The Top Dial on Your Camera

With Christmas behind us, some of you may have purchased or received the gift of a new DSLR. Maybe you already own one, but you've been nervous about using it in anything but full "Auto" mode. If that sounds like you, this blog post might be helpful to you. The following is a brief discussion of what some of the settings on your camera's main dial do.

Camera features differ by brand and model, but all DSLRs offer these core functions. I'm going to assume that you probably have a Canon or Nikon. (I use a Fujifilm mirrorless camera, but its controls are laid out a bit differently, so I won't cover that here.) For specifics about your make and model, consult your user manual; if you lost it, you can probably download an electronic copy online. Also, try searching Youtube  - there's some great amateur instruction available there for nearly any camera ever made.

In the section below, the Nikon symbol for each setting is listed first; where Canon differs, I've noted that in parentheses. Don't worry too much about what it's called - the functions are standard from camera to camera even if they use different terminology.

Main dial on a Nikon D60 DSLR. Other Nikon models may differ slightly, but the main functions described below will be the same from camera to camera. (Photo courtesy Tonya Millsaps.)

The main dial on a Canon EOS Elan IIe 35mm SLR (mid 90s film camera). While modern Canon DSLRs will have some added settings, the main ones we're concerned about don't change.

The Settings

Auto Mode (represented on Canon as the small green rectangle). This is the mode for total newbies, and anyone else who wants to give the camera near total control over the photography experience. If you're still scared of your camera, there's nothing wrong with letting it make all the decisions for you. Today's digital cameras are basically sophisticated little computers with lenses attached, and you're almost guaranteed to get a properly exposed photo this way. As you take more photos, you'll probably start wondering if there's a way to exert more creative control over your photos.

P - Program Mode. It's a common joke in the photography world that the "P" stands for "Professional." The main difference between Auto and Program is that Program Mode gives you a tiny bit more control over your camera settings, while still leaving most decisions to the camera. When I first started using a DSLR, I got annoyed when my flash would pop up if I didn't think the scene required it. Then I learned that if I switched from Auto to Program, the flash wouldn't pop up automatically (even if all kinds of dire warnings about low light appeared on the display). If you plan to take a photo in low light with a tripod, for example, but want the camera to handle all of the exposure settings, use Program Mode. It's like training wheels for the other settings. It's also a good mode to select if you're pressed for time and just want to make sure you get the shot with minimal fuss. Sometimes you just need a snapshot.

A (Av) - Aperture Mode. When I'm not doing studio work, this is my most frequently used camera mode. Selecting Aperture Mode lets you pick a desired aperture, while letting the camera adjust your other exposure settings automatically. The aperture is also known as the f-stop. I use this when I want to control depth of field (how much of the image is in focus, from front to back). You know those beautiful portraits where the bride is in sharp focus but the background is softly blurred? That's shallow depth of field. To get that look, you can set the aperture to its widest setting (which is the smallest aperture for a particular lens, such as f/2.8 or f/3.5), and focus on the subject. Conversely, if you want to make sure a scene is all or mostly in focus - as in a landscape photo - you can pick a smaller aperture (a bigger number f-stop, such as f/11 or f/16). The camera will then adjust the shutter speed and possibly the ISO* (depending on your settings), to match your chosen aperture.

S (Tv) - Shutter Priority Mode. Most photographers I know tend not to use this setting as much as they do others. But it does have some useful applications. Let's suppose you're taking photos indoors or another low-light situation where using flash is not allowed. If the shutter speed chosen by the camera is relatively slow (say, 1/30 second), it can be difficult to get a sharp photo; the longer the focal length of your lens, the harder it is to hold steady at slower speeds. By selecting Shutter Priority, you can tell the camera that you want to use a minimum of 1/60 or 1/125 shutter speed. Your odds of getting an acceptably sharp photo are greatly increased. You can also use this approach in situations where you have fast moving subjects (like an active child or approaching bicyclist), to ensure that you freeze the motion. Likewise, you can use a slower shutter speed if you want to add some creative blur.

M - Manual Mode. This setting is pretty much what it sounds like: full, manual control over your camera's exposure settings. I know - it sounds scary. And I stayed away from using Manual Mode for years because I really didn't understand how the various camera settings worked together to create photographs. But Manual Mode is incredibly useful, and sometimes essential, for certain situations. When shooting with  off-camera flashes or monolights, you generally need to use Manual Mode to tell the camera how to expose for the sudden burst of light. (There are smart wireless triggers that let you get around this limitation, but that's a whole other blog post.) When shooting in Manual, you usually need to use a light meter, or when it comes to digital, you can experiment until the results look right. My suggestion is to start with other modes, and afterward, take a look at the EXIF information in your photos on your computer. This will tell you what exposure settings were used by the camera. Over time, you'll start recognizing approximate exposure settings for common situations.

Scenes - Scene modes (various). Many DSLRs have little icons on the dial to represent different scenes you're likely to encounter. These commonly depict things like a profile of a person (portrait), flowers (macro shooting), stars with people (night time portraits - movie stars are optional), and running or swimming (for sports action). If you're just spreading your wings and want to move beyond Auto, these scene modes aren't a bad place to start. They are basically presets for common situations that may suit your needs nicely. Selecting a portrait scene, for example, will automatically set the aperture to a pleasing, large aperture for shallow depth of field.

Don't be afraid to try some of the above modes on your camera dial. If you find you're overwhelmed or frustrated by them, you can easily switch back to Auto until you're feeling more adventurous!


*ISO is a measure of light sensitivity; the lower the number, the more light is needed to expose a photo, but the better the overall image quality. Raising the ISO to shoot in less light also means that some digital "noise" will begin to appear in your photos. All DSLRs let you set the ISO manually, or you can leave it set to Auto ISO so that the camera picks it for you. You can generally specify ranges (say, ISO 200 - 800) that you want the camera to stay within. The specifics of setting ISO will depend on your camera, so please consult your manual.