Shooting Modes, Drive Modes and Focus Methods

So maybe you never took you camera out of automatic. Well, I have to say, you’re probably missing out. Auto is OK if you’re just starting and you’re trying to understand the basics of composition and so on but after a while you should learn more about how to use the technical side of photography to create the images you want. If you can’t be bothered using manual or semi-manual modes, I would advise to at least use the preset shooting modes such a portrait, landscape etc as at least this way the camera will have some understanding of what it’s looking at and will try to give you some help in choosing settings.

The Mode Dial lets you choose the best settings for your images

There are four to five main camera modes that DSLRs, Mirrorless Cameras and the fancier compacts have. These are:

  • Program (P): this is where the camera chooses the shutter speed and apertures. You can choose your ISO automatically or manually and let the camera adjust the shutter and aperture accordingly. I find program is good for starting out in the semi-manual modes and is pretty good for general shooting or landscapes. I don’t really have any use for this mode personally.

  • Aperture Priority (Either Av or A): This is where you choose yourself an aperture and the camera will adjust the shutter speed to ensure correct exposure. Again ISO can be manually or automatically chosen. This mode is excellent for practically anything as changing your aperture is good for changing your depth of field which is often the most important thing to change between different shots. My camera sits in this mode maybe 75% of the time.

  • Shutter Priority (Either Tv or S): Here you choose the shutter and let the camera change the aperture accordingly. Again you can choose your ISO either manually or automatically. This is good for long exposure effects and really useful for panning shots, I’ll explain what panning is in a later post.

  • Manual (M): This is where you choose both the aperture and shutter speed. You can choose to have your ISO adjust automatically or manually specify it. This is an excellent mode to use for long exposure shots, for composites and for when the other modes just aren’t doing what you want them to do.

  • Bulb (B): Bulb means you don’t specify a shutter speed in advance. The way it works is you tell the camera when to start the exposure and then you tell the camera to stop the exposure later. You can do this by holding the shutter button down on camera or on a cable release. You can also use the wireless remote to start and stop the exposure. So this way you can have shutter speed of whatever you want. I find this useful in light painting when I don’t know exactly how long a shutter speed I need and it’s useful for any situation where you want to use a shutter speed longer than 30s. Note that Bulb is sometimes not included as a separate mode but rather built under Manual. In this case, just increase the shutter speed in Manual until it says Bulb.

A photo like this is probably best done in manual by making use of the inbuilt ambient light meter

A photo like this is easiest to do in Aperture Priority Mode by dialling in a high aperture (i.e. a low f-stop number)

Another interesting thing in cameras are the Drive Modes. These are the different ways the camera will take the photo. These modes include:

  • Single: if you hold the shutter down or just press it, the camera takes one shot and then stops

  • Continuous: if you hold down the shutter button, the camera will keep taking shots until you remove or finger or you fill up the buffer in which case it will slow down. Higher end cameras have High Speed and Low Speed continuous which just refers to the number of photos it takes each second.

  • 10 Second Delay/Remote Shooting: If you select this mode, you will have 10 seconds before the camera takes the shot. Alternatively if you want to use a wireless remote, you’ll often have to use this option.

  • 2 second Delay: The camera will take the shot two seconds after you press the shutter button. This is useful when you are doing long exposure but have no cable or remote. This way the camera will have a couple seconds to settle and be still before it takes the photo.

  • Custom Delay: In this mode the camera will take a series of shots after ten seconds. You can specify how many photos you want, although it usually has an upper limit of 10 or so.

A high speed shot like this is easiest to do in shutter priority with a continuous drive mode

One last thing to talk about here is focus methods. When you look through a camera viewfinder, you will see a bunch of dots that probably light up from time to time. These are focus points and they work by selecting an area of the photo upon which they will focus. Different models have a different number of points although 9 seems to be the minimum for most cameras nowadays. More points give more flexibility although I feel this really only applies to subjects in motion. A lot of the time, you can shoot using the typical focus and recompose method which really only requires one dot in the centre. I often specify to my camera to use the centre dot only when using the focus and recompose method. There are three focus methods on Canon cameras, you should find something similar to these on other models:

  • One Shot: This is where the camera will focus once either by you half-pressing the shutter button or using back button focus and will keep the focus locked here until you release and repress the button. This is good for most things that aren’t moving. For people, you can use the focus and recompose method using One Shot. This is where you place the AF point over the person’s eye and then focus, then while keeping the shutter button half pressed, or the back focus button completely pressed, you can recompose your shot to put your subject where the want them and then take the shot. This way you can ensure the focus is exactly where you want because otherwise the camera can often choose the wrong points to focus on.

  • AI Servo: This is a continual focusing system. This means the camera will continually focus until you actually take the shot, i.e. the focus is never locked. This is good for moving subjects like cars or children running around. For kids, I usually recommend people select a focus point where they want the kids eyes to be and to keep this point over the eye while the kid is running around. This way you can capture them moving while also keeping them in focus. If your camera supports it, I sometimes like to use area focus which is where you specify a section in the frame where you intend for your subject to be. I do this when I photograph dancers

  • AI Focus: This is some weird hybrid system that claims to be able to switch between One Shot and AI Servo when necessary. I personally don’t use it, but it’s up to you to explore it.

The focusing method can make a big difference when shooting using continuous drive modes. This is because if you shoot continuous using One Shot, the camera will focus for the first shot and will not adjust the focus for the subsequent shots. So say for example you are in One Shot and Continuous Drive Mode and you hold the shutter button down and the camera takes 10 photos before you let go of the shutter button, the camera will focus for the first shot and the focus will not adjust for the next 9 photos. If you use Continuous Drive Mode and AI Servo however and you do the same thing, then the camera will adjust the focus between all 10 shots.

Do keep in mind that focus is related to distance from you to the subject, so if a subject is moving side to side, then the focus doesn't need to be adjusted because they're always the same distance from you. However, if your subject is moving front and back, then focus will need to be adjusted because they are adjusting their distance between you and them.

In this photo, I have a static subject so it's best to use One Shot focusing to ensure correct focus on the subject's eye. I generally use the standard Focus and recompose technique that ensures the focus is exactly where I want it to be.

In this image, my subject is moving towards me and so I would rather use AI Servo to help ensure that the focus is correct. I would choose a focus point that is on her face so that it keeps her face in focus while she's running at me.

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