Understanding Digital Camera Automatic Modes

Not so long ago A long time ago 35mm Range Finder cameras were the popular choice for snappers, today the compact digital camera care common place, not to mention the advancement of digital capture on mobile phones. Camera manufactures are constantly finding ways to improve the method of photography, so the joy taking pictures can be an easier process. Creative Auto modes are commonplace on today’s cameras, helping the user capture their subject with quicker and more accurate results than before. Auto modes take the complication out of having to dial in the proper exposure, white balance, aperture and focus settings, as you might do with an SLR, Medium or Large Format camera.

Getting stunning shots from a camera that costs under £150.00 ($300.00) is guaranteed today; the range of Pre-programed Intelligent Modes on these cameras can provide the means to take near perfect photographs, without having to be a professional. So on that note I’ve decided to make it even easier for you budding snappers, by listing the most common modes and outlining their functions found on most compact digital cameras.

Note: some of these Modes may not appear on your camera, that’s why I have written this list from the commonest first to the less well known. Also, there are other more obscure modes out there; however getting a handle on these popular and fundamental ones first will give you a good foundation in deciphering the others.

Fully Auto Mode

Most digital cameras (and mobile phones) come with an intelligent Auto Mode, which closely analyses the lighting conditions, by making a comparison between the varying shadow and highlighted areas of the subject.

The camera then automatically selects the right mode; combined with auto-focus, face detection, anti-shake and flash, to capture a well exposed photograph that’s sharp and crisp. Setting your camera to Fully Auto will allow you to “point and shoot” worry free, in almost any situation.

Portrait Mode

Using this setting will help you take better pictures of people (head and shoulders mainly). The camera will make the necessary adjustments such as auto focusing on the nearest object (the person) in the foreground and letting the background become out-of-focus. The camera will also fire the flash if the lighting isn’t bright enough.

Say Cheese! Most modern compact digital cameras have done away with the view finder!

Night Mode

This mode is really good fun to use. As the name suggests, you use this mode to take better pictures at night or in low light conditions. Choosing this mode on your camera will cause your screen to run slowly as if you are looking at the world in “slow motion” so you will have to hold the camera steady when you take the picture. Take a picture in the daylight with this mode on and you will get some fun and interesting effects.

Note: Try using a small tripod, a hard level surface, or if you get stuck ask your friend to stand still as you use their shoulder to steady the camera.

Night Portrait Mode

This mode will fire the flash in low light conditions, such as streetlight or candlelight. The camera will take a reading of the ambient light and fire a small amount of flash to eliminate the person within the low light setting. Make sure your sitter is close to the camera to the small burst of light will catch them.

Landscape Mode or Scenic Mode

This mode is the opposite of Portrait Mode. The camera will focus on objects in the distance, which in turn allows the shot to be wider, filling the frame with more of the landscape. The camera makes adjustments for the ambient light and exposes the photograph so both shadows and highlights have an even amount of detail. This mode suppresses the flash; this is because you’re more likely to be outside and using the sun to light your landscape.

Note: On some cameras you can override the suppressed flash and allow it to fire in Landscape Mode, this technique is best used when taking a group portrait in lowlight conditions.

Sports Mode or Action Mode

This mode is suited for capturing fast moving subjects, such as sports games, moving vehicles, and so on… The camera makes the right adjustments to capture the moving subject without allowing motion blur to occur. This mode is best used outside, however the flash on some models will fire, if used in low light conditions or inside.

Macro Mode or Close Up Mode

Macro basically means close-up photography, the term “Macro” refers to a ratio scale of an object related to the size of a frame on film or a slide, for example 1:1 (one to one) ratio allows you to take a picture of a coin and expose it on the negative so that the coin and the image on the negative are exactly the same size.

Of course Digital Photography doesn’t use film, however the term has stuck over the years to mean the same thing no matter what you’re using to take your pictures. Macro is like no other mode, the camera allows itself to focus on pinpoint detail without becoming blurry, such as the veins of a leaf or the grain of wood, however your subject needs to be well lit to get the very best results.

Note: If your subject is poorly lit, the flash will fire automatically and this can cause your photograph to be too bright (over-exposed), try placing your subject under a lamp or take it outside in to sunlight.

Movie Mode

This mode allows you to capture moving images in the form of a short movie. This is great for capturing birthday parties, sports events or someone singing, because it records sound as well. However be careful this mode uses a lot of memory to create a short movie, depending on your memory card size, this could be a concern if you’re planning on taking lots of photographs in one day.

Panoramic/ Stitched Mode

This mode is a relatively new feature to Compact Digital Cameras, before photographs were using computer software to stitch many photographs together in a rectangle to make a Panorama. Now, Digital Cameras are clever enough to do this on the fly. Typically you’ll take three or more photographs of a landscape, from left to right (in a 180 degree motion), slightly overlapping the next shot with the previous until all the photographs have been taken. The Camera then merges or stitches the photographs together by matching objects in the distance within the overlap, making a seamless Panorama.

Some more advanced Cameras will do this in one continues shot, by pressing the shutter release once and then rotating in a 180 or 360 degree motion, the camera records what it sees in one movement, giving you a evenly lit Panoramic image.

Note: try getting creative and take Panoramas vertically instead of horizontally, such as tall buildings, Big Ben and The Eiffel Tower.

Fireworks Mode

Similar to Night Mode the camera makes adjustments for very lowlight conditions and keeps the foreground and background in focus. This mode will give you good results without the use of a tripod.

Kids and Pets Mode

This mode is a bit of a gimmick, it is generally a lighter version of the Sports Mode, fast moving objects can be captured without motion blur occurring and a continual focus is enabled. On some more expensive Cameras a “Face Tracking Option” is combined with this “Light Sports Mode” which enables the camera to remember a highlighted area, such as a face and follow it, (keeping it in focus) as it moves around the screen, until you’re ready to take the shot.

Indoor/ Party Mode

Taking pictures indoors carries its own set of problems, we often have to use Tungsten and Florescent light, which will cause our photographs to become too yellow (tobacco) or too blue (cold) and low light means blur is likely to occur. This mode helps with setting a faster shutter speed and correcting the white balance for artificial lighting.

Sunset Mode

Will enable your photographs to become warmer, by adding more orange in to the photograph, the camera also allows for a wider shot to be evenly exposed.


Beach/Snow Mode

Beach and Snow scenes are often so bright that they fool the camera when it comes to exposure. Setting the camera to this mode help it realise what it is shooting in order to make compensations to keep the snow white and not a muddy grey or the beach colourful and evenly toned, and not overexposed.

Foliage Mode

Boosts colour saturation making greens and blues boulder, along with deepening the darker areas, such as shadows, which in turn causes the highlights to leap from the photograph, this mode is more of a filter effect much like Sunset Mode.

Underwater Mode

Its likely your camera will not have this option, however if it does, the camera will make the right adjustments for this unique set of exposure settings.


More Advanced Settings

Once you’ve got a handle on the Auto modes and their uses, try combining them with these settings to give you greater flexibility.

Automatic Flash

The camera will decide if it necessary to fire the flash, when it is set to Fully Auto and Portrait Mode depending on lighting conditions.

Red-Eye Reduction

Red-Eye occurs when the flash reflects from the inside wall of your subjects eyes, eliminating the blood vessels to show up through the pupil of the eye. Red-Eye Reduction fires a several pre flashes, causing your subjects iris to contract making the pupil smaller and reducing red-eye, the last flash to fire is the one which captures the picture.

Note: Inform your subject that a few flashes will go off, much like a strobe, so people don’t look startled as the picture is taken.

Suppressed Flash

This means the flash is turned off when you take your pictures, until you turn it back on or reset the camera (switching off, switching back on).

The Self-Timer

This is a long surviving and valuable setting on any camera, the main reasons for using a self-timer is when you want to take a self-portrait or include yourself in a group shot. The Camera must be placed on a tripod or level surface, then when the shutter release is pressed the self timer delays the capture for a few seconds, giving the picture-taker (hopefully) enough time to get in to position.