Photography Guide : Which Mode To Use?


AMPS, MAPS, SPAM, PAMS – whatever the arrangement, those are some interesting Initials seen on a camera’s mode dial. Understanding the modes could be very helpful when it comes to getting your next best shot, or at least it’ll help you settle your photography assignment with much less hassle.

I’m going to make this guide as simple as I can.

The Modes

P Program mode Camera does everything for you.
A or Av Aperture priority or ‘Aperture value’ You set the aperture, the camera decides the rest.
S or Tv Shutter priority or ‘Time value’ You set the shutter speed, the camera decides the rest.
M Manual mode You set everything.

Program Mode – P

Marked as P on the dial, this mode is often called (sarcastically) the PROFESSIONAL mode. 😛 I call it the Panic mode. Use this if all else fails, for example it’s a critical moment and you are in a state that’s more clueless than a sleeping squirrel or when your brain just decides to pull the brakes. Yeah go ahead and use this mode, you’ll have a chance of pulling it through.

I think I’ve probably took less than 10 photos with this mode since the day I picked up photography. You shouldn’t need to use this mode UNLESS you’re the type who buys an expensive camera but does not bother to learn up the fundamentals of exposure. Shame on you.

Aperture Priority – A / Av

This is one of my favorite modes. Unlike P mode that the camera sets whatever it sees fit, which more often than not, are the aperture and shutter speed settings that result in an image not the way you want.

In Av mode, you get to set the aperture and the aperture remains as it is. If you set it to f/4 it will remain at f/4 no matter the condition, the camera will then adjust the shutter speed accordingly to get what it thinks is the right exposure. You’ll have to use the Exposure Compensation function to tweak the exposure to what you want, or in some cases it’s used to get the shutter speed you need to get a good shot.

I use Av mode in my interior photography assignments where the aperture is fixed at f/8 – f/11.


I also use it for travel photography and event photography where I set the aperture either to the widest available (Eg f/4 for my AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR) or to the widest available throughout the zoom range (Eg f/5.6 for my Canon EF-S 15-85 f/3.5 – f/5.6 IS USM lens)

Shutter priority – S / Tv

This mode is handy when the shutter speed is the key to getting the shot you want. For example, long-exposure photography where the longer exposure time allows you to capture light trails. Or another example is motorsports, like say moving vehicles, you need a certain exposure to freeze the moment well enough and yet have it exposed long enough to capture movement.


This is also helpful in photographing events where the scene is bright enough that aperture is not an issue, for example outdoor sports. In such a scenario having faster shutter speed will help you nail the shots.

Manual Mode

This is when you want everything CONSTANT – You’ll see the aperture and shutter speed. It’s the best way to maintain consistency.

I use manual mode for all my flash photography works like my food and product photography, like the photos you see on this site.

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Fixed shutter speed and aperture also means your exposure and depth of field are fix, this is crucial for generating consistent output.

What Mode To Start With?

Never start with P. P is PANIC Mode and you should only resort to it when all else fails, exactly as what I mentioned earlier.

My take is that newbies should just start with any of the other modes. Manual mode is great but it’s not the mode you should use to get nice pictures right out of the camera. I recommend you use Manual mode to experiment with Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO to balance the exposure.

Don’t shy away from A (Av) and S (Tv) modes – they’re a great way to start because you’ll how aperture and shutter speed affects photos from your attempts. For example, if you were to use Aperture Priority mode, just set the aperture to f/5.6 for example and you’ll see how your camera goes to a faster shutter speed when the scene is bright and it lowers the shutter speed when the scene is dark.

Knowing Which Mode To Use

Understand the modes, understand what you need and understand the challenges at the scene.

– Manual mode for full control.
– Priority modes when you can afford to let the camera decide on something.
– Program (PANIC) mode when all else fails.

Please also do understand that MANUAL mode isn’t always the best mode. There’s a common misconception that one MUST use Manual mode in order to progress, and that Professionals use only Manual mode. I use Aperture priority mode for my interior photography works because it spares me a lot of time from having to change settings for each new scene or direction. 🙂

Clear? Enjoy Photography!

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