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Changing your camera settings for different modes can be done by the Mode dial. There are three main modes:

  1. Manual: Every setting has to be done manually
  2. A&S: Aperture or Shutter priority (you choose the aperture or the shutter speed and leave the rest to the camera)
  3. Automatic settings

This page will describe the most common automatic settings and a few manual settings for different types of photography and how they influence the picture.


Whether you set your settings manually, or choose an automatic program to take a picture, your camera knows how much light there is by using the light meter. Light is reflected into the camera and based on the amount of light, the camera will decide (or in manual mode suggest) what settings to use (shutter speed, ISO and aperture). During automatic programs, you can help the camera by selecting a program which suits the photograph you are about to take. The table below gives a little information on the most common automatic programs.

Program Best for… Influence on photo
Potrait Portraits of people or animals Skin tones are softer, contrast and sharpness low and large aperture (for a soft background).
Landscape Landscapes and nature High contrast and sharpness and vivid colors (especially green and blue). Small aperture for maximum depth of field (click here for more information).
Child Children or animals Fast shutter speed to maintain sharpness on fast moving subjects. Vivid colors.
Sports Children, sports or any fast moving subject Fast shutter speed to freeze motion.
Close-up Close up or pictures of details High sharpness and vivid colors.
Beach or Snow Pictures of the beach, snow or other very light scenes The high amount of light is toned by by the camera and the colors are adjusted to the bright white light.
Night portrait Portraits during and after sunset The flash will power on and shutter speed is fairly fast.

There also is a fully automatic mode (the green camera symbol and/or the word “Auto”). My suggestion would be to choose an automatic scene instead of the “Auto” mode. In “Auto” mode, the camera will calculate/guess what the scene is about and adjust its settings. The camera might make a mistake here and take picture with results you did not expect.


Whenever I go out for some photography I mainly use the M mode (fully manual). I still rely on the cameras light meter to suggest my settings, but will set it to what I think is best. Whenever I change aperture, shutter speed or ISO settings, the cameras display will simulate the exposure is in the light meter.

Nikon D3100 display

Nikon D3100 display – Framed by the red rectangle you see the light meter. The stripe at the null is the correct exposure, stripes toward the plus is over exposure and stripes towards the min is under exposure. Given the current camera settings this picture is under exposed.

Depending on the situation, I might use A mode (aperture priority). I choose what aperture I want to use for my pictures and the camera takes care of the rest. The main reason for me to use Aperture priority mode, is when I take pictures of people. Since people are unpredictable (especially children) I don’t have the time to set the right shutter speed when something interesting happens. I rarely use Shutter priority mode, only when I am sure I need a certain shutter speed but I can’t predict when I need it.

When shooting in manual mode, there are a few tips to help you get most out of a certain situations. Some basic tips are:

  • When shooting hand-held (not using a tripod), keep the shutter speed at 1/focal length of second (so if you set the lens to 55mm, your shutter-speed should at least be 1/55th of a second (click here for an article on shutter speed).
  • Keep the ISO as low as possible to avoid noise (but high enough to reach the shutter speed you want)
  • To freeze walking people, use a shutter speed of at least 1/125th of a second
  • If you are panning, use a much slower shutter speed than /125th of a second

Before shooting on manual mode, I suggest you read the article on Exposure on this page (click here!).


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