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Camera Dial Modes - The Key to Taking Better Kid Pictures

by Eric Von Lehmden | December 12, 2011

I have to give a big thank you to my sister Jen for coming up with this topic. What the heck do all these things mean on my camera dial? They could also be somewhere on your point and shoot...Let me give you an idea of what I am talking about. If you have a DSLR...or something that looks like this

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Then you may have a dial on top of the camera that looks like either of these. The top one is a Nikon dial and the bottom one is a Canon dial.

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Even if you have a point and shoot my bet is that some of these same figures and letters are somewhere on your camera. Now the trick is figuring out what the camera dial modes mean and how to use them...or should I use them. The goal here is taking better pictures of your kids...right. And a big part of that is understanding your camera and how it works and what it's limitations are. Just like GI Joe always said "Knowing is half the battle"...important words to live by. Ok, I may be overstating, but it is kind of true.

All right, let's get down to it. What exactly do your camera dial modes mean, what do they do, and should I use them or not. First off let's figure out what they mean. Here is a quick guide to let you know at least what the camera dial modes stand for.

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The first thing I want you to do is ignore and don't use any of the little picture icon settings like: portrait, landscape, close-up/macro, sport...etc. Those aren't magical settings that are going to make that particular photo look fantastic and brilliant. They are presets that the camera companies have pre-programmed to try to help you take better pictures in those situations. In my opinion you don't need them, and they can often mess you up more than they help you out.

Onto the letters and a little more about their meaning. I will go in order of importance (in my opinion)

  • M - Manual Mode - That means that the shutter speed and the aperture are completely in your control. The upside: You have the most creative control in manual. The downside: Probably the hardest to master. *Note: I would say the majority of professional photographers learn and shoot in Manual Mode.
  • A or Av - Aperture Priority Mode - In aperture priority mode you select which aperture you want to shoot at and your camera auto selects the best shutter speed for a "correct" exposure. This camera dial mode can be very helpful if you are in a situation where your light is constantly changing. In manual mode your fingers would be busy changing settings, in aperture priority mode, you set the aperture and the camera does the shutter speed. Did you notice the " " around the word, correct? Without getting into too much technical stuff, just know that you may still need to do some tweaking to the image to get an exposure to your liking. Overall this is a good setting to take better pictures in a pinch.
  • S or Tv - Shutter Priority Mode - You guessed it...you select which shutter speed you want to shoot at and the camera will select the aperture for a balanced exposure. You know what...honestly...I wouldn't worry about using Shutter Priority. Aperture Priority is much better to master (in my opinion). So for right now, don't use it. Oh, and why Canon decided on Tv for Shutter priority? It stands for "Time Value". They are trying to keep it Old School.
  • P - Program Mode - This camera dial mode can take better pictures than full auto. The camera is still picking your shutter and aperture for you, but you can still adjust a few things you couldn't in Auto mode. You can control the flash, the ISO (film speed) and white balance of the camera. The upside: Your flash won't automatically pop up for almost every single photo. You are in control of when the flash fires or not and a few other things that control the quality of the photo. The downside: You are losing a lot of creative control with the camera choosing your shutter speed and aperture.
  • Auto or green rectangle - Auto Mode - the camera is in complete control of...well...pretty much everything. You are just pointing and shooting (probably not why you bought a DSLR). It is controlling your shutter speed, your aperture, when the flash goes off, the white balance of the photo, and the ISO the photo is taken at. The upside: This is a good way to learn if you are just starting. Begin to notice how shutter speeds and aperture work together. The downside: Zero creative control. Your DSLR is a effectively a large, expensive point and shoot (which is totally ok when you are starting out.)

My challenge to you would be to learn how to use your camera in the M for Manual mode. But we can take baby steps. At least now you know exactly what those buttons are. You can start to explore by using them...skipping over a bunch of them and take note of which camera dial mode does what on your camera.

Once you start to master these different modes you will notice how much more control you have over your photos and how good they will start to look...of course you know Canvas Press is here to help you design your own wall art and make any of those amazing photos you take into canvas prints for you ;-D...Just in case you forgot.

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