Getting a new camera can be quite daunting. There are lots of controls to learn, spread out over various dials, menu screens and buttons. How do you even begin to make sense of it all?

The Manual Is Your Friend

Don’t worry, I’m not going to recommend you read it cover to cover. There’s just no need, and there are so many functions that you might never need on an average camera that it’s just not worth it. Even pro photographers
However – if there’s something you’re trying to do or need to know how to achieve, the manual is the place to go. Just dip in when you need to. Most manufacturers have online copies too, so if you’be misplaced yours, (say, in the bin,) then you can always find what you need on their site.

What on earth does ‘PASM’ (or ‘PAvTvM’,) & all those icons mean?

Full disclosure – I’m primarily a Canon shooter. I do own a Fuji X-t10, (which I LOVE,) and have shot on Nikons while working for a portrait studio, but for my own professional work I mainly use Canon cameras, just because I personally prefer their UI and layout. I will include Nikon dial settings on here, because the big two are Canon and Nikon. If you shoot on Fuji, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Leica or any other brand, your dial may look slightly different. In that case, I heartily recommend revisiting point 1, above.

On most consumer level cameras, you will see an array of letters and icons on the mode dial, like in the image above. Let’s quickly run through the icons first.
These are modes that have been set up in the camera’s software with specific subjects and/or conditions in mind.

Close Up Of A Mode Dial From A Canon 7D

Canon 7D Mode Dial

Close Up Of The Mode Dial From A Fuji X-T10

Fuji Mode Dial

I will be referrring to the mode dial from my Canon 550D, pictured below, yours may vary, as shown in the other examples, above.

Mode Dial From A Canon 550D

Canon 550D Mode Dial

  • The face icon is setup for portraits
  • The mountain is for landscapes
  • The flower is for Macro (close up’s, usually of small objects,) shots
  • The running icon is for action shots or fast moving objects
  • The Person with Star icon is for night or low light portraits
  • The film camera icon is to record video
    Then there’s the no flash icon and the dreaded green box – Auto mode.

These modes are useful if you want to quickly have your camera set up for one of these situations, but that’s about it. Your camera will be making all of the big decisions for you. So with that in mind, we’re going to move on to the other modes. If you want more info on the modes already mentioned, go here.

Get off Auto – Stop Painting By Numbers

So if you can get decent enough pictures using one of these modes, or even auto, why bother learning the technical modes? Let me put it this way: Do you think any of the world’s great artists use paint by numbers? Why not? You get a pretty decent picture at the end of it, and it can be a good way to learn right? There comes a time though where you aren’t satisfied with getting the same picture everyone else gets, when you want to put your own touches to it, and in order to do that you need greater control. No one ever won a race by leaving their Ferrari on cruise control at 30Mph, and I doubt anyone ever exhibited their paint-by-numbers paintings.

You need to stop allowing the camera to make those critical decisions for you and tell it what you want it to do. The camera is just a tool after all and no matter how clever they become, without you and your vision, it’s just a clever box – that’s all. You are what makes the images – your experience, your view of the world – your ‘eye’.

To P or not to P?

The first ‘technical’ mode is Program mode, or P on most dials. My personal recommendation would be to skip this mode entirely, as the camera decides both aperture and shutter speed settings. You can manually adjust ISO, (the sensor’s sensitivity to light, similar to film ‘speed’,) but the camera can also decide that too if you prefer.

A/Av Mode

Aperture Priority (Aperture Value on Canon cameras,) mode is probably the first mode you should experiment with. It allows you to set the Aperture, and the camera will control the shutter speed and ISO to compensate, based on your choice.

The Aperture is the hole in the lens that allows light onto the sensor.

The Basics:

+When the hole is bigger, more light gets in.
+When the hole, is smaller, less light gets in.

So far, so straightforward. If the light in your scene is low, you open up the Aperture, (make the hole bigger,) and so your photo isn’t too dark.

If your scene is bright, (e.g. a sunny day) you might close the hole to let less light in.

Here’s the catch – the numbers that tell you how big or small the Aperture is, are counterintuitive. So the smaller the number, the bigger the hole. The bigger the number, the smaller the hole. There’s a very good, and mathematically sound reason for it, but it’s not essential to know right now. Just know that f/2.8 is a wide aperture hole and f/22 is a very small one.

Close up of 50mm Lens Showing F/2.8 Aperture

F/2.8 Aperture

Close up of 50mm Lens Showing F/4 Aperture


Close up of 50mm Lens Showing F/8 Aperture


Close up of 50mm Lens Showing F/16 Aperture


Opening or closing down the Aperture also has an additional effect on the image – it affects how much of your scene is in focus, also known as Depth of Field.

Whatever you tell the camera to focus on will always be in focus, but how far in front or behind that point in space is still sharp, depends on your Aperture setting.

The Basics pt 2:

  • When the hole is bigger, less of your scene will be in focus. This leads to blurred-out backgrounds, which is great for single subjects, or a small number of people (Where they can easily stand shoulder to shoulder.)
  • When the hole is smaller, more of your scene will be in focus. Great for group shots where you have multiple rows of people, or landscapes.

Want to make your viewers concentrate on your subject? Open up the aperture and blur out the background. You’re effectively showing the viewer what is important, by blurring out everything but your subject.

S/Tv Mode

Shutter priority, (Time Value on Canon,) allows you to set the shutter speed of your camera and then the camera sets the Aperture and ISO based on your setting.

Use this mode when you have fast moving subjects, or to achieve long exposure effects to blur moving parts of your scene.

Shutter speed measures the amount of time the shutter is open for, usually in units of tenths, or more commonly, hundredths of a second.

Imagine an open window that is completely covered by a board. I’m outside with a hose. You have to take the board off and put another one up while I spray the hose towards the window. How quickly you can do this affects how wet you get.
You’re the camera’s sensor, the window is the aperture, the boards are the shutter, the water is light.

Shutter Speed Dial from an Olympus OM10 Film Camera

Olympus Shutter Speed Dial

Shutter Speed Dial from a Fuji X-T10

Fuji Shutter Speed Dial

### The Basics
+ A higher shutter speed means the shutter is open for less time, so less light gets in.
+ A lower shutter speed means the shutter is open for longer, so more light gets in.

The additional effect of shutter speed is to ‘freeze’ action at higher speed, and blur anything in your scene that is moving at lower speeds.

Here’s and example of high shutter speed:

Even though I was only in the air for maybe a second at most, a high shutter speed has frozen me in mid air.


  • Levitation photography
  • Action sports
  • Motor sports
  • Wildlife

A low shutter speed can blur movement, allowing for effects such as light trails, or to exaggerate a sense of movement in the image.


  • Light trails
  • Make flowing water look calm or still
  • Showing movement

Rough guide to shutter speeds:

  • 1 second: ‘Milky’ looking water
  • 1/4 second: Blur people walking
  • 1/30th second: Blur background when ‘panning’ (i.e. tracking a subject with the camera while taking the shot.)
  • 1/100th: Freeze people who are standing talking
  • 1/250th: Freeze people while walking/jogging/jumping
  • 1/500th: Freeze cyclists or subjects at similar speed
  • 1/1000th: Freeze cars/motorbikes or liquid splashes
  • 1/2000th: Freeze birds in flight, other fast moving objects

Which mode to use?

If your main challenge with the shot is moving objects, and you want to either freeze the action or get a motion effect like light trails, use S/Tv. This is the main mode for taking sports or action based photography.

If movement in your scene isn’t as much of an issue, (subject is still or willingly posing for a picture,) or you want to blur the background/make the distance sharp, use A/Av. This is the main mode for taking portraits, headshots and the like.

Some photographers have spent entire careers in one or both of those modes, so don’t believe anyone who says you have to shoot on Manual in order to be a good photographer. Even if your goal is one day to be able to shoot in Manual, these modes will serve as great primer on your way there.

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