Photo Tours: What Mode Should I Use My Camera In?


Recently, several clients on our New Zealand photo tours have asked me this and I thought that it would be worthwhile giving you my view on the matter here.

Most cameras have four modes, P A S M. The letters stand for Program, Aperture (priority). Shutterspeed (priority) and Manual.


Program is in effect full auto. The camera selects the shutter speed and aperture based on the reading from the internal light meter. Many cameras take Program one step further and have the ability to manually alter the selected combination so that you can select a faster shutter speed or wider aperture than the camera initially selected. This is useful because the camera does not know what your subject is or what artistic look you would like the image to have. Thus, if the camera selects 125 for the shutter speed and you want it to be at least 250, you can turn one selector dial until you get 250 and not worry about the other settings.

My first ‘real’ camera was a Canon AE-1 Program, which was one of the first cameras to offer the new Program mode.

Aperture Priority

This is a mode where you set the aperture and the camera selects the shutter speed. Useful for (say) landscapes or portraits where the principle concern would be the depth of field rather than stopping motion in most cases. It is probably the most used mode on our photo tours because of the beautiful landscapes that we have here in New Zealand.

Shutter Priority

The diametric opposite of Aperture Priority. You set the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture. Useful where stopping motion is the priority (or blurring it, for that matter).


Does exactly what it says on the tin – you do everything and the camera does nothing. Most useful (to me at least) for astrophotography.


So now that you know what the camera modes will do, you should be better placed to make a choice as to which mode you want to use.

Of course, it is not quite as simple as all that. Many years ago, my late father was teaching me maths. I asked him why I had to learn all these seemingly complex methods for adding, multiplying and dividing numbers when I could simply tap them into a calculator and get the answer. “Ah,” he said, “ If you cannot do it yourself, how will you know whether the calculator has given you the correct answer?”

This truism, simple as it seems, is equally correct when speaking about photography. If you have not learned that what appears on the face of it to be a wholly wrong exposure choice will in fact give you the image that your mind sees, then you won’t ever get that image. For example, shooting a player on a stage lit only by the spotlight will confuse the camera no end – a huge area of black with a single area of bright light in the centre. The natural choice of exposure for most cameras (if not all) will over expose the bright area. You will need to know to set the camera to underxpose the image in order to get the classic shot that you are seeking.

In digital photography the equation is further complicated by auto-ISO settings which can make the camera seem more sensitive to light by increasing the gain on the imaging sensor. However, the increased gain results in increased electrical noise which shows through in the image.

It’s all easily understood and by the time you head home from one of our unique New Zealand photo tours (click here to get in touch and book) you will have learned skills you can incorporate into a lifetime of photography.

New Zealand Photo Tours

South Island hills captured in the sunset light. Olympus OMD EM1X