A woman out in the street, facing the camera, taking pictures with a digital camera.

Learning photography basics and getting to know the different modes on your camera will give you loads more creative techniques at your fingertips. Whether you’re using a DSLR or snapping with a compact camera, understanding your camera settings will make the world of difference to your photos, which can help you to create professional-looking photo books every time. Here’s an introduction to some of the most common camera settings and how to use them.

An introduction to camera settings

In our introduction to photography basics, we covered the three main camera controls – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO – and how mastering those can give you more freedom with your photos. Your camera might not give you full control over these settings, and if you do have them available, they can take some time to get to grips with. Luckily, most cameras have preset modes or, in the case of DSLRs and higher-end compact cameras, priority modes that are designed to make things a bit easier.

If you can, try to master your camera’s core settings so that you have more creative control. However, if you do decide to stick to auto modes, understanding these settings will help you to figure out their limitations and how you can tweak them to take the pictures you want.

To get the photo you’re after, there are three ways most cameras can be used; fully automatic, advanced modes, and fully manual. We’ll explain how each one works and how you can apply these settings to different styles of photography, such as portrait, landscape, and nighttime shots.

How to use fully automatic camera settings

A girl stood outside against a bright orange wall, drinking an orange juice.

By using your automatic settings, you’re allowing your camera to make the decisions for you. You just need to point at your subject and press the shutter release button. On the plus side, it reduces the amount of time you spend adjusting your settings. The downside is that your camera doesn’t know what you’re trying to shoot, so it will try and get as much light as it can into your sensor, regardless of the conditions.

A typical example of when this could happen is if you’re taking a photo in low light. You might notice that your camera takes a few seconds to click after you’ve pressed the shutter release button. This happens because the camera thinks it needs a slow shutter speed to try and get as much light as possible. You’ll then notice that your images look very blurry and they become unusable.

Automatic settings work much better in good light conditions, such as if you’re shooting outdoors in daylight, but for other types of shoots, you could try adjusting settings yourself.

What automatic presets do cameras have?

As we mentioned, most cameras have automatic presets that work for different styles of photography. Once you know how to access them quickly, and understand what each one does, you can add some variety to your photographs without having to manually adjust lots of settings.

The number of presets your camera has will vary, depending on what make it is, but it’s likely you’ll have the following modes available.

Portrait preset mode

This mode will set a wide aperture so that the background is slightly blurred but the foreground is sharp. It helps you draw attention to a specific element in your image that’s relatively close to the camera.

You’ll need a background that runs further into the distance to get the best out of this setting. If your subject is only a metre away from a wall, this mode doesn’t work so well, as we saw in our previous posts about aperture.

Top portrait mode tip

Although it’s called portrait, this mode does more than just snap people. You can use it effectively to draw attention to anything in the foreground of an image.

Landscape preset mode

A photo of a small town at the foot of some mountains, taken at the water’s edge.

Landscape mode sets a narrower aperture to make the whole scene sharp.

Narrower aperture reduces the amount of light entering the camera, so it’ll probably default to a slower shutter speed. In this case, it’s best to use a tripod or rest your camera on a steady surface.

Top landscape mode tip

Use the camera’s self-timer when shooting landscapes, even if you are using a tripod. This’ll help you reduce camera shake and to take sharp photos.

Macro preset mode

Close-ups of small plants, the foreground is sharp, the background is blurry.

Macro preset mode lets your camera take extreme close-ups of objects that are centimetres away from your camera lens. The aperture will be wider, so the background will be blurred.

This setting is great for capturing detail, so it’s ideal for shots of insects or flowers. But keep in mind that the level of detail you capture will depend on the quality of your lens.

Top macro mode tip

Think about the background of your macro shot. With the right background, the low depth of field blur can help you create a very interesting effect with your macro image.

Night preset mode

A quiet suburban street, covered with trees, taken at night.

In night mode, your camera will set itself to a slower shutter speed to capture as much light as possible. If you’re shooting a street scene at night, you might also find that the camera sets off the flash to try and brighten up the image for you.

Top night mode tip

If there isn’t a subject in the foreground of your shot, avoid using the flash. It’s also a good idea to set your camera on a tripod or a steady surface because you’ll be working with a slow shutter speed.

Action preset mode

An action shot of a little girl, being flown through the air by her dad, on a bright sunny day.

Action mode will set your camera to a fast shutter speed to help you freeze the action in your shot. This mode is best to try when you’re snapping a fast-moving subject. But just bear in mind that results will vary depending on your camera’s auto focus speed, aperture, and ISO settings, plus poor light conditions can also impact your finished shot.

Top action mode tip

Before you head out to take your action shots, play about with your camera’s auto focus settings so that you’re ready to capture your subject at a moment’s notice. Also, because you’re working with a fast shutter speed, make sure your subject is well lit.

What are priority modes?

A close-up shot of someone adjusting the settings on their DSLR camera.

DSLRs and most mid-range to high-end compact cameras will usually have a set of priority modes, and when you’re learning photography basics, it’s important to familiarise yourself with them. These modes will allow you to choose which setting you want to control manually while automating others.

Priority modes are great if you’re going to be focusing on one setting and don’t want the hassle of managing everything else manually. The names of these priority modes might differ from camera to camera, but they’ll most likely be labelled like this; P, A or Av, and S or Tv.

P priority mode

P stands for program, and it sets your shutter to automatically manage aperture and shutter speed so that you can focus on controlling white balance, ISO, and the flash. This can be a useful setting if you’re shooting in low-light and you don’t want the flash to go off, such as when you’re taking street photos at night or you’re photographing a friend blowing out birthday candles.

A or Av priority mode

A blurred photo of a fast-moving crowd walking in a subway, with a bright orange lit-up background.

A or Av is aperture priority. Your camera will manage your aperture settings, allowing you to focus more on depth of field without having to alter your shutter speed in changing light conditions. It’s also useful if you’re shooting a scene where the background is constantly changing, such as in a busy city, where you might want to blur certain areas and focus on others.

While you’re using this mode, if you find your automatic shutter speed is too slow, try bumping up your ISO.

S or Tv priority mode

The S or Tv setting is shutter priority, and it gives you full control over your shutter, while your camera concentrates on managing aperture. This mode is useful if you want to quickly switch between action shots that show movement and more static images.

Keep in mind though, that without control over your own aperture, this setting can remove some of the creative options you have with manual settings.

What is manual mode on your camera?

A slow shutter speed photo of a Rio carnival taken at night.

Manual mode is pretty self-explanatory in that you have full-control over all your camera settings and nothing is automatic. This mode gives you the most creative freedom, so it’s a mode many professional photographers use. But it does mean you need to have a very clear understanding of your camera settings and how you can adjust them quickly.

Manual mode tip

Make sure you get to know your camera’s manual settings at home before you head out on a shoot. This will make it so much easier when you’re ready to take your camera out and about.

A girl with her back facing the camera, kayaking on the sea. There are mountains and cliffs in the background that are slightly blurred.

Getting to know your camera settings will take some time, but once you’ve done some experimenting and have tested out your automatic and manual modes, you’ll have loads more creative techniques at your fingertips. Plus, you can get adding some amazing photos to your bonusprint photo books to start creating a professional-looking library at home.