Leave your digital camera set on auto, and you’ll get good pictures most of the time. But, the computing power inside even the cheapest cameras today allows a photographer to get even better ones—if they can decipher the myriad shooting modes built into the devices.
Represented by icons of faces, mountain ranges, sprinters, palm trees or crescent moons, each scene mode is a bundle of adjustments that presets your camera lens, flash and the computer processor to get what the manufacturer thinks is the best picture possible.
Camera makers have come up with more than 100 scene modes ranging from the conventional settings like fireworks or beach to some fairly specialized ones like food (for people who shoot pictures of their dinners in restaurants), eBay (for low-resolution close-ups of objects to be auctioned online) or documents (to capture printed pages in office light).
Modes with names such as museum, manners or polite, for instance, turn off the camera’s shutter noise and control beeps along with the flash, so as not to annoy others, damage the art with a bright light or tip off the guard.
The range of mode choices can seem overwhelming. No camera has all of them, although a few Casio models have almost 40 modes. Now that the competition among camera makers is no longer about who has the most megapixels, it is not uncommon to find at least 20 or more modes on a product.
Cameras with only a few modes generally put them on a dial; cameras with many commonly show them as a menu displayed on the liquid crystal display (LCD) screen on the camera. Some cameras combine those approaches, putting common modes, like sports, portrait and landscape on the main dial along with auto, shutter-priority and other basic settings, and bury the less common, but no less useful modes, on the LCD’s menu. Kodak, Panasonic and Pentax have models that automatically select the right mode.
Mode names don’t tell you the whole story. Sports mode, for instance, is also good for shooting children or pets in action. Portrait mode, with its deliberately shallow depth of field, is not a good choice for groups whose members are at different distances from the lens; landscape portrait, or even landscape, would do better in that situation.
Similarly named modes have similar purposes but don’t always operate alike. Sports (symbolized by a runner or high jumper) should give you higher shutter speeds to stop action, often with a smaller aperture so that more of the action will be in focus. Raising the shutter speed and narrowing the aperture both decrease the amount of light coming through the lens; some cameras then raise the so-called ISO sensitivity to compensate, while others keep ISO unchanged to minimize picture noise. (ISO, in the days of silver halide film, rated how sensitive film was to light).
Sports mode has to juggle the need for a small aperture, to help keep subjects in focus over much of the field, and a fast shutter speed to stop the action—both of which reduce exposure. That usually calls for fairly high sensitivity (like ISO 200) to compensate, but some cameras don’t raise the sensitivity unless you adjust it. (I once ran into one that optimized the aperture for depth of field rather than raising the shutter speed.) In a few cameras, sports mode also turns on continuous autofocus that can keep an athlete in focus, while others let you manually preset focus to a place where you expect something to happen—home plate, for example.
Some knowledge of what the modes can do is useful. Indoors, a camera set on auto would use the flash, blasting nearby subjects with light while backgrounds and subjects farther back are lost in darkness. Scene modes for indoor photography typically turn the flash off to expose the whole scene equally, open the aperture to let more light in, and turn on a stabilizing feature given that longer shutter speeds are needed.
Portrait mode normally sets a wide aperture of the lens so the background behind your subject will be softly focused. A landscape portrait mode narrows the aperture, so both subject and background stay sharp but might zoom out to wide angle to fit more of the background in. Portrait may also zoom in the lens to telephoto to help you zero in on your subject. Some portrait modes enhance skin tones, and several makers have “soft” modes that selectively smooth areas with skin tones—great for minimizing wrinkles.
Night portrait (usually symbolized by a figure against a dark sky with a moon and stars) fires the flash to illuminate a nearby subject, then holds the shutter open long enough for the background to be exposed.
For shooting after sunset, night modes turn the flash off, hold the shutter open (use a tripod), and change ISO sensitivity (not always raising it, as high ISO and long shutter speeds both commonly add noise to the picture). Night Landscape would do the same and, like normal Landscape mode, uses a small aperture for greater depth of field.
Palm-tree or beach-umbrella icons set the camera for beach scenes, while snowmen and snowflakes set it for snow. Without these modes, such bright scenes would look dingy because the auto exposure system, made for scenes of average brightness, dims brilliant scenes. The beach mode may perk up blue sky and water, while snow mode may reduce blue tones to avoid a bleak, wintry look.
Certain modes make specific colours more vibrant by making the processor override the automatic setting that balances colours and increase colour saturation. Sunset modes emphasize reds, autumn modes often emphasize both reds and yellows, while some other nature-related modes emphasize green.
Quite a few cameras have modes for special purposes, like reducing excess blue in underwater shots, turning flash off (which you could do yourself) for shooting aquarium fish or other subjects behind glass. Because most manuals, alas, don’t tell you what modes do—only what they’re for—you may want to do a few experiments. To figure them out, steady your camera on a tripod, shoot a static subject in auto mode and then reshoot in each of the modes that interests you.
Most cameras can show you at least the shutter speed and “f-stop” used for each shot; viewing your photos on a computer should let you see details of each image’s data settings. And experiment to find which adjustments—such as white balance or zoom—you can still make in each scene mode.
After an afternoon of tinkering, you may discover that the more modes your camera has, the less likely you are to need them all. NYT
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