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DSLR and mirrorless camera settings explained

By Ryan Shaw

Perplexed by the symbols on your DSLR or mirrorless camera? Discover what they all mean and how to get the best-quality results from your camera.

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Typically, if you’re upgrading from a point-and-shoot camera or approaching photography as a beginner, DSLR and mirrorless camera symbols can be a bit of a mystery. If you don’t know what they mean, you’re probably not using the camera to its full capacity or getting the best-quality photos.

The best part? Camera symbols are mostly universal, so once you've figured them out you can be confident that you’ll have no trouble navigating the settings or controls on any DSLR or mirrorless camera that you pick up and use.

Our DSLR and mirrorless camera symbols guide will make sure you’re using the right settings for the job, whether that’s snapping action shots or creating a time-lapse photo. Click on the symbols below to jump to the explanation of each one and what it's for.

If you simply want to find a great camera, see our mirrorless and DSLR Best Buys here.

Auto mode (A green square)

What does it do?

This mode seems pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth understanding what’s happening behind the scenes. Your camera does the best job it can of taking a great picture by controlling the three elements of exposure - aperture, ISO and shutter speed. This way, it allows you to take a decent photo with consistent results in varying light conditions.

What’s it good for?

Most types of camera users, particularly beginners or people who don’t want to get bogged down in the technical details — they just want a good photo.

Program Auto Exposure (P)

What does it do?

At first glance, Program mode is very similar to Auto mode, but with some slight differences. The camera still selects the best settings for the photo, but you retain control over image file quality (Raw or Jpeg), white balance and picture style. Using this mode also provides control over the flash - for example, if you want it to pop up automatically or to turn it off altogether.

What’s it good for?

This mode is great for when you’re ready to move on from Auto mode and want to have some control over your camera. You get the chance to experiment with some settings, while still being confident that you’ll get a decent shot.

Aperture Priority (Av or A)

What does it do?

Aperture Priority mode determines whether one part, or all, of the photo is in focus. Aperture is indicated by an f/stop number – the higher the number, the more of the photo will be in focus. You control the ISO and aperture, and the camera selects the correct shutter speed required to get the best exposure.

What’s it good for?

Drawing the viewer’s eye to the subject you want them to focus on. If you’re taking a photo of a landscape, and you want the foreground and background of the shot to be sharp, you can select an aperture of f/11. But if you want to take a photo of a flower and you want the petals in focus but not the background, you would choose a smaller number, such as f/4.0.

Shutter Priority (Tv or S)

What does it do?

When taking pictures in Shutter Priority mode, you select the appropriate ISO and shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture for a correctly exposed image. There are three main approaches available: fast shutter speed to freeze motion, slow shutter speed to blur any motion in the scene, or mid-range shutter speed to freeze most motion, but keep the shot free from camera shake.

What’s it good for?

Using a fast shutter speed to freeze motion (1/2,000), such as a F1 car overtaking, or using a slow shutter speed to give an artistic blur (30 seconds) - to shoot a waterfall, for example. The ideal shutter speed for the situation is dependent on how fast the subject is moving and the distance between you and the subject.

Manual mode (M)

What does it do?

Manual mode is where all photographers should aspire to end up. This is where you control all three elements of exposure – aperture, ISO and shutter speed. Regardless of camera manufacturer, using Manual mode works the same. By using the camera’s light meter, it allows you to judge the amount of light in the scene and ensure that the picture is not over-exposed or under-exposed.

What’s it good for?

Capturing photos on Manual mode can be time-consuming, with a lot of trial and error involved, but very rewarding since you can get the exact photo you want. Manual mode works for any photography scenario because you can select the settings to suit the conditions.

Bulb mode (B)

What does it do?

Using Bulb mode is a little different to the other modes listed here. When shooting in this mode, the shutter stays open as long as you have the shutter button pressed. Also known as time exposure, you can use a cable release or remote trigger to capture the shot without touching the camera, to ensure minimal camera shake.

What’s it good for?

Bulb mode is best used for capturing night scenes, such as fireworks, where you need to capture as much light as possible to properly expose the image. You’ll usually have to stabilise the camera with a tripod, because the shutter stays open for a long time and you need to minimise camera shake as much as possible.

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