In this article, we’ll take a look at how you can use the Creative Settings modes on your camera to help you learn and advance your photography.
Do you always shoot in full Automatic or Program Mode (the green box)? If so and you are getting the results you want, that’s fine. But you shouldn’t stay in the safety of auto mode because you are intimidated by the camera.
Maybe, when you first got the camera, you took a look at all the dials and buttons and thought it looked like the cockpit of an airplane and gave up.
Or maybe some well-intentioned soul told you that if you want to be a real photographer, you have to shoot in manual mode. You tried it and decided it was too difficult to learn.
But the controls aren’t as complicated as you think and you don’t have to learn everything all at once. Like any other craft, the best way to learn is to take one step at a time, master that, and then move on. Using the creative settings on your camera is the first step in that mastery.
What are the creative modes?
Most cameras, including inexpensive point-and-shoots and high-end professional models, come with settings on the top dial, known as creative modes.
Your camera manufacturer may call them something different, and some newer mirrorless cameras don’t have them at all. Refer to your manual to be sure, but take a look at the dials on top of the camera to start.
Among all the letters and numbers, you should see four tiny icons that look like a face, a mountain, a flower, and a person running. Again, your camera may differ slightly, but these are the primary four that come with most cameras.
How your camera works
Before getting into the specifics of these creative modes, it’s best to get a basic understanding of how the camera works and what happens when you press the shutter.
All camera settings, no matter how simple or complex, are only controlling how much light gets to the film or the digital sensor. It does this by controlling two main factors, shutter speed and aperture. There is a third factor, ISO, but for the purpose of this article and keeping it simple, we will ignore that one for now.
Shutter speed controls how long the shutter stays open, and aperture controls the size of the hole through which the light enters. The combination determines if there is a little light or a lot of light hitting the sensor.
That’s it. Simple, right?
But why does the camera need two ways to control the amount of light being captured? That is because these two factors control more than just how much light is let in and understanding them is the key to better photography.
The shutter speed will decide if anything moving in the scene is sharp or blurry. The aperture controls how much of the scene is in focus. That is, how much in front of and behind your main subject is sharp (this is called depth-of-field).
These two settings and the results they create, individually and together, are what make up the creative controls on your camera as well. In full Automatic Mode, the camera meters (measures the light) the scene and makes its best estimate at what shutter speed and aperture would be best.
It’s rarely ever wrong, however, it may not create the effect you want for your image. For more precise control, try one of the creative modes. Let’s look at each option, one at a time.
Creative Modes #1 – Portrait Mode
Portrait Mode is designated by the face icon. As you may have guessed, it is designed to create images of people.
But it is helpful to understand why to use this mode and how it’s different from other styles. Doing so will help you know when this mode is not the best choice for photographing people or when it might be useful for other different types of photography.
Portrait Mode will try to choose a fast enough shutter speed, so your image isn’t blurry. It may also adjust the hue and saturation, so people in the image don’t look too red.
But the main thing that sets Portrait Mode apart is that is will choose a large aperture when possible. A larger aperture will give you a shallower depth of field (DOF), which is desirable for portraits. This will produce a pleasingly blurry background (like the image below), often called bokeh, which will make the subject stand out more.
The confusing thing about aperture is that the larger the opening, the smaller the number. So, for the Portrait Mode, the camera will choose a large aperture, such as f/4 instead of a smaller aperture such as f/16.
One instance where you may not want to use Portrait Mode is when photographing a group of people.
The camera doesn’t know how many people you are photographing and, therefore, may choose an aperture that’s too large. In such cases, everyone in the image may not be in focus.
On the other hand, any time you are shooting anything relatively small within the frame, or you want the background out of focus, Portrait Mode may be worth a try. Below is an example of a non-people subject that benefits from Portrait Mode.
Creative Modes #2 – Landscape Mode
Landscape Mode, indicated by a mountain, is basically the opposite of Portrait Mode. When shooting landscapes, you often want everything in focus, from the nearest subject in the foreground all the way to the distant horizon or mountains.
To do that you need to use a small aperture, such as f/16 or f/22. The camera will again try to compensate with a shutter speed fast enough to minimize camera shake. But because of the small aperture, it may need to use a longer shutter speed than you can comfortably shoot handheld.
Only by experimenting will you learn how slow you can shoot handheld and get sharp images. A good rule of thumb is not to go any slower than one over the focal length of your lens.
So if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, try and keep the shutter speed to at least 1/200th. Leaning against something solid, tucking your elbows into your body, and slow breathing are all methods that will improve your handheld technique.
Creative Modes #3 – Macro Mode
The flower icon is usually referred to as Macro Mode. This may not be entirely accurate as macro is a specific type of photography (the subject at 1:1 size on the sensor is a true macro), so Close-up Mode is a better name.
All macro photography is close-up shots, but not all close-up photography is macro.
This mode is used anytime you plan on getting really close to the subject, such as flowers or possibly food photography.
Macro Mode is a bit harder to describe, primarily because different camera manufacturers treat it in different ways. They all try and make sure the closest thing to the lens is in focus, but how much depth-of-field it renders may vary from camera to camera.
The best way to learn this mode is to try it out and compare it to shots made in other Creative Modes.
The critical thing to remember about shooting close up is that the distance to the subject, along with aperture and focal length greatly affects the depth of field.
If you are close enough to a flower so that it fills the whole frame, you may only have a fraction of an inch in focus. Also, being that close to the subject will exaggerate the tiniest movement, so photographing flowers close up is best done inside or on a completely calm day.
Creative Modes #4 – Action (Sports) Mode
Action or Sports Mode is easier to understand than macro, but again, it has limitations. Simply put, Action Mode will attempt to freeze movement, so that a moving subject is sharp.
Sports Mode will select a shutter speed as fast as possible (depending on the amount of light available) to make sure any motion is frozen. To accomplish this, it will also need to choose a large aperture, such as f/4 or larger, giving you less depth-of-field.
When trying to shoot an athlete in the middle of a field, this is not a bad thing but it is a consideration. If you are shooting a baseball or football game and you want the whole field in focus, you would be better off trying landscape mode.
For creative purposes, you also may want to blur the action or try your hand as panning, in which case, Sports Mode would not be the right choice.
There is a lot you can do and learn while shooting in full Automatic Modes, such as composition and lighting. But once you have mastered that or feel you have reached your potential, you don’t have to jump straight into the more complicated modes on your camera.
Creative modes provide a natural stepping stone in learning to master your camera. Think of these modes the next time you go out to shoot and learn how to use creative settings on your camera.