dslr camera

Master Your DSLR Camera’s Manual Shooting Modes

When you are handed a DSLR camera, how likely is it that you would take a picture using one of the variations of automatic mode? Well if you don’t own one yourself, it’s predictable that you’d set it to auto–how should you know, right? However, if you do own a DSLR camera and you’ve never explored the manual shooting modes, you’re definitely not using it to its potential and you might as well stick to your phone’s camera application.

To get the most out of your photos, you’ll need to master your DSLR camera’s four shooting modes: manual mode, aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, and program mode. You can find these on the dial on top of your camera, usually labeled as “M, A, S, P” on a Nikon or “M, Av, Tv, P” on a Canon. You’ll also find the different auto modes on this dial.

Now before you dive into the manual shooting modes, you’ll need to have a good understanding of the exposure triangle first.

What Is The Exposure Triangle?

The exposure triangle comprises of the three fundamental elements that work together to determine the exposure and overall quality of a photograph. These elements are the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. This is called the exposure triangle for the reason that if you manipulate one element, at least one other should be changed as well. You must learn how to balance these three to achieve what is expected and to do that, you should familiarize yourself with each:


This refers to how sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the value, the more sensitive; the lower the value, the less sensitive. This means that if you’re shooting at a dimly-lit environment, you would have to raise your ISO. However, you have to be mindful of the digital noise that comes with increasing your ISO value. Try to keep this as low as possible.


This refers to the amount of light that enters your camera’s sensors. The aperture is measured by numerical f-stop (f/) values which are usually 1.4, 1.8, 2.0., 2.8, 3.6, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22. When you increase the value of the f-stop, the aperture or amount of light that enters the camera decreases. A smaller aperture value also results in wider depth of field or in other words, part of your photo will be in deeper focus. To keep it simple, just remember: increasing the f-stop value will decrease the aperture (light) and deepen the focus.

Shutter speed

This refers to how long it takes for light to reach your camera’s sensors, also referred to as exposure time. The shutter speed is measured by fractions of a second, like 1/500. The higher this value is, the faster the exposure– in other words, the faster the camera clicks and takes the picture. With this, you can freeze subjects in motion like a car or a person running.

Now that you have a bit of a background of the three elements, you’ll be able to grasp the manual shooting modes much easier.

master your dslr camera modes

What Are The Four Manual Shooting Modes?

Stepping out of the auto mode comfort zone will do a great deal at improving your photos, especially when you know which manual shooting mode to use. It might be a bit confusing in the beginning, but it will be like second nature once you get the hang of it. 

As you read on, you’ll probably notice that there aren’t any mentions of the ISO setting. Although it is a part of the exposure triangle, it’s not necessary to change this often unless there is a dramatic change in lighting. You can set this to auto and just play around with the other two elements.

Manual mode (M)

Setting your camera to manual mode gives you total control of its settings. You can manually set the aperture and shutter speed to any value you desire to be able to take the best possible photo in extreme lighting conditions or if you prefer an underexposed photo in some situations. Using this mode is fairly easy if you understand the exposure triangle and its elements.

Aperture priority mode (A or Av)

In aperture priority mode, you can manually set the f-stop value or the aperture. This setting is useful during instances when you want to control the depth of field or focus of the subject, leaving it to the camera to automatically adjust the shutter speed and expose your image as good as possible. Increasing the f-stop value will increase the depth of field (subject is less focused); lowering the f-stop value will decrease the depth of field (subject is isolated from the background). The aperture priority mode works best in normal circumstances wherein a still or motionless subject is involved. With this setting, there is little to no risk of producing an underexposed or overexposed image. 

Shutter priority mode (S or Tv)

This shooting mode will let you choose the camera’s shutter speed while it automatically adjusts the aperture. The aperture changes according to the amount of light that goes through the lens, which also implies that you have no control over the depth of field whatsoever. The shutter priority mode is only recommended for shooting subjects in motion– vividly capture a fast-moving animal or intentionally ‘blur’ out a flowing river. However, take note that there is a higher risk of getting an underexposed or overexposed photo when using this mode. For example, if you were to set your camera at a low shutter speed in a very well-lit environment, the image will be overexposed and blown out.

Program mode (P) 

In program mode, you have control over both shutter speed and aperture. This is a good choice for point and shoot photography because you no longer need to switch between aperture priority mode and shutter priority mode. If you manually set the shutter speed, the camera will automatically adjust the aperture and vice versa. You are also in control of other settings such as ISO, white balance, and flash so it’s kind of like a semi-automatic mode–great for beginners!

It’s easier to experiment and master your DSLR camera once you have an idea of a photo’s significant elements and how you can manipulate these using the various shooting modes. Not only will you get better quality photos, you will also learn to use your DSLR camera like a professional photographer. Now is your chance to exercise your creativity more often rather than just clicking the shutter button endlessly. Try it for yourself and you’ll never want to go back to automatic mode again!

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