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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials In Focus: Camera Basics- Part15

Camera Basics # 15: Program AE (P mode)

The Program AE mode, a semi-automatic mode where the camera automatically sets the aperture and shutter speed, enables you to shoot quickly to capture sudden photographic opportunities, and yet still retain creative control over other settings such as white balance. (Reported by Tomoko Suzuki)

Program AE visual


Program AE: The point-and-shoot mode where the camera determines the aperture and shutter speed


- The camera decides on both the aperture and the shutter speed.
- It’s great for capturing sudden, unexpected shutter opportunities.
- Unlike fully-automated modes, you can still change other settings such as white balance (WB) and exposure compensation.

It can be tremendous fun to experiment with different shutter speed and aperture settings, but finding the perfect combination often takes time and can result in lost photo opportunities. Yet, those who also want to retain some creative control over the photo outcome might feel restricted by fully-automated shooting modes. That's when Program AE mode comes in handy. In this mode, the camera automatically determines and sets the optimum aperture-shutter speed combination, making it ideal if you need to shoot fast to capture unexpected shutter opportunities. If you use it together with the ISO Auto setting, you can also take handheld snapshots with minimal camera shake.

How, then, is it different from fully-automated modes such as Scene Intelligent Auto? For one, the latter is targeted at beginner users, so the camera automatically sets almost all shoot settings, such as the AF function and metering mode, in order to lessen the risk of failed shots. It therefore offers little room for customization for those who want a bit more leeway with creative expression. Program AE mode, on the other hand, takes over only the aperture and shutter speed settings. It still allows you to customize the white balancePicture Style, and exposure compensation settings, among others, to better reflect your shooting intent. 

One thing that makes Program AE mode different from Aperture-priority AE mode, where you set the aperture value, and Shutter-priority AE mode, where you set the shutter speed, is that the program might select an aperture value-shutter speed combination that is different from your shooting intent. If that happens and you are not happy with the results, you can keep the “correct” exposure and freely change the aperture and shutter speed setting combinations. This is called a “program shift”.


Camera mode dial

The mode dial on your camera
To use Program AE mode, turn your camera’s mode dial until the arrow points at [P].


Quick Control screen

The Quick Control screen
A: Shutter speed
B: Aperture

In [P] mode, the camera automatically sets both the aperture and the shutter speed
The camera detects subject brightness, analyses it and then automatically sets a shutter speed and aperture value that it deems “correct” for the scene. If this exposure is not quite what you want, you can use exposure compensation to change it.


Usage example #1: When capturing brightly-lit backgrounds

A photo shot with Program AE mode on the EOS 5D Mark III

EOS 5D Mark III / EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 35mm/ Program AE (f/9, 1/200 sec, EV+0.3)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

Let’s say you want to take snapshots of a distant landscape. As bokeh quality isn’t a concern for such shots, Program AE mode would be a great choice of shooting mode. Even if there are lots of clouds in the sky, you can rest assured that your camera will set the optimum shutter speed and aperture settings for ideal exposure, but still apply exposure compensation and adjust white balance if required.


Usage example #2: For grabbing that unexpected shutter opportunity

A photo shot with Program AE mode on the EOS 6D

EOS 6D/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 105mm/ Program AE (f/4, 1/100 sec, EV+0.3)/ ISO 125/ WB: Daylight

With Program AE mode, all you need to do is press the shutter button to achieve pretty decent photos. It therefore lets you capture precise pictures of fleeting moments, such as a blink-and-you-miss-it expression on the face of a moving subject.


Usage example #3: When you want to avoid handheld camera shake

A photo shot with Program AE mode on the EOS 5D Mark III

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 50mm/ Program AE (f/4.5, 1/100 sec, EV-0.7)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

In Program AE mode, the camera automatically chooses a shutter speed that best reduces the chances of camera shake. Combining this with ISO Auto mode cuts the risk of camera shake even further.


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A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
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Tomoko Suzuki

Tomoko Suzuki

After graduating from the Tokyo Polytechnic University Junior College, Suzuki joined an advertisement production firm. She has also worked as an assistant to photographers including Kirito Yanase, and specializes in commercial shoots for apparels and cosmetic products. She now works as a studio photographer for an apparel manufacturer.