Back in the old days when you bought an amateur camera like a simple Brownie from Kodak the only control on it might have been the shutter. The aperture was fixed as was the shutter speed. You just pointed the camera at a subject at least 10 feet away, in bright sunlight and then pushed the shuttered which you had pre-cocked.
After finishing the roll of film you’d take the film to the drug store and a week later your black and white prints would be ready for pickup. What could be simpler?
Today digital cameras can be just as simple. Think of the camera in your cellphone.
But they can be really complex as well.
So let’s look at the various modes of shooting.
On basic point and shoots you might just have an automatic mode where the camera does everything itself.
Next step up is a point and shoot that adds to auto a program mode (which is just like auto but you get to control the flash), an aperture mode (where you control the amount of light), a speed mode (where you control the shutter speed) and a manual mode (where you control both aperture and shutter speed).
Let’s start with program mode. While on many cameras it allows more control of whether or not the flash is engaged, it also varies the shutter speed and aperture in fixed increments. So what does this mean for you?
Let’s review what happens when you set your camera modes. On automatic the camera takes a light meter reading and adjusts the shutter (which affects the ability of the camera to stop action like at a car race) and the aperture (which affects how much of the image is in focus. This is called the depth of field.) to make for a perfectly exposed image (not too dark nor too light).
What you can’t control is the ability of the camera to stop action and this is why when shooting indoors or outdoors at night the image can often appear blurry because the shutter speed the camera picked isn’t sufficient to stop action.
You also can’t control the ability of the camera to get everything in focus (often desirable when shooting landscapes) or create a shallow depth of field where only one thing is truly in focus and everything else is increasingly blurry (again often desirable in portraits).
When it comes to exposure, there’s no one perfect setting. You can vary the aperture opening while at the same time changing the shutter speed. This is what the camera does in program mode but in program mode it allows you to pick which proper exposure you want while getting the desirable effect. Program mode can create an image where everything is in focus but the shutter speed is so slow you need to set the camera on a tripod to get a sharp image (which often happens when shooting landscapes later in the day when the sunlight is dimmer) or do you want to set an exposure where only one thing is in focus and you can easily stop action (this is how sports photographers get clear shots of the action around the net at a hockey game)?
But program mode isn’t as exact as setting your own aperture and then allowing the camera to pick the appropriate shutter speed (aperture mode) or setting your desired shutter speed and letting the camera determine the correct aperture (shutter speed mode).
Finally we come to manual mode which allows you to control both the shutter speed and the aperture.
One of the reasons to use manual mode is when you don’t want the camera reacting automatically to sudden bursts of let’s say light (which is what happens when we photograph fireworks displays which have to be shot in manual). Manual mode is a very creative mode and it is one that many professional photographers use when shooting in complicated lighting situations (like hockey rinks where the lights on the ice can throw the camera’s light meter off creating dark images).
In all but the basic point and shoot cameras there are also a bunch of pre-set modes where the manufacturer has created settings based on specific shooting situations. So you’ll find presets for portrait mode or sports mode or beach or fireworks or nighttime mode. Whatever the manufacturer calls the preset, they are usually a pretty good way of getting great images despite complex lighting or special requirements (such as a high shutter speed to shoot air shows).
That’s it for modes.
What I recommend is shoot in automatic until you’re getting a lot of great images and then experiment with the other modes. In short order you’ll be shooting like a pro :)