modes, which include portrait, landscape, sport, close up, and night portrait. Some DSLR’s may have more or less, but these are the most common. The scene mode chosen should give better results than using auto mode, because they use certain parameters to choose the best settings for that particular subject, for example in landscape mode the camera will select a larger depth of field to ensure everything in the shot is in focus, and portrait mode will use a smaller depth of field to throw the subjects background out of focus.

Landscape Mode

This mode on the dial usually has a small image of mountains. For landscape mode the camera will usually select a large aperture so everything in the shot is sharp, but not too large because the camera will expect you to be holding the camera and not using a tripod, so the shutter speed needs to be fast enough for this. Your camera may set the aperture from anywhere around f/8-f/16 for this, and the lowest ISO and fastest shutter speed possible with this aperture.

Macro/Close-Up Mode

This mode on the dial usually has a small image of a flower. Macro or close-up mode is useful for getting shots of very small things such as flowers and insects. On DSLR’s a macro lens is often needed for this, but if you don’t want to invest in one, if you have a compact camera, these usually work a lot better than the average DSLR zoom lens.

Portrait Mode

This mode on the dial usually has a small image of a face. Portrait mode is good for photos of people, if you want to throw the background out of focus. The camera will use a very wide aperture to achieve this (smaller f number).

Sport Mode

This mode on the dial usually has a small image of a man running. Sport mode is useful for taking freeze frames of fast moving subjects. The camera needs a fast shutter speed for this, so a high ISO will be used, and the focus will be set to continuous so you can track the subject.

Night Portrait Mode

This mode on the dial usually has a small image of a person with a star on a black background. Night portrait mode is similar to portrait mode except it’s better for getting shots of people in dark conditions. The camera will usually set a wide aperture and use flash to light up the subject.

Shutter Priority

This mode on the dial usually is a large letter ‘S’. Shutter priority mode gives you control over the shutter speed, and automatically sets an aperture based on this to get the correct exposure. This is useful for night shots and situations where the shutter speed is important.

Aperture Priority

This mode on the dial usually is a large letter ‘A’. Aperture priority mode automatically sets shutter speed based on the aperture you set to get the correct exposure. This is a very good mode, giving you more creative freedom than scene modes, and is useful in situations where you want to achieve a specific depth of field, without relying on the camera to choose.

Manual Mode

This mode on the dial usually is a large letter ‘M’. Manual mode allows you to fully control all the settings on you camera including aperture and shutter speed. This is the hardest mode to use and takes a lot of work to master, but you also have complete control over your results.

Advantages & Disadvantages

  • The advantage of using scene modes is they’re great for beginners, and you don’t need much knowledge of DSLR’s to use them. Also there’s no need to think about settings, so you can simply point and shoot if you need a photo fast. You can be assured that the best settings will be chosen to get a good shot.
  • Some of the disadvantages of using scene modes is you don’t have control over the settings, and so not much room to be creative, there’s a lot of situations where the camera simply won’t choose the settings you need to get the shot you imagined. Also you won’t learn how to use the DSLR properly this way, and you’re limiting the shots you can achieve. Scene modes don’t always choose the best settings, for example your camera may try to use flash in a situation that would be much better using a higher ISO.

Scene modes do have their place on DSLR’s, mainly for use by beginners or if you need a quick shot but have little time to mess around with the settings. Using scene modes in the long term isn’t a good idea, because it’ll only throttle your learning and not allow you to become a better photographer. Scene modes also have a lot of disadvantages to them such as not always choosing the settings you want for a more creative shot. Learn how to use aperture, shutter priority or manual modes instead and you’ll get much better results.

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