In part 2 of this photography basics series, we learned about aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.  Now, you need to learn how to apply these settings on your camera to take advantage of your new-found nuggets of knowledge.  I’ll try to struggle through writing this, but my wife has me on a vegetarian diet right now, and just the mention of nuggets makes me hungry.  Anyway…

The Great Flaw of Shooting “Icon Modes” on Your Camera

Icon modes highlighted in red.

Whenever I teach shooting modes, I always get the same question from members of my class, so I’m going to attempt to deal with that one right off the bat.  The question is: why do I need to learn how to set my camera’s settings manually when my camera already has built-in modes for sports, portraits, landscapes, etc?  (These are, by the way, referred to by photographers as the icon modes because they have icons of the shooting situation on the mode dial).

Again, an example will help to explain why these icon modes won’t work for those who want to become a “real” photographer.

With your new photography skills and your new fancy camera, your family members nominate you the official photographer at your family reunion.  It comes time to take the giant group picture with over 60 people in it (including your Uncle Bob who really shouldn’t have worn that ugly Hawaiian shirt).  What mode do you set the camera to?  The little portrait icon, because it’s a portrait!  But there is a problem… a really big problem.  The portrait mode on your camera automatically makes the aperture go really low, because it thinks you want shallow depth-of-field in your portrait.  But in this instance, it’s such a large group of people that you need full depth-of-field so that the people in the back aren’t out of focus.  The camera doesn’t know your intentions with this portrait, so half of the group looks blurry.

And thus we see why the little automatic icon modes (the landscape, portrait, sports modes, etc), simply will not work for photographers who want to learn to take professional-quality photos.

What are Creative Modes?

Creative modes highlighted in yellow.

The Creative Modes on your camera are Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode.  On most cameras, they are marked “P, A, S, M.”  These stand for “Program Mode, Aperture priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode.”

If you use a Canon DSLR, then you’ll see that your camera company likes to feel “special” by changing up those names.  Canon cameras will show “P, Av, Tv, M” for the same exact modes.  “Av” is Canon’s version of Aperture Priority, and “Tv” is Canon’s version of Shutter Priority.

It may feel a little bit intimidating to move to these creative modes on your camera, but I’ll walk you step-by-step through each of the creative modes, how to use them, and what they do.

Program Mode (P)

Just trust me on this one–you don’t want to use it–ever.

But just in case you’re curious, program mode usually (it is slightly different on each camera model) sets the aperture and the shutter speed for you, and allows the photographer to set the white balance, ISO, and flash.

This mode is not a great choice for serious photographers because you can’t set the shutter speed to make sure the picture isn’t blurry, or the aperture to control the depth-of-field.

 Aperture Priority Mode (“A” on most cameras, “Av” on Canon)

I’d love to see you use aperture priority for 95% of your shooting for the next several months.  It is the mode that most hobbyist photographers and even many many pro photographers shoot in most of the time.

When you shoot aperture priority mode, you set the aperture (the f-stop) and also the ISO.  The camera will then set a shutter speed for you so that the picture is properly exposed.

Aperture priority mode is powerful because it is amazingly simple to use, and still allows the photographer a lot of creative choice.  In fact, most competent photographers use aperture priority mode every single day.

Suppose you’re shooting friends and family at a party.  The background is really busy with people and things around the house, so you decide you want a blurry background in the photo (shallow depth-of-field).  To achieve this, you set the camera to f/3.5 which is a low aperture and which will blur out the background.  The first picture you take is of a person sitting on the couch next to a lamp.  The lamp is bright, so you want a fast shutter speed to get the correct exposure since your aperture is wide open.  Using aperture priority mode, the camera would automatically set that shutter speed for you.  Then, you want to take a picture of someone in a darker corner of the room.  You wouldn’t have to fiddle with camera settings at all, because the camera will automatically see that it is dark and choose a slower shutter speed.  All the while, you’re able to keep the aperture set to use creative depth-of-field.

If I could only teach you one thing in this photography basics series, it would be to set your camera in aperture priority for the next six months.  When you want full depth-of-field, choose a high f-stop (aperture).  When you want shallow depth of field, choose a lower f-stop.  Your pictures will DRAMATICALLY improve when you learn to control the depth-of-field.

Shutter Priority Mode (“S” on most cameras, or “Tv” on Canon cameras)

Shutter priority mode sounds very useful, but the truth is that I have never found a professional photographer who uses it.  It is a bit difficult to explain why that is.

At first blush, it sounds convenient to have a mode where you could choose the shutter speed and ISO and let the camera choose the aperture for you.  For example, when shooting a school basketball game, you might think you’d want shutter priority mode because you could set the shutter speed fast enough for the quick-moving sports situation.

However, you might be surprised to learn that nearly all professional sports photographers I’ve worked with shoot in aperture priority mode.  Why?  Because the depth-of-field is key.  We want to control depth-of-field in our sports pictures and we just keep an eye on the shutter speed to make sure the camera isn’t picking one that is too low.  If it does, then we boost the ISO so that the camera will chose a faster shutter speed.

Manual Mode (“M”)

When I was 16 and drove a car for the first time, my teacher took me to a large parking lot.  He asked me to floor it as fast as I possibly could across the parking lot.  This was my first time driving!  So, I went for it.  I felt like I was FLYING!  Then, he told me half way across the parking lot to look at the speedometer.  I was only going 10 miles per hour (16 kilometers)!  The point is, the first time you try anything, it feels intimidating and like you’re out of control.

The first time any of my students use a camera in manual mode, I can see them terrified to try it out.  However, shooting in manual mode really isn’t as difficult as it may seem.  To understand manual mode, the example below will be helpful.

Manual mode.  Aperture: f/18.  Shutter speed: 1/60.  ISO 100.  Nikon 10-24mm lens.  Nikon D7000 camera.

I took the picture above while at a photography conference in San Francisco.  In a situation like this, the bridge isn’t going anywhere, the bay isn’t going anywhere, the chain in front of me wasn’t going anywhere… I had a captive audience to say the least.  In situations like this, I always use manual mode.  I then set my shutter speed to 1/100.  I set my ISO to 100 because I wanted no noise in the picture and I knew if I needed more light, I could just slow down the shutter speed.

After taking the picture with the settings above, I realized that the picture was coming out a bit too dark with 1/100 shutter speed.  So, I slowed it down to 1/60 and it looked just how I wanted.

The point is that, eventually, you’ll find yourself wanting to shoot in manual mode for situations where you aren’t rushed to get the shot.  If you’re shooting sports, outdoor portraits, or other things, then aperture priority is simpler and faster than shooting in manual mode.

But since you’re still learning, the best option for the next few months is to get comfortable shooting in aperture priority mode 100% of the time.

In the next lesson in this series, you’re going to learn how you can dramatically improve your pictures by using creative compositions.  We’re past most of the technical stuff for now.

Go to Page 4 of the Tutorial


  1. Jason

    Hey there! It’s me again.

    I thought you would like to know that you have some code exposed in one of your paragraphs.

    You can find it in the last paragraph of the section entitled “Aperture Priority Mode (“A” on most cameras, “Av” on Canon).” it looks like this:

    **[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”left” cite=”” quotestyle=”style01″]** If I could only teach you one thing in this photography basics series, it would be to set your camera in aperture priority for the next six months. When you want full depth-of-field, choose a high f-stop (aperture). When you want shallow depth of field, choose a lower f-stop. Your pictures will DRAMATICALLY improve when you learn to control the depth-of-field. **[/sws_blockquote_endquote]**

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Dilip

    Very nice article and very easy to understand.Yes.. I think you have given a very correct advise to stick to aperture priority mode AV mode. I am an armature photographer and Canon user.I have Canon 600D DSLR camera with 18-135mm and 50mm (1.8) canon lenses in my bag.I also have Canon 55-250 zoom lens presented to me by my son. Now I will strictly stick to your advise and will take photographs on AV and manual modes.

  3. abisola

    this is the simplest explanation i av gotten for handling a digital camera so far. keep it up. this really helped my confidence.

  4. Elizabeth

    I’ve had a Canon Rebel T3 for over a year now. I thought I would pick it up and miraculously have amazing pictures. I’ve had a few flukes and gotten a couple of incredible pictures, but for the most part they aren’t much different than what I take on my point and shoot. I came across your website yesterday as I am feeling inspired to really learn how to use my camera this year. I noticed you have classes and I will definitely be taking some of those this year. But until I am able to do so I’ve been very pleased reading this series. I feel like I’ve learned a lot already. I do have a question though. As I was reading this post I was inspired by your example for the Aperture Priority mode so I decided to try it out around the house, shooting for a blurry background. I set my aperture to f/3.5 and my iso to 800, though I played with that both higher and lower. Each picture I took the background was as crisp as the subject. I also switched between manual and automatic focus. Nothing changed. I was wondering why that might be? My lens is the kit lens my camera came with 18-55 mm, if that makes any difference. Thanks for sharing your insight. As a new aspiring photographer I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and learning more.

  5. John Doe

    Hi Elizabeth,

    It’s really hard to produce blurry backgrounds with the kit lens. The aperture at f3.5/ 18mm is not large enough to produce this effect. Depth of field (dof)/ blurriness also depends on your distance from the subject as well as the subject’s distance from objects in it’s background. You might get better results if you shoot at 55m and move in close to the subject while it is farther away from it’s background. But for more control over blurriness/ dof you may want to invest in a fast lens. By fast lens I mean low f-numbers. The 50mm f1.8 is a cheap lens, cheaper than your kit lens but allows you to step down to f1.8 and this will produce more blurriness in the background.

  6. nestor salimoad

    this is very likely informative. i like it very much as a novice… sometime i call myself a slow learner, but i’m trying my best… thanks alot…

  7. Samantha

    Hi I received a camera for Xmas fujifilm sl1000 no matter what setting I have it on I never get a blurred background any idea why?.im not a photographer just learning I love photos but this seems a crap camera what are your views on them? Thanks

  8. Sharon

    I have the Nikon d3200 and have just started playing with the aperture setting. The whole pic is turning out blurred now. I am using the Nikkor 18-55mm lens that came with the camera. The f setting only goes down to 3.5 when on the 18mm and like 5 when zoomed all the way out to 55mm. Help!! This doesn’t feel creative! It feels more like epic fail. I was afraid of trying anything other than auto for this very reason! What am I doing wrong?

  9. Joey

    Very good article…just purchased a new Canon SX50HD and trying to learn all about it. During my experimenting taking photos, I did not write down the settings used. Is there a program, s/w or app for Mac computer that will show the settings used for my photos?
    I appreciate any advice and help.
    Thank You!

  10. Edward

    hey man,
    Thanks so much my mom bought me a camera for my 19th birthday last week and i thought it would be a good thing to get into being that i am an artistic person. This will help me alot, i will come back once i have atleast tried the basics.

  11. Mark spencer

    I have a Canon 70d. I recently went to a zoo and noticed while in AV mode the shutter speeds my camera chooses appear to slow to get tack sharp images. The reason I know this is they were often slower than the focal length. Meaning it did not choose a shutter speed to even match the focal length. For focal length of 70mm, I would expect the camera to choose at least 1/70. Instead it would be slow and soft images would be the result. Is there a trick to using aperture priority? Thanks

  12. Lyn

    I am a beginner with a sony nex 5R who has been struggling to use it properly. I’ve read all about ISO, shutter speed and aperture individually but was not able to understand how to use them all together, thank you for your article it is the best I have read so far

  13. varun

    You are a genius.. I have gone through 100s of blogs so far and even youtube videos. But your articles are so easy to understand, you might not enjoy that much while writing it but people would surely love reading it..

  14. Jose Melgar

    I found you through a pin, and for what I’ve just read, I’m sure I’ll be coming back a lot. Thanks for sharing this. Greetings from Guatemala!

  15. David Jacobson

    From what I have read so far, you have helped me 100% Thank you

  16. Justin C

    I’ve read a lot of this abc 123 and this by far is the best I’ve ever read!! Good job sir! Cheers!

  17. Tom

    Thanks very much for your help. I have been nominated as a photographer for a school trip to China (I’m a teacher) and your site has given me lots of useful guidance that I look forward to using!

  18. leesabethjewels

    Thanks so much,am new to photography and your articles have helped me alot..i hope to send you photos after putting all of the above into great use

  19. Lola

    Thank you so much! your articles make everything so easy to understand

  20. Simon

    Seriously, you have a talent for explaining things. Thanks for all the work you’ve put in.

  21. Kelly

    Thanks so much! I have been very anxious but intimidated to learn the many different functions in the various manual modes. Your article made it very easy for me to understand the differences!

  22. Lucinda

    HI i came here to see if you could explain to me why it is that when i use A priority on moving subjects i get a lot of blur. this is frustrating me as i thought the camera sets the S priority for you in this mode. Other than moving objects my A mode works fine and i get lovely dof
    I am also having horrendous trouble with my flash. I am in A priority at dusk and my shutter goes off and lapses far too long and then gives me a blurred picture. what am i doing wrong. i am using a nikon D7100…

  23. Maria

    I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate everything you’ve written. What a difference from the moment I started applying your advice. Thank you a million times over!

  24. Darren

    Simply put you are a genius my friend. Like another previous comment, I’ve gone through youtube, books, blogs etc… nothing compares to the clarity in your explanation of how to use a dslr the way in which it is intended to be used and be creative in the process. Thank you

  25. Colin

    Great articles you have made sense of a confusing subject and I can’t wait to get going. Still deciding on what camera to get but looking forward to using it thanks to you.

  26. Nicole Thompson


    First I’d like to say THANK YOU so much for well explained articles on camera basics. I have had a hard time finding a site that explains it where I can actually understand it. I plan on going all through your site.

    But my question is this: I am using a Sony Nex 7 and my ISO/aperture/shutter speed seem to all be tired together. I can’t change the f-stop without the shutter speed changing as well. So then when I put it in shutter speed priority and I choose that, the f-stop changes. Same when I change ISO, the f-stop and shutter speed change. How can I make them all independent of one another?



  27. Nicole Thompson

    I thought I would ask questions as I go along so that I don’t forget them, but my above question has been answered. Please forgive me. I will write down questions and keep reading to see if the questions gets answered before posting. Sorry.

  28. Bob Huston

    Ok… I’ve been having a great GREAT deal of trouble getting faces sharp in groups. I was excited about a-dep on my canon t2i until it doesn’t work with a flash. So I read your teaching here advising me to live in AV mode, .. And that’s great, unless it’s a darker scene and it slows the shutter way down. Not great for clear shots of people who tend to move. My question is, why not use manual, set aperture to a high number, and shutter to 1/60th. Won’t that get me sharp faces?

  29. Kim Beach

    I love how simple you explain all the different settings and what they accomplish. my husband bought me 2 cameras from a pawn shop very cheap, one is a 35 mm canon power shot and the other one is a 35mm Kodak insta share, (they both have all these special settings which i had no clue how to use them) they both take awsome pictures, but i was scared to step out of the box and change settings, I have always had a passion for photography, i feel as if we are creating art in a unique way. any way you have given me the confidence to adventure away from the automatic settings and begain to create my own special art with every shot. THANK YOU THANK YOU so much.You are sooooo talented in being able to teach with such simplicity that even I can understand. I am so glad I found your page on pinterest.once again thank you so much.

  30. Roberto Hernandez

    Great article, just don’t tell Joe Bussik about your “P ” mode opinion.

  31. Jazi

    Great! This article has been the best explanation i have read so far. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  32. Bt sawant

    Great Article. …The explanation is quite simple about the creativity modes of camera. ..Since beginning i have been using manual mode. ..and really enjoyed….however use of aperture priority mode is quite essential to try with proper exposure. ….
    thanks for such a good article. …awesome. ..

  33. shwetha

    i love ur articles!! they are very informative, fun to read and u explain things very simply…thanks a lot!!

  34. Deb

    Love your article! Very informative. I recently went to a class that cost over $250.00 and it covered the same material, only this one was much easier to understand. Thank you!!!

  35. Johan

    Manual Mode VS Program Mode, when using a minus 2/3 exposure compensation, does it stay 2/3rds under when in Manual mode.. or since its on manual mode does the 2/3rd under not compensate???

    1. BrianPex

      Exposure comp works differently in manual mode. It doesn’t change the shutter speed or aperture. It just sets new baseline for proper exposure and you then set your camera from there.

      This is how I undertsand it and how it seems to work. I mean changing exposure compensation in manual does zero to the image. Nothing. It’s just to set a new baseline exposure value.

  36. Chantel

    What settings would you need to apply to a camera (DSLR) when on manual mode in order to get a crisp picture of a fast sports car with no noise?

  37. ben

    Great read- just getting into photography and this has helped tremendously.

    One section – you mentioned the following- I’m assuming you mean – a low f-stop/ high aperture right?

    ” To achieve this, you set the camera to f/3.5 which is a low aperture and which will blur out the background. ”

    Thanks again

  38. Laura

    Where can I send you a copy of a picture so you can tell me what I did wrong in the photo, and what I should have done to get better photo?

  39. Shawn

    Why can’t I shoot in creative mode? I get a little notice indicating that subject is too dark. How do I fix this in the creative mode where in Manual, Program, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority? Please help? Thank you

  40. Claire

    I have been so baffled by manual settings, literally for years I have shot in the “icon”modes. I have realized over time that my photos are lacking what I want them to have. I knew that while some settings worked well for one situation or scene, they were terrible for another. Recently, I have been trying to copy the settings from other people to achieve better photos, but then I didn’t know how to adjust them when needed, so I would just go back to the icon modes. I asked for help learning and someone shared this site with me. Already in just the time it took me to read this and go take a few practice shots, I feel like I finally am getting it! You have explained this simply enough that it clarified many things for me and I have a much better understanding. I know I still have lots of work and practice to do, but I feel so much better now that I have a basic understanding of what the different manual modes mean and how to adjust them!

  41. Diana

    Thank you so for this! I have known – in theory – what the different modes do. But the best way to use them has baffled me.

    New camera and I’m going to do as you suggest and shoot in Aperture Priority Mode!

  42. lrpramodh

    Thank you so much for sharing this information, I always wondered the difference between Manual and Aperture and had done more of Manual shots. But the point taken regarding the difference you specified between the two.

  43. vijayalakshmi D

    Heya… I just bought this camera canon eos d1200d as I am going on a trip to an exotic mountain called leh in india and had no clue how to use it…. This blog has helped me so much I already feel like a pro in photography… I learned everything about photography from scratch here!! Thank you so much :)

  44. Dr. Amol

    Thanks a lot Sir, the only thing I want to confirm is, which mode is better for wildlife photography. Manual or aperture priority. It’s AV mode right? Before reading this article, I always used manual mode and have lost several fabulous tiger faces to a blurr. Now after reading you, am thinking of using the AV mode next time. Pls suggest if am wrong.

  45. Amar


    Thanks for the article. I am an amateur photographer. I have a basic and silly doubt. The Aperture setting is a Camera characteristic, or of the lens. I got this doubt because I was reading up to buy my next lens (as of now I have only a 18 x 55 lens). I planned to buy a 70-300 lens. My camera is a Nikon D3200. Now, the camera has aperture settings. When I connect the lens, does the camera restrict me to use only those Aperture settings, OR anything out of range has no effect? Kindly clarify.

    1. Darryl


      Your lens controls the aperture range and the camera can select any aperture within that range. Most Zooms are variable apertures. That means that are you change your focal length the maximum aperture changes also. Using your 18-55 mm lens as a example. At 18mm the maximum aperture is f/3.5 but as you zoom to 55mm it changes to f/5.6.

      Hope that helps

Leave a Comment