Photography 101: Why Shooting Mode Is Important

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Let me start by saying there are many photographers (of different skill levels) who follow this blog. My Photography 101 posts are mostly for the Noobs in my audience but even experienced photographers can benefit from gentle reminders now and again. Secondarily this post is for people who shoot DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) or mirrorless cameras and not intended for point & shoot or smartphone cameras.

So your photography has progressed to the point where you’ve purchased a DSLR or mirrorless camera system with interchangeable lenses. Congratulations. Now you can truly experience your creativity. To maximize that creativity you will want to get out of Auto Mode (for Canon shooters the green box on the mode dial) as soon as possible. Shooting in auto is like shooting with a beefed-up point & shoot—it kind of defeats the purpose of having a more advanced camera.

So what do I suggest? This isn’t a tutorial on how to use the various shooting modes of your camera (refer to your camera’s instruction book or YouTube tutorials for that) but more of a suggestion of when to use the various options available to you. Knowing the when & how will greatly improve your photography. Remember the Exposure Triangle of: Aperture (f/stop), Shutter Speed and ISO (sensor sensitivity). All three must be in synch for a proper exposure. The good news is that with modern digital cameras the process has never been easier (though far from foolproof).

When shooting static (unmoving) subjects most photographers will select Aperture Priority (AV on Canon). This mode determines DOF (Depth of Field) or how much of the scene will be in focus. In this mode you set the f/stop and your camera automatically selects the appropriate shutter speed and ISO (if using auto ISO). When shooting dynamic (moving) subjects photographers will typically shoot in Shutter Priority (TV on Canon). In this mode you set the shutter speed (high enough to stop subject movement) and the camera automatically selects the appropriate aperture and ISO.

Male Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia

Shooting in Manual Mode (M on Canon) terrifies most new (and more than a few seasoned) photographers. There’s no rush to learn this mode but eventually you will want to achieve this level of skill for complete control. Experience will tell you what aperture, shutter speed and ISO you would like for an image and M-mode will allow you to make those decisions for yourself. On higher end DSLRs (like my new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) you can now shoot with Auto ISO in Manual Mode (this recent development is HUGE). I can now set my aperture AND shutter speed and my camera will automatically select the appropriate ISO (within the predetermined limits I have set).

Female Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia

Also many new DSLRs have user-defined Custom Modes (C1, C2 and C3 on Canon). I love these modes. In my heart I am primarily a wildlife shooter. Wildlife is either standing still or moving like a raped ape (please excuse the vulgarism). I have my C1 settings geared towards static subjects and my C2 setting set for dynamic subjects (like birds in flight). When shooting wildlife things can (and often do) change quickly, so now with the quick turn of a dial I can react to the different shooting environments and situations. Once I’m in one of these modes I can further fine-tune the settings if desired but at least I have a good baseline from which to operate.

Brown-faced Capuchin Monkey – Northern Amazon River Basin

Photographer’s Field Notes: For those of you who might be interested in my wildlife settings here they are. Keep in mind these are baseline settings (programmed to get the shot) that can be further refined if time permits (which it often doesn’t). These settings are for my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and 7D Mark II camera bodies and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom lenses. 

C1 for static (unmoving subjects): Manual, 1/800s, f/5.6, Auto ISO (max 12,800 on 5D Mark IV and 6,400 on 7D Mark II), Neutral, Auto WB, RAW, Evaluative Metering, One Shot Single Point AF, Single Shooting.

C2 for dynamic (moving subjects): Manual, 1/2000s, f/5.6, Auto ISO (max 12,800 on 5D Mark IV and 6,400 on 7D Mark II), Neutral, Auto WB, RAW, Evaluative Metering, Al Servo Expanded 1 + 4 Point AF, Continuous Shooting (7 fps on 5D Mark IV and 10 fps on 7D Mark II). 


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