Digital cameras: Getting the most from your digital camera Camera modes
Below are some of the most common camera modes you'll find on a digital camera. Keep in mind, compact point-and-shoot models may not feature all of these modes.
If you're looking for a digital camera with advanced control modes, then it's worth considering a bridge camera or a digital SLR.
Digital SLRs boast advanced manual controls, though their bodies are larger and they can take time to master using.
Bridge cameras sit in between compact models and DSLRs.
They don't offer interchangeable lenses, and their image sensors aren't as large as what you'll find in a DSLR, but they do feature a generous amount of manual controls.
Most bridge cameras will let you adjust the aperture and shutter speed, white balance, exposure, and manual focus. Some models will even let you shoot RAW files for extra editing options later on.
Read our expert Which? reviews of the best bridge cameras to find the best model for you.
Nearly all cameras have autofocus (AF) but some also have manual focus (MF). MF is useful for close-ups as it lets you focus on exactly what you want (the centre of a flower instead of the petals, for example).
It's also handy for special effects, such as shooting a street light out of focus for a dreamy, romantic effect.
MF is also useful when AF won't work. AF sometimes struggles to work in poor light or when shooting from behind glass, for example.
A useful trick with MF is that when you want to shoot lots of pictures of objects or people at roughly the same distance away from you, you can set the MF to that distance and shoot away. Shutter delay will be cut right down as you won't be using AF, and you won't have to keep half-pressing the shutter button to lock the focus for every shot.
Light always appears white to the naked eye. In fact it takes different colours depending on the source; from household light bulbs to natural daylight. So a photo taken indoors by the light of a standard ceiling bulb may come out with a slight yellowish cast.
Digital cameras have a feature called auto white balance, which ensures the 'true' colours (as our eyes would see them) are shown. Sometimes the camera struggles, though, especially with close-ups or scenes dominated by a single colour – the sky, for example. To counter this, there are manually-selectable white balance settings, like daylight (for sunny days), cloudy (overcast days), or tungsten (for ordinary household light bulbs).
You can also use custom white balance mode to help achieve the most natural colours. Point the camera at something pure white, like a piece of paper, and the camera will evaluate the light conditions and set its white balance accordingly.
Digital camera ISO settings are very similar to film ones. The higher the number, the more sensitive the camera is to light.
If you're in a place where flash photography is prohibited, or you just don't want to use flash, manually select a high ISO number (for example, 400 or above). This will help to ensure the image has good levels of brightness and contrast, without using flash.
However, a high ISO setting introduces more 'noise' - random, small, coloured speckles, which are visible more in even areas of colour or when the image is enlarged. This can detract from the quality of your image, or on the other hand on a few photos, it can add an interesting sense of atmosphere.
Aperture priority mode
This is often found on the mode dial – look for 'A' or 'Av' – or through your camera's menu.
If your camera has aperture priority mode you can get creative by changing the f-stop yourself. The f-stop represents the size of the aperture, the hole in the lens that light passes through to form an image. It controls how much of your scene is in focus.
A low f-stop of 2.8, for example, combined with standing closer to your subject and zooming in closer, puts a lot of the background out of focus to create portrait shots. The further away the background the better. A high f-stop of 8 puts a lot of the shot in focus – good for landscapes. Settings are often available between low and high values, giving you precise control over focusing.
Shutter-speed priority mode
Shutter-speed priority mode gives you more precise control over a picture. It is often found on the mode dial – look for 'S' or 'Tv' or on your camera's menu. It is useful when photographing movement. You adjust the shutter speed manually – a fast shutter speed of 1/500 of a second, for example, will normally freeze the motion of a moving cyclist.
A similar shot taken with a shutter speed of 1/30 of a second will show the cyclist as a bit blurry, creating a nice visual effect of speed.
For maximum sharpness when using a slow shutter speed, use a tripod. Not all cameras have this feature.
Virtually all cameras have a burst mode. This feature, sometimes called continuous shooting mode, allows the camera to take several shots, one immediately after the other, until you take your finger off the shutter button.
The shot rate varies widely between different models, but most cameras take between one and three shots a second, with up to about 10 shots in total.
Burst mode is useful for getting still images from fast action, when you are shooting pictures of sport perhaps, or even a baby or toddler – subjects that find it hard to keep still! All pictures taken in burst mode are stored on the memory card – you can then choose to keep all, some or none of them.
Most cameras have a number of scene modes. These optimise the camera's settings for specific scenes and photo effects you'd like to create. Some cameras have more than 20 of them.
For example, select Portrait Mode to take a picture of a friend. Stand close to your friend, try to zoom in as well, and the background will be thrown out of focus making the friend the centre of attention. The closer you step in, the more the background will go out of focus. Also the photo might be a touch warmer in colour than normal, making skin tones more attractive.
Sports Mode freezes movement, such as a football flying in mid-air, and is good for action photography.
Some other modes are a bit less common. Beach and Snow modes, for example, help prevent your photos becoming washed-out in bright beach and snow scenes.
Party Mode helps with indoor photos in dim light. These modes normally give good results and are usually quick to select. Sometimes, it's simply a case of just turning the mode dial on the top of the camera to the correct position.
Scene modes don't always give the best possible result, especially in dull or very bright conditions, so look for cameras with aperture priority mode and shutter-speed priority mode as well. These give you more precise control under all light conditions.
For more on using a compact digital camera, as well as editing and sharing your photos, see also our book Digital Photography Made Easy.