Photography has become so consumer-friendly that the vast majority of amateur photographers never venture beyond the safe default setting of “auto.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that thousands of people live with “auto mode addiction,” in fear of their digital camera’s manual (both the book and the mode) and unable to take the quality pictures they desire.  Understanding the rest of your camera’s modes is an excellent place to start if you’re just taking your first steps out of auto-mode addiction. When warmer weather is in the forecast, it’s the perfect opportunity to get out your camera to learn and experiment with your camera’s various shooting modes.

Most of these settings are carefully designed to be highly intuitive and easy to understand, but it is still helpful to understand what benefits you can expect from each turn of the switch and why no mode is ever a guarantee of success. No camera – no matter how pricey – is able to flawlessly adjust to its surrounding environment or to give instructions to models about how to smile or which pose to strike. Mastering how to use a camera is just one of the many aspects of photography that makes it such an engaging profession and hobby.

The Basic Preset Camera Modes

Here is the lowdown on some of the most popular digital camera preset modes (most point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras will have these modes):

“Easy” or “Auto” Mode

This mode is built for the beginner and amateur photographer who simply prefers to keep everything on cruise control. Chances of failure are relatively low and there is little need to learn about things like ISO, white balance, aperture, shutter speed, flash, and focus. Why? Because on Automatic Mode your camera will do its best to sense the surrounding environment and adjust to all those elements in order to give you a nice result. However, because you’re not telling your camera what it is that you want – a close up of a flower petal, or a panoramic urban landscape – it’s going to give you a kind of “one-size-fits-all” image that may or may not hit the mark. 

Portrait Mode

In portraiture the protagonist should become the focal point, allowing all other details and settings to drift away in the background. Portrait mode does just that: it provides sharp focus on the central object and blurs out the background, giving the image a subtle sense of depth and a powerful sense of what is important.

photograph of girl by Julie Kubal

Landscape Mode

Landscape photography captures a wide sweeping view of objects at varying distances from the camera. In landscape mode the camera will use a small aperture to gain depth of field, allowing the entire image to appear in sharp focus rather than blurring out everything besides the focal point.

Houses painted in many bright colors in Guanajuato, Mexico by Julie Kubal

Night Mode

When light is dim or in short supply, your camera’s shutter speed must slow down to let more light in and to ensure that the image appears in crisp focus. Night mode will increase exposure time to allow you to capture the visual details and may occasionally use the flash to illuminate nearby objects. Because the exposure time is increased, a steady hand is particularly important for capturing nighttime images.

Boy Sleeping in Bed

Action Mode

The faster your subject is moving, the faster your camera will have to act to capture the action. Unlike in night photography when the shutter speed slows down to capture more light, action shots require a quick shutter speed and higher ISO  to ensure crisp images and sharp detail.

Father tossing baby daughter up in the air

Macro Mode

Ideal for capturing minute details or small objects, Macro Mode gets you an up close and personal look at your subject matter. Your camera’s depth of field will be very narrow in this mode, meaning that slight movements will cause blur and that only a very small surface area will be in focus – as opposed to Landscape Mode. If you’re struggling to get vivid, crisp images in this setting, simply set yourself up with a sturdy tripod and you should see great improvements.


If you’re a beginner or amateur photographer who is just starting to handle a camera with confidence, learning the inner workings of these preset modes is an excellent place to start. Sure, they’re quite intuitive, but the more you understand the variables and functions that go into creating a variety of different photos, the more you’ll be able to manually adjust those functions when the time comes to do so.

Julie Kubal family portraits Washington D.C.About the Photographer and Author:

Julie Kubal is a child and family portrait artist and photographer serving Washington DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. She is passionate about creating warm and meaningful artwork through modern portraits and lifestyle photography at a location of your choice!