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Camera settings: Shooting modes

EOS cameras offer a number of different shooting modes. Each one aims to provide a correct exposure, but each approaches this end in a different way.

Canon provides two ranges of shooting modes – the ‘basic zone’ (previously called PIC) and the ‘creative zone’. EOS professional digital cameras only offer the creative zone modes; most consumer models include both types.


To set the shooting mode on EOS-1D and 1Ds series cameras press the Mode button (top left) and then turn the electronic input dial. The mode selected (P, Tv, Av or M) will appear in the top left of the LCD panel.


The EOS 5D uses the command dial to set the shooting mode. Only creative shooting modes are available.


The EOS digital consumer cameras use a command dial to set the shooting mode. They include both the creative modes and basic modes.

Creative zone shooting modes

Program mode (P)

In Program mode the camera automatically selects both the shutter speed and the aperture. For any given brightness of light, the camera has been programmed to set a particular combination of speed and aperture.

The camera takes a meter reading from the scene, assigns an exposure value, and then uses internal algorithms to select a suitable shutter speed and aperture. The ‘program line’ governs the choice of the shutter speed and aperture. You will find it on a graph that plots exposure value, shutter speed and aperture. This graph is included in many EOS instruction manuals.


The program line will change according to the lens used. The first graph shows the program line for an EF50mm f/1.4 lens on an EOS 5D, though it is similar for other EOS cameras. The strong red line on the graph is the actual program line. The black diagonal lines represent the exposure values. Where an exposure value line intersects with the program line, you can read off a shutter speed and an aperture by looking at the values immediately below and to the right.

Let’s say that you are shooting in relatively low light and the camera meter registers an exposure value of 5. Follow the diagonal line marked ‘5’ down until it intersects the red line. The shutter speed immediately below this point is 1/15sec, while the aperture immediately to the right is f/1.4. These are the exposure values the camera will set.

In brighter light, giving an exposure value of 16, for example, the program line tells you that a shutter speed of 1/2000sec and an aperture of f/5.6 will be set.

You will see that the maximum aperture of f/1.4 is maintained until the brightness is enough to allow the aperture to close down without causing the shutter speed to drop below a speed that is likely to show the effects of camera shake. As a rule, you need a shutter speed no slower than 1/60sec when hand holding a camera with a 50mm lens. With an exposure value of 6 or less, you really need to shoot with the camera on a tripod or other stable support.

The second graph shows the program line for the EF24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 USM at its 24mm setting. Here, the line stays at the maximum aperture until a shutter speed of 1/30sec, which is a safe hand-held setting for a 24mm focal length. The line then starts to climb to provide smaller aperture settings in brighter light. It flattens out at f/22, which is the maximum aperture of this lens.

It is not essential to know the program line of any lens, but it may help you to understand the way program mode sets the camera.

Program shift

When you set program (P) mode on the command dial of your EOS, you hand over control of both shutter speed and aperture to the camera. This can be good. It lets you concentrate on the subject. But shutter speed and aperture are the creative forces behind photography. Changing one or the other can have a major impact on a picture.

You could use shutter-priority (Tv) or aperture-priority (Av) modes. Here, you pre-select the shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture for correct exposure (Tv), or you pre-select the aperture and the camera chooses the shutter speed (Av). But you can gain much the same control over your pictures while staying within the comfort zone of program mode.

You do this using program shift – a feature available on almost every EOS camera. First, partially depress the shutter button while in program mode. Then look at the shutter speed and aperture selected by the camera. If you don’t like what you see, change the values by rotating the electronic input dial. Program shift is one of the benefits of program mode over the less flexible full auto, (green square), shooting mode.

To use program shift, first set ‘P’ on the camera command dial. Half press the shutter button to take an exposure reading. You will see the chosen shutter speed and aperture in the viewfinder display.

Now rotate the electronic input dial – the one just behind the shutter button. You will see the aperture and shutter speed changing in the viewfinder display. Simply rotate the dial until you get to the aperture or shutter speed you think is most appropriate for your subject.

This will not change the exposure value that the camera has calculated, only the shutter speed and aperture settings that are combined to achieve that exposure value. All the time you keep the shutter release button half pressed, the program shift values will be held, but once you remove your finger from the shutter button, they will be lost after six seconds.

After taking an image with program shift, the camera will automatically cancel the shift and revert to its standard setting, unless you keep the shutter button half-depressed after the exposure. This is quite difficult to do in One-shot AF mode (although it is much easier in continuous shooting modes), but you can press the exposure lock button (top right on the back of the camera, usually marked with a star). This will hold the shifted shutter speed and aperture values for as long as you hold the lock button down, allowing you to shoot a sequence of images with the same settings.

Program shift is not available when shooting with flash.


To use Program Shift, set the shooting mode to program (P), partially depress the shutter button to activate the viewfinder display, and then rotate the electronic input dial. There is no need to keep the shutter button depressed – program shift will remain active for as long at the viewfinder display remains on.

Program shift allows you to move from a slow shutter speed (left image) to a fast shutter speed (right image) simply by rotating the electronic input dial.

Shutter-priority mode (Tv)

Shutter-priority mode allows you to select the shutter speed you need, leaving the camera to choose the lens aperture. This mode is marked ‘Tv’ (for Time Value) on the command dial or in the LCD panel.

When you are in this mode, rotating the electronic input dial changes the shutter speed setting. The speed selected is shown in the viewfinder and on the LCD panel or monitor.

You will not always be able to use the speed you want. In low light, even the widest lens aperture may only allow a shutter speed of 1/30sec or 1/60sec. If you try to set a faster speed, the lens aperture value in the viewfinder will start to blink, warning that the image will be underexposed.

Shutter-priority is the ideal mode for action photography. A fast shutter speed will ‘freeze’ movement, giving a crisp, sharp image of the subject. Shutter-priority is also a good mode to use when a telephoto lens is attached to the camera – a fast shutter speed will help to reduce the effects of camera shake that are magnified by a long focal length lens.

The mode is also useful when you need a slow shutter speed to create deliberate blur in a moving subject – when photographing moving water, for example.

Even though you are pre-setting the shutter speed, you can still control the lens aperture. The aperture selected by the camera will appear in the viewfinder readout and on the LCD panel or monitor and can be altered by changing the shutter speed.

This is an autoexposure (AE) mode, so the camera will always set an aperture that gives correct exposure with the selected shutter speed.


Shutter-priority shooting mode lets you choose the optimum speed for fast-moving subjects.

Aperture-priority mode (Av)

There will be times when the aperture used for a photograph is more important than the shutter speed. When you are shooting landscapes, for example, you will often want everything from the foreground to the horizon to appear as sharp as possible. This requires a small aperture, such as f/16, to give a wide depth-of-field.

At other times, you might want to reduce the depth-of-field so that the subject stands out sharply against out-of-focus surroundings. This requires a wide aperture.

The shooting mode you need for these effects is aperture-priority. This mode is marked Av (for Aperture Value) on the command dial or in the LCD panel. In aperture-priority mode, you select the lens aperture you need, leaving the camera to choose the shutter speed required for correct exposure.

One danger with aperture-priority mode is that you might not notice the camera setting a slow shutter speed after you set a small aperture value. If you need a small aperture, you might also need to use the camera on a tripod to prevent camera shake from ruining your images.


Aperture-priority shooting mode was used for this photograph so that f/22 could be set. This small aperture has given the wide depth-of-field needed to make both the statue and the building appear sharp.

Manual mode (M)

When your EOS camera is set to Program, shutter-priority or aperture-priority shooting mode, the camera looks after one or both of the exposure values to give correct exposure. All three are autoexposure (AE) modes.

Manual mode is different. The camera relinquishes control of both shutter speed and aperture. This leaves the photographer to make both settings – although the camera’s exposure meter can still be used as a guide.

If your EOS camera usually gives accurate exposure in one of the autoexposure modes, what is the point of Manual? Well, most of the time you may not need this shooting mode, but it is useful in difficult lighting situations, or where you want to create special effects with deliberate over- or under-exposure. Manual mode is also essential when using studio electronic flash, or other non-dedicated flashguns.

Manual mode only applies to the exposure. Autofocus is still active when the camera is set to Manual shooting mode.


Manual shooting mode is useful for special effects photography. Here, an exposure time of five seconds was used to capture the path of the burning sparkler. The person with the sparkler was captured by brief flash illumination during the long exposure.

Basic zone shooting modes

The basic zone shooting modes are designed to be foolproof. They are for beginners who have not yet mastered the concepts of exposure, but want to add a little variety to their images. The problem is that, from the professional point-of-view, they do not always produce the results you would expect.

Landscape mode

As a rule when photographing landscapes you want everything from the foreground to the far horizon to appear sharp. This is called wide depth-of-field and is obtained by setting a small lens aperture, such as f/16, or even f/22.

Landscape mode might only manage to set f/11. Cloudy weather will bring this down to f/8 or even f/5.6. This is because landscape mode has been programmed to set the shutter speed to 1/60 second or faster. This is good if you are hand-holding the camera, because the possible effects of camera shake at slower shutter speeds are far worse than a less than optimum depth-of-field.

However, for the best landscape images, you need to put the camera on a tripod and set a small lens aperture using the aperture-priority shooting mode. In some light conditions, this might result in a shutter speed of a second or more, but with the camera on a tripod, camera shake will not be a problem.


Landscape mode will give good depth-of-field in bright sunlight, but in cloudy conditions you may obtain better results setting a small aperture in aperture-priority mode. The resulting slow shutter speed means that it is a good idea to use the camera on a tripod if you want to avoid the blurring effects of camera shake.

Portrait mode

When you shoot a portrait, you might want to use a wide lens aperture to throw the background out-of-focus. The EOS portrait mode is quite good at this, usually giving aperture around f/4 to f/5.6. That’s because this mode likes faster shutter speeds, which means wider apertures.

However, portrait mode will also activate the built-in flash, if available, when the camera senses low light or backlighting. This can take you – and your subject – by surprise, and may not give the result you want. The mode also switches the camera to continuous shooting mode, helping you to keep up with ever-changing expressions if you hold the shutter button down.

For more control over your portraits, select aperture-priority shooting mode and choose the aperture you want for the image. Professional EOS digital cameras do not offer built-in flash (or portrait mode), so you can attach a Speedlite if you want to add fill-in illumination to backlit subjects.

Backlit portraits often have a shadow across the face (left). Portrait mode senses the backlighting and activates the built-in flash to add detail to the shadow areas (right).

Close-up mode

As you move closer to a subject, depth-of-field decreases - you might want to use a smaller lens aperture to compensate. However, close-up mode gives you a faster shutter speed instead, to compensate for the magnified effects of camera shake at close distances. This makes close-up mode very similar to portrait mode – both set wide apertures and fast shutter speeds, and both activate the built-in flash (if available) in low light or with backlit subjects.

Wide apertures for some close-up photography can be very effective, giving a very narrow depth-of-field. However, to control depth-of-field you should shooting in aperture-priority mode, and add a Speedlite if you need flash illumination. Most of the time you will need the camera on a tripod to avoid the effects of camera shake. A tripod also keeps the camera still for manual focusing, which is advisable when you get really close to a subject – at these distances the camera does not know which area of the subject you want to be sharp.

Close-up mode favours a fast shutter speed over a small lens aperture and will often give narrow depth-of-field for close-up subjects (left). If you want the maximum depth-of-field available use aperture-priority shooting mode and set the smallest aperture available on the lens – usually f/16 or f/22 (right).

Sports mode

Sport suggests action, which means that a fast shutter speed might be useful to ‘freeze’ the movement of the subject. That’s what the sports mode offers – 1/500sec or faster in bright light. Surprisingly, portrait mode can give even faster speeds in the same lighting conditions, but sports mode can fire the built-in flash automatically, which might be a problem at sports events where flash is prohibited. Sports mode never fires the flash.

The problem with sports mode is that it cannot identify the type of sport you are shooting. Is it a Formula 1 car flashing by at 180mph, or the more leisurely pace of a marathon runner. And if the subject is travelling across your field-of-view, it will appear to be travelling faster than if it is come towards the camera. This means that the best shooting mode for sports photography is shutter-priority, where you can select the optimum speed and leave the camera to look after the aperture.


Sports mode sets a relatively fast shutter speed, suitable for most sports action. For greater control, you can use shutter-priority mode and set the shutter speed you feel is best for the subject.

Night Scene mode

Night Scene mode is for taking photographs at night using the built-in flash. In other modes that use flash, the shutter speed does not drop below a value suitable for hand holding the camera. This helps to avoid the effects of camera shake in the image. However, a fast shutter speed at night means that the background to a subject - which is out of the range of the flash - will appear black in the photograph. Night Scene gets around this problem by setting a shutter speed to expose the background correctly. In effect, there are two exposures - a flash exposure for the foreground subject and an ambient light exposure for the background.

Since the exposure time can be quite long - several seconds in some conditions - it is essential to use a tripod for the camera. Movement of the subject is not usually a problem, as the flash exposure 'freezes' this.

A similar effect can be produced using aperture-priority mode - and this allows you to select the aperture for the exposure. You can also use a Speedlite, rather than the built-in flash, making the technique suitable for professional EOS cameras (which do not have built-in flash). As with Night Scene mode, aperture-priority mode gives a correctly exposed flash exposure for the foreground subject and a correctly exposed ambient light exposure for the background.

This technique, often called 'slow-sync' flash, works best when there is an interesting illuminated background - seaside or Christmas illuminations, shop windows and fireworks are just some examples.


Night Scene mode will help you to balance flash for a foreground subject with an exposure for the ambient background illumination. You can achieve the same effect in aperture-priority mode.

Flash disabled mode

The Flash Disabled mode ensures that the built-in flash will not fire, even in low light. It is similar to Sport mode, but better suited to low light photography. A tripod might be needed if a slow shutter speed is selected. Aperture-priority is an alternative shooting mode which will give similar results.


Flash disabled mode can be used when you do not want the flash to be activated automatically in one of the basic zone modes.