Understanding Shooting Modes

One question that seems to come up on nearly every Backcountry Journeys tour that I have led is what shooting mode to use. I’ll often have very experienced photographers still wondering whether to use Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority or Manual for a given scene. I’ve also seen newcomers to the photo world shooting on Auto for half their trip before asking questions and gaining the knowledge and confidence necessary to empower them to try a different mode. For those of you who may be new to photography, there are a quite a few things to be gained from understanding your camera well enough to confidently move past the Auto setting and on to some of the more advanced shooting modes, and today we’re going to take a look at what you need to know to help make the most of your camera’s different shooting modes.

For new photographers starting out, it is totally fine to utilize the auto mode to ensure you don’t miss a moment. Taking pictures of the grandkids on their birthday or your dog at the dog park can be a great use of auto, as these generally aren’t meant to be overly artistic shots, and are instead typically meant to provide documentation. If you want to go from taking pictures to making photographs, however, you’re going to need to step up your game a bit.

Shooting modes are all about control. In Auto, your camera has all the control. You simply frame your image, and take the shot. You don’t get to decide the camera’s shutter speed, ISO or aperture. Your camera will make these decisions for you based on a pre-programed series of checks that will help it to determine adequate exposure and clarity. You may be able to adjust a few things, such as white balance or whether or not the flash will fire, but for the most part, your camera is doing all the work on its own. The problem here is that the computer inside your camera is a terrible artist. It knows how a shot should be exposed to meet a certain mathematical formula of light balance, but does not know about depth of field, sun flares, or how fast (or slow) your subject is moving. That’s where you, the artist photographer have to step in and make some decisions.

Shooting Modes

In general, there are three main shooting modes aside from the camera’s automatic setting. These are Shutter Priority (typically shown as TV, T, or S), Aperture Priority (AV or A) and Manual (M). Some cameras will also have a Program mode (P), which is a slight step above auto. The Program mode allows you to adjust things like exposure compensation by choosing your ISO, but everything else will still be automatic. Think of it as an advanced auto. We’ll be moving past this setting as well. If your camera has a C1, C2 or U1, U2 (or similar) option, these are custom settings that are programmable through your camera’s menu function. Check your user manual on instructions for setting your custom settings. Personally I like to have one set for birds, and another for night photography, as both of these generally involve a lot of adjustment to my typical settings, and thus allow me to switch to a custom setting without messing up all of my other typical settings in Manual. Your camera may also have a Bulb mode (B), which is the same as manual, except that the shutter will remain open as long as your shutter button is pressed, which can be useful in long exposure scenarios. We’ll discuss the use of Bulb mode in future posts, but for now, we’ll just stick with the three main modes.

Shutter Priority

In shutter priority, the photographer has the ability to select the shutter speed, and the camera will compensate by adjusting ISO and aperture automatically. This is beneficial in that it allows the user to account for moving or non-moving subjects. The most common use for shutter priority that I have found is when photographing birds. By setting your shutter priority to roughly 1/2000 second or faster, you can guarantee sharp wing tips when photographing larger birds of prey, like we do on our Yellowstone Wildlife Safari, while allowing your camera to adapt to changing light conditions. By utilizing shutter priority mode, you won’t have to worry if a cloud moves in front of the sun, and will be able to remain confident that your shot will be sharp thanks to a high shutter speed.

While shutter priority is great for selecting high shutter speeds to freeze the action, it does not work very well when needing to ensure maximum clarity in an otherwise still scene. You may find that by using shutter priority in your landscape photography, your results may come out grainy, due to the camera’s desire to combat higher shutter speeds with higher ISO or aperture. You might also find that the camera will forego a wide aperture, and thus shallower depth of field, in order to expose for the shutter speed you have selected. Stick to using shutter priority when photographing moving subjects, and leave the landscape footage for aperture priority.

Aperture Priority

By shooting in aperture priority, you’re utilizing entirely different settings than that of shutter priority, which provides you with entirely different results. Aperture priority is exactly what it sounds like. You select the aperture and the camera does the rest. This will allow you to establish greater control over depth of field, optical clarity and specific light effects such as sun bursts or bokeh. Aperture priority is best used when your subject is stationary, but lighting conditions are changing quickly, or you need to be able to snap your shot at very short notice, leaving little time to adjust other settings. By allowing the camera to make adjustments for you, use of aperture priority is a fast and effective way to ensure quality images when time is limited. Great examples of this include our Spring in Yosemite tour or our new Canyons of Utah: Arches and Canyonlands tour, where light changes quickly right around sunrise or sunset, and it’s more important to have the depth of field that you’re after than risk missing the exposure while messing with manual settings. Most of our landscape shots on these trips will be taken at f/11 to maximize the clarity of your lens (more on that in a future post), so using aperture priority here is a great tool for those that worry about missing the exposure fidgeting with manual settings.

Manual Mode

Manual mode is a shooting mode that allows the user complete control of every aspect of their shot. It means that you’ll need to adjust ISO, shutter speed and aperture for every shot. You’ll need to have a sound understanding of each component of the exposure triangle, and know how and when to manipulate each side of the triangle to achieve the desired result. It’s higher stakes, because if you forget to bring up your ISO, your images will be dark. If you neglect your aperture, you may find portions of your image are out of focus. If your shutter speed is too slow, you’ll simply have a blurred image and there will be no one there to fix it for you. With great power comes great responsibility. The ability to fine tune each of these components means that you will find yourself making small adjustments to really acquire the photo that you want. There’s much more control with things like white balance, bokeh, metering and focus points. As a whole, shooting in manual adds way more tools to your belt, so long as you know how to use them.

While it doesn’t have to be, shooting in manual is seen by a lot of photographers as the indication that you’ve “made it”. I’ve read many different articles and heard from many different photographers that to shoot in manual should be a goal that everyone should strive for. That magic “M” gets put up on a pedestal and is something to be admired. Why? It’s the same photographer, with the same camera, taking the same photos. Personally, I think it’s silly how many guests have asked me how to shoot in manual, as though it’s some sort of secret setting hidden deep within their camera that will unlock untold fame and fortune with their photos. Nonsense. Manual is just that. Manual. It means the camera won’t do anything for you, and all mistakes you make are yours. If you’re concerned about shooting manual, go take your camera for a walk and shoot in manual for an afternoon locally. You’ll find that there’s a few more adjustments to be made and that, generally, each shot takes a little longer to get right. But do so in a low consequence setting, and you’ll begin to learn the sequence of adjustments that work for you. Keep aperture priority and shutter priority in your back pocket for those times when the shot matters a little more than you’re willing to risk it. Think of Manual as another option for creating your art, and you’ll begin to notice new opportunities to master your canvas.

Chris Gheen







Chris grew up exploring the mountains of North Carolina, originally with his family on weekend camping trips and later as a self taught rock climber and backpacker, leading him ultimately to a degree in Recreation Management from Appalachian State University with a focus in Outdoor Experiential Education. Immediately after graduating, Chris drove west, knowing the mountains and opportunities for adventure were much bigger. Since then, he has worked in a variety of guiding applications, from small leadership non-profits, to adolescent wilderness therapy, to commercial hiking and tourism guiding in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, always with a camera in hand. Chris loves teaching and sharing his passions and experience with others and is sure to provide careful insight and education whenever the opportunity arises. Chris currently resides in Bozeman, Montana where easy access to Yellowstone National Park allows him frequent trips into the park to photograph wildlife and the unique geologic features of the area. When not behind the lens, he spends his time backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountain biking, always on the lookout for a new unique perspective to photograph. The mountains have always been a point of inspiration for Chris and he is excited to capture the beauty of the natural world in an effort to share the space he is so privileged to work in with those around him. For a look at some of Chris’ work, visit his website www.chrisgheenphoto.com


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