How to Understand Your Camera's Dial Modes and Settings

Updated on February 5, 2018
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Chris is a photography enthusiast and blog writer. He enjoys learning new photography techniques and practicing old ones.

Get to Know Your Camera Settings

When I watched my mom with her now 3-year-old DSLR in the garden the other day, I noticed she never moved her camera's dial out of "Program" mode. I mentioned that she could utilize other selections, but she responded by saying that the "P" was just fine. I think it's a response typical of many photographers who aren't inclined to understand the full features of their camera.

I didn't want to start an argument with my own mom. However, with what she was getting out of her camera, she could have simply stayed with a point-and-shoot camera and saved money. The full features of a DSLR are negated if the photographer remains tethered to the camera’s automatic mode.

The different factors I'll be sharing with you include:

  • Dial settings.
  • Auto or intelligent auto.
  • Scene guides.
  • Program.
  • Aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual settings.

Controlling Exposure by Dial Setting

The mode dial allows the camera to take varying control of ISO, aperture and shutter speed along with setting brightness, color tone, white balance, and a host of other functions.

In my mirrorless camera there are the following modes available:

  • Intelligent Auto – Setting is automatically selected by the camera.
  • Intelligent Auto Plus – Allows the photographer to adjust brightness and color hue.
  • Scene Guide – Numerous scene options available such as portrait, sports, landscape, sunset, etc. The camera sets the optimal exposure, color, and focus appropriate to the chosen scene.
  • Program AE - Camera automatically sets the shutter speed and aperture based on the brightness of the subject.
  • Aperture Priority – Photographer sets aperture and the camera sets the shutter speed.
  • Shutter Priority – Photographer sets the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture.
  • Manual Exposure – The photographer has full control to choose settings.

Most DSLR and other mirrorless cameras have similar automatic, semi-automatic, and manual control modes available.

Auto or Intelligent Auto

In this mode the camera makes all the exposure decisions. ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, color, contrast are all set by the camera automatically. If the flash is needed it will pop up as well. There is nothing the photographer needs to do except press the shutter button. Many beginners to DSLR and mirrorless cameras begin here and unfortunately never leave.

Scene Guides

1. Portrait

This is typically indicated by a person’s head on the dial. The camera will attempt to optimize the settings for taking a portrait photo. A fast shutter speed is used as well as creating a shallow depth of field. If the subject needs more exposure the on camera flash may discharge which is not typically very flattering without some light modifiers. This is the least useful of all basic automatic mode settings.

2. Sports

This will be indicated on the dial as some kind of running individual. This setting is best if trying to get photos of active subjects such as people playing soccer. The shutter speed will be fast and a wide aperture will be used. This mode can be useful outside trying to capture a game but depending shooting indoors can be tricky depending on the lighting. The ISO will necessarily adjust higher due to a fast shutter speed which can introduce noise to the photo. Personally I find this mode to be one of the more useful of the basic automatic settings especially if there is little time to get set up for a quick shot.

3. Landscape

This mode will be indicated by a mountain icon on the dial. The camera will compensate for vivid colors and a maximum depth of field using a small aperture. The shutter speed will be slowed which will introduce camera shake to the photo unless a tripod or other support is used.

4. Night Portrait

On some cameras, there will be an icon with a star and a person beneath it. This is for night portrait. This will allow a photographer to capture a photo of a person at night. The shutter speed will be slowed and the ISO increased to get as much light on the sensor as possible. The flash will fire to illuminate the subject. Seldom does this mode produce satisfying results as the flash is simply too harsh. The photographer using this mode typically does not think about using light modifiers for the flash unit to get better photos.

5. Close-Up

Sometimes referred to as macro mode, this will be indicated by a flower on the dial. Basically, the camera will try to focus on whatever subject is closest. This will typically create sharply focused subject against a blurred background. A tripod may be useful in the event the shutter speed is set too slow.

Advanced camera modes give the photographer more control over the exposure depending on which one is selected.


Identified by the “P” on most dials this is an upgrade to the fully automatic basic mode. The camera is still going to select the ISO, shutter speed and aperture while allowing the photographer freedom to adjust the exposure and white balance. This is a general use option useful for those times when the photographer just wants to get a quick photo without thinking too much about the settings.

Taking Control

This is where the fun begins. The following modes allow the camera operator to take control of various aspect of exposure settings.

1. Aperture Priority

This is indicated on cameras as either an “A” or “Av”. It is my typical setting in my own photography. It allows the photographer to set the aperture while the camera sets the correct shutter speed. The photographer also is responsible for choosing the proper ISO for the shot, assuming Auto ISO is not selected.

I prefer choosing the aperture to adjust the depth of field I want. If I am shooting a landscape I can set the aperture at f/16 and just let the camera compensate for the shutter speed. I will already have the camera set on a tripod so camera shake is not typically an issue.

2. Shutter Priority

“S” or “Tv” (time value) will indicate a setting for shutter priority on most cameras. The shutter speed is chosen by the photographer while the camera compensates for aperture. ISO is either set by the photographer or Auto ISO is applied. This mode is useful for capturing motion like sports. Of the advanced modes this is the one I use the least. If I am photographing motion, typically long exposures, I will end up in Manual mode.

3. Manual

This is indicated by the “M” on the camera dial. All options are now open for the photographer. ISO, shutter speed and aperture are all adjusted manually in order to get the photo desired. Adjusting one element can necessarily affect another. This setting opens up endless creative possibilities.


There is nothing wrong in utilizing the basic mode dial options, especially for a beginner. However, to get the most out of the investment made in the camera and to unleash your creative potential, I recommend you learn how to operate the camera's more advanced modes.

© 2018 Chris Morris


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    Post Comment
    • cmcyclist profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Morris 

      2 years ago from Nashville

      Exactly! Thanks for commenting

    • Felix Zapata profile image

      Felix Zapata 

      2 years ago

      There are times when we become very comfortable with the auto mode and forget about all the others. Your article is a reminder not to. Thank you


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