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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Photographing People: When to use Program mode, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority


Full Auto mode makes it easy for novice photographers to start shooting. While this may work while you’re still finding your way around your camera, it will limit you in the long run. When shooting portraits, different situations will have very different settings required. That’s where Program Mode, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority come in.

Full Auto mode is simple, easy, and allows you to shoot portraits at any moment. However, if you’re serious about improving your skills as a photographer, then you need to start exploring the other modes – especially Program Mode, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority.

Program Mode

Program Mode (marked by the P on the mode dial) automatically sets aperture and shutter speed for your camera, but allows you to change your ISO – or its sensitivity to light. Setting a low ISO, like 100, will capture crisp and clear photos in environments with a lot of light. A higher ISO, like 3200 or more, will allow you to take photos in low light, but as a trade-off will also capture a lot more ‘noise’ – resulting in a much grainier image.

This mode is a good step up from Full Auto because it will let you start experimenting with ISO to get a better feel of what settings are needed for different lighting conditions. To help your learning, it’s a good idea to play around with ISO at night, or in low-light settings like a dark office.

If you look at the left photo, you’ll notice that it doesn’t have a grainy quality thanks to its low ISO of 100. The right photo, shot with a much higher ISO of 3200, is grainier.

(L) EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, f/4.0, 80mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 100
(R) EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, f/4.0, 80mm, 1/60 sec, ISO 3200

Shutter Priority mode

Shutter Priority (‘Tv’ on the dial) lets you edit both the ISO and the shutter speed. This will help you capture fast moving objects more clearly, or make objects look blurry, depending on your preference.

The left photo, shot at a shutter speed of 1/15, shows extreme motion blur. The right photo, shot at a shutter speed of 1/60, has managed to capture an image with much less motion blur. 

(L) EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, f/22.0, 35 mm, 1/15 sec, ISO 100
(R) EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, f/11.0, 35 mm, 1/125 sec, ISO 100

Want to learn more about shutter speed? Here’s how to choose the right shutter speed for shooting nightscapes.

Aperture Priority Mode

The other mode, Aperture Priority (‘Av’ on the dial), lets you edit both Aperture and ISO. The first difference you’ll notice while playing with the aperture setting is the depth of field in your photos. Playing with aperture is especially useful for when you want to focus a viewer’s attention on a single object and blur out other items in the background.

As you’ll see below, the left photo, show at an aperture of f/16, captures most of the background. The right photo, shot with an aperture of f/4.0 – focus the photo on the girl, and blurs out the background. This is ideal for when you really want to take a photo that focuses on a specific person or object.

(L) EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, f/16, 45 mm, 1/13 sec, ISO 800
(R) EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, f/4.0, 45 mm, 1/25 sec, ISO 100

You’ve now learned some basic knowledge of what modes to use when shooting people. It’s time to try them out for yourself!

What do you want to learn next? Tell us in the comments section below!


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