Exercise: exposure modes

Are you ready for the first exercise? Great, let’s go. If you haven’t ready the last lesson on how exposure modes work, you’ll want to do that first. In this exercise, we’ll try out the various exposure modes in order to learn how the controls work.

OK, grab your camera. It doesn’t matter what lens you use, but try to find a place with a lot of light and something at least marginally interesting to point the camera at.

The first thing we’re going to do is put the camera in aperture priority mode. If this is the first time you’ve taken your camera out of its everything-automatic rut, this may be scary for you. Don’t worry, I’ll be right here to hold your hand. Now, take a deep breath and turn the dial to Av, A, or whatever your camera calls it.

See? That wasn’t so bad.

Now, pick out something nearby that you can focus on. Maybe it’s a picture or a piece of furniture or a tree, but pick something that isn’t going to move around a lot. Now, look through the viewfinder of your camera and focus on the thing that you picked out. Press the shutter button halfway, and you should see a display in your viewfinder that will tell you what the aperture and shutter speed are set to.

Turn whatever dial it takes on your camera to open the aperture as wide as it will go– remember, that’s the lowest number. It may be as low as 1.4 or 1.8, but more likely your lowest setting will be somewhere between 2.8 and 5.6. It doesn’t matter for now. Keep pointing the camera at whatever object you picked out.

If you did that quickly enough, which you probably didn’t, you’ll still have a display in your viewfinder. If not, push the shutter button down halfway to get it back. Make a mental note of what shutter speed the camera has picked out. Now, turn the aperture dial a few clicks. Do you see the shutter speed change? (If the display goes away, just keep pressing the shutter button halfway.) Keep doing this until the aperture is as small as it will go– most likely, that will be around 22, but your lens may be different.

Did you notice how the shutter speed changed automatically every time you changed the aperture? That was your camera’s meter picking out the right shutter speed to go with the aperture you chose. It’s possible that your camera had trouble with the highest and lowest settings, and couldn’t find a shutter speed fast enough or slow enough to work. If so, it probably kept the needle all the way on the left or right of the meter display, and maybe flashed it or beeped or complained in some other way. If so, remember that for the future. It’s your camera’s way of saying that something’s not right.

Now, let’s do the same thing but in shutter priority mode. Set your camera to Tv or S or whatever. Look through the viewfinder, and press the shutter button halfway. Turn the magic dial to change the shutter speed, and watch the selected aperture change. If you pick a really fast shutter speed like 1/1000, there’s a good chance you’ll get to see how your camera complains about bad exposures.

OK, there’s one more step, but before we take it you probably need a quick break from all this scariness. Get up, walk around the room, do a jumping jack, grab a beer, or do whatever it takes to get past all the scariness I’ve thrown at you.

Are you back? Excellent. Now, we’re going to do one more scary thing. Set the camera to manual mode. Ready? Deep breath. OK, go.

Still with me? Great! Now, set your aperture to f/8, using whatever control your camera uses to change the aperture in manual mode. Now look through the viewfinder and press the shutter halfway. See the indicator on the meter? It’s probably way off to one side. Keep looking through the viewfinder while you turn whatever dial changes the shutter speed. Keep doing this until the indicator is right smack dab in the center of the scale. When you get it there, take the picture.

Guess what? You just took a photo in manual mode. If you view it on the camera’s LCD, you’ll probably see that it looks pretty good. Pretty cool, huh?

If your room isn’t very bright, there’s a chance that you couldn’t make that work. If so, set the aperture as wide as it will go and try again, or go somewhere with more light.

Next lesson: Shutter speed exercise


Filed under Aperture, Controls, Exercise, Exposure, shutter speed

14 responses to “Exercise: exposure modes

  1. Mary

    Ok that was cool … I didn’t actually take the picture because it had a 2 second (2″) shutter speed at 8.0 and my tripod is downstairs but even though I’m still confused, hopefully I’ll figure this out with your help! :) I’m tired of using P mode!

  2. stopshootingauto

    What are you confused about, Mary? Can I answer any questions?

  3. OMG… this has been a “light bulb” moment. Thank you so much. :-)

  4. Mistie

    Help! I am getting ready to shoot my first wedding and i am so nervous! I still am having issues on what mode to set the camera, what shutterspeeds and f-stops i should use!!! i think I am making it harder than it needs to be!

  5. stopshootingauto

    I’m not much of a wedding photographer, but my understanding is that it’s largely about lighting. Especially if you’re shooting indoors, you need to have good, diffused off-camera flash so that you can do things like group shots.

    Try to find the same lighting that you’ll be working under for the wedding, get some friends together, and practice.

  6. Cheryl

    I took a photo in Manual mode – and understood what I was doing! It wasn’t scary at all, that was so simple. I just didn’t realise (Aus spelling) that the meter indicator etc worked in manual mode. Was always using Av mode, now will use manual a lot more!

  7. stopshootingauto

    Yay, Cheryl! I’m so glad I could hold your virtual hand for that.

  8. sarah

    Whoo hoo I did it !!!! and it looked proper!!

  9. stopshootingauto

    Congrats, sarah!

  10. definitely a light bulb moment. along with this i just learned that i don’t have to base my shutter speed off the light conditions alone.

  11. Your blog is brilliant! It is written beautifully!

    One quick question I have about this post is on my Canon 500d (T1i) in any mode bar manual the meter always remains in the centre, even if the shot is over or under exposed. Is this the case with this model or is there a setting I can change.

    Many thanks


    • stopshootingauto


      Try this: put the camera in manual mode, and pick some reasonable settings like f/8 and 1/200 sec, ISO 100. Put the lens cap on. Yes, on. What we’re going to do is deliberately underexpose the image, and what’s more underexposed than no light at all?

      Look through the viewfinder and push the shutter button half way. The meter should be so far to the left that it’s cowering up against the edge with no intention of moving even a notch.

      Is that what you see? If not, something’s wrong and I’ll have to investigate further. I’ve not used a 500D, but this functionality is so basic that they can’t possibly have messed with it.

  12. I have shot in P mode for way too long!! I only shoot manual when I am fully relaxed. I get so nervous that I’ll screw up manual that I don’t use it much. This totally helped conquer the fear I built up thanks!

    Oh and I think that being left eye dominant has deterred me also. The dial isn’t as handy when your nose is right there! But I’ll persevere!

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