Photography for Beginners Part 2: Auto Mode & Program Mode

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 1:  It’s All About Light – The Exposure Triangle


In the previous post in this series I explained the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) and how the three work together. In this post I will discuss two camera modes and how you can put ISO to work for you as a beginning photographer

The details of modes and settings depend on your specific camera. If you only have a phone camera you can’t adjust much of anything, which is the primary reason phone users who get into photography purchase a real camera.


Automatic Mode

In Automatic Mode your camera chooses all the settings for you, so all you have to do is compose and shoot.

Auto Mode gets a bad rap. All over the web you will read and hear that no real photographer ever uses it. But modern cameras are very good at correctly exposing images and there are situations where you might want to let the camera work it all out so you can concentrate on focus and composition. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Some of the photos I post for my park previews are taken in Auto Mode. The majority of preview photos are intended to be informational so sometimes I’d rather not bother with settings, especially if I’m in a hurry or it’s a boring photo of a porta potty. The camera is always on Auto when snapping pics while driving in my car.

Auto Mode can be the difference between getting a shot or not if something suddenly changes and you’re currently shooting with one or more extreme settings.

Imagine you are shooting a close-up of a wildflower in deep shade. Your camera will be at its widest aperture, a higher ISO, and slower shutter speed. A deer appears at the edge of the bright sunny meadow off to the side, looking poised to leap back into the bushes. A quick flip to Auto Mode will at least let you get an adequately exposed shot off.

If you manually change two or three settings you might have a better set-up for the situation, but end up with a pretty picture of empty meadow grass. If the deer hangs around after you snap the pic on Auto, then you can afford to be choosier about your settings.

Auto Mode is especially useful if you hand your camera off to someone else to take a pic. If you want to be in a snapshot with your cousins you can hand the camera to Uncle Joe, who knows nothing about cameras, and he can snap the pic without any fuss.

All cameras are programmed to have their own priorities in making an automatic exposure. Your camera’s priorities might work against you, or make little sense in given light conditions.

My Panasonic bridge camera tends to choose a wide aperture, even in sunlight. Since the sweet spot for the lens is f8 (its smallest aperture), that means if I just leave the camera in Auto I’m often not getting the sharpest photos the camera can produce.

You want to take your camera out of Auto Mode when you have a specific priority for the image you’re making, the camera’s choices aren’t appropriate for your subject (like not a fast enough shutter speed), or you want to avoid a tendency of your camera (like an unnecessarily wide aperture).

You will discover this ends up being most of the time. Auto Mode is great to have and shouldn’t be avoided just because photography snobs think it unworthy, but as you become more comfortable with photography concepts you probably won’t use it much.

The most important thing to know about Auto Mode is that the camera is “locked.” You can’t change anything.

Auto Mode Exercise

Even if your goal is to learn how to always use your camera settings and never again use full auto, it’s an excellent idea to do some experimenting to see how your camera model makes choices and see how those choices affect image quality (IQ).

One of the best ways to learn how your camera handles things is to go out and take a bunch of photos in Auto Mode under a variety of conditions. Don’t worry about interesting subjects, you’re just trying to learn what your camera is doing.

Take some close-ups and landscapes. Go out on a sunny day in bright light and then move into deep shade or go out at dusk. Snap pics of stationary subjects and moving subjects.

Download the photos onto your computer and in your image viewing program look for the info or details option on the menu. This will display each photo’s metadata, which is a record of the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. used to create the image. Zoom in and look for noise, soft details, or motion blur and see what the settings were.

Which photos are sharpest? Does your camera prioritize in a way that you don’t like or that hinders the photos from being their best? Does it have a problem handling certain light conditions?

The more you know about how your specific camera performs and makes choices the smarter you will be about choosing your own settings.


Program Mode

Program Mode is what most beginning photographers use as their first step into taking more control of their camera.

You will find that many photography snobs are just as dismissive of Program Mode as they are of Auto Mode. But P Mode can be useful, so don’t ignore it just to fit someone else’s definition of a “real” photographer.

Program Mode, usually designated by a P on your camera’s mode dial, “unlocks” your camera from being fully automatic.

Which camera settings you are allowed to change in P Mode can vary by camera model and in many cameras P Mode is quite flexible, allowing you to make changes to several different settings.

I’m not going to cover all the P Mode possibilities here because it’s just too much. In many instances you are better served by choosing a different camera mode instead of fiddling around a lot with P Mode.

P Mode is most useful in situations when you want to take full control of ISO and you know you can trust the camera’s automatic choices for aperture and shutter speed. This can help you work more quickly while concentrating entirely on composition.

I tend to think of Program Mode as ISO Priority Mode for that reason.

Using the camera’s lowest native ISO will produce photos with the least amount of noise. Noise is the faint little dots or specks you can see in digital photos, especially in solid dark areas of an image.

By native ISO I mean the ISO range built into your camera’s sensor. Some cameras have an extended ISO setting, but it’s usually a good idea to keep that turned off since it’s accomplished with additional processing of the image rather than being native to the sensor.

Cameras vary widely in which ISO settings are usable in terms of the amount of noise produced. A general rule of thumb:  the larger the sensor and more expensive a camera is the better it handles high ISO numbers.

Good Program Mode situations are when you have decent to good light, a stationary or slower moving subject, and/or are shooting a wider scene. (Not close to your subject or zoomed in.)

Set your mode dial to P and use your camera’s controls to select ISO. How ISO is selected varies. Some cameras make it a bit cumbersome by forcing you into the menu system. Some cameras have an ISO button that lets you scroll through and select ISO. A few models make it super easy by giving you a dedicated ISO knob.

Any photos taken now will use the ISO you selected and the camera will automatically choose an aperture and shutter speed to go with it.

When you half-press your shutter button the camera should display the aperture and shutter speed it has chosen. If you don’t like the choices the camera made you can increase or decrease ISO until you see satisfactory settings. Or you can switch to a different camera mode in order to take more control.

Program Mode ISO Exercise

Go out somewhere in daylight to snap some pics. You don’t need an interesting subject for this exercise, but it’s best if part of your photo contains a dark area, an area with detail, and lighter areas.

Set your camera to P Mode and the lowest native ISO. Stand in one spot and take repeated photos of the same composition. Before taking each photo increase the ISO number. You don’t need a photo for every tiny increment. Increasing ISO by 200 each time will do the trick at lower ISO numbers and 1000 or more at higher numbers.

Depending on light conditions you might find you can’t use the full ISO range. If it’s too dim shutter speed might get too slow to avoid camera shake at low ISO and if it’s too bright you might not be able to use the highest ISO settings because your shutter speed maxes out as fast as it can go.

Study your test photos on your computer. Specifically look at details and the dark area. This will let you know how your camera performs in terms of noise and detail smearing. You will see where the ISO cutoffs are between very good and decent IQ, and between sort of okay and unacceptable.

You can also see how the camera adjusts aperture and shutter speed to compensate for each chosen ISO.

Once you have a good idea of how your camera performs you can go out shooting in Program Mode, taking confident control of your ISO.

An exercise like this isn’t only for beginners. Anytime you get a new camera you will want to test its ISO performance and using P Mode is the easiest way to do that. I tested my new camera doing this a few days ago.



As I mentioned, I have a new camera and wanted to see how high I can go with ISO. (Pretty high it turns out, which is one reason for getting the new camera. I wanted something that handles low light better.)

After realizing I could use the test shots for this post I also realized it would be more useful to have comparisons with my two older cameras, so went out again and found a similar subject. (All pics have been cropped.)

Zoom in to see details.

These first two pics are from my circa 2006 Canon pocket camera.


ISO 80 (lowest native ISO).

ISO 800 (highest camera allows).

ISO 800 (highest camera allows).

The next three are from my 2014 Panasonic bridge camera. Compare ISO 800 to the same above. There’s a dramatic difference.

ISO 125 (lowest native).

ISO 125 (lowest native).

ISO 800.

ISO 800.

ISO 12800 (highest native).

ISO 12800 (highest native).

These last three are from my new Fujifilm mirrorless camera, a model that was just released last month. Notice that at 12800 the noise is a fine grain compared to the splotchy mess of the Panasonic at the same setting.

ISO 200 (lowest native).

ISO 200 (lowest native).

ISO 800.

ISO 800.

ISO 12800 (not the highest native).

ISO 12800 (not the highest native).


Part 3: Shutter Priority Mode


4 thoughts on “Photography for Beginners Part 2: Auto Mode & Program Mode

  1. Auto mode does get a bad wrap. I use it a lot. I also do my own programming usually aperture priority and I change the ISO and exposure a lot too. I’m with you … from the car I always use auto.


  2. Great tutorial! I should try to remember to use auto in challenging situations. I’m just not good at making adjustments quickly so sometimes it would be really helpful to switch to auto. For my camera, the main reason that I prefer manual over auto is the white balance. With the white balance on auto, my photos have a grayish look to them. But still, many times using auto I could have gotten a shot that I ended up missing completely!


    • Yeah, sometimes I just think to myself, this light is tricky, let’s see what the camera can do on its own.

      White balance is something that I’m still mostly clueless about. It never even occurs to me to use other than auto WB, even though it’s important. I know just enough at this point to sometimes at least recognize that the reason one of my pics looks “off” is probably because of WB, but that’s about it.

      Right now I have the learning curve of a new camera, but once I’m more confortable with it I hope to start thinking more about WB and exposure compensation. (Another thing I’ve rarely messed with, but that can be important!)


Comments or questions always welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s