M – Manual mode
A or Av – Aperture Priority
S or Tv – Shutter Priority
P – Program mode
If you’re shooting in the icon modes (the mountain, woman’s head, flower, etc.), you’ll want to graduate to these other modes as they allow you a great deal more flexibility.
M – Manual mode
Eventually, you’ll find yourself wanting to shoot in Manual mode as it gives you the most control. YOU are telling the camera what you want it to do versus it guessing what you might want. Manual isn’t at all scary. It doesn’t have to be at least. If you’ve got time, use Manual mode. If you’re trying to capture a fleeting moment, choose another mode of course. But eventually you’ll find yourself wanting to be in Manual mode…and it’ll make you feel like more of a photographer.
A or Av – Aperture Priority mode
On most cameras it’s “A”, on Canon cameras though it’s “Av” for “Aperture Value”.
Regardless of what it’s called, Aperture Priority mode is a very powerful, useful mode and that’s why MOST professional photographers are in this mode when they’re not in Manual. There’s very good reason for that. When you choose your aperture (aka “f-stop”) and allow the camera to pick the proper shutter speed, you’re making a creative choice. You’re deciding what aperture to use because either a) you want to gather the most light your lens can do by dialing in your maximum aperture (like f/2.8 on a 70-200mm f/2.8) or b) you’re wanting to throw the background out of focus to the extent you can (another reason to pick f/2.8 rather than say f/11).
So, if you want shallow depth-of-field and that really nice Bokeh (the background blur), setting your camera to Aperture Priority mode and dialing in the smallest number, will greatly help.
Remember, small number…small amount in focus.
Choosing this mode means you’re making a conscious decision to take creative control of your camera.
S or Tv – Shutter Priority mode
On most cameras it’s “S”, on Canon cameras though it’s “Tv” for “Time Value”.
I’ve rarely used this mode. It’s mostly useless. I say “mostly” because there are circumstances when Shutter Priority mode is useful to you.
As a photojournalist, situations would present themselves where, for creative reasons, I would need a specific shutter speed. That’s where this mode comes in handy.
For instance, when I’d shoot bike racing and wanted to convey motion rather than freezing the bikes (which is sooooo boring), I would set my camera to “S”, dial in a slow shutter speed like 1/15 of a second then pan with the bike as it passed by. This would result in the bike and it’s rider being mostly sharp and in focus while the background became a streak of colors. This effect conveys motion. Motorsport shooters use this technique a lot as using a faster shutter speed just makes it appear that the race cars are parked on the track. That’s not interesting in the least.
Conversely, you may need a certain shutter speed to make sure you’ve frozen the motion of an athlete for instance. In this case, you might set your camera to “S” and choose 1/1000 of a second knowing that your camera will pick an appropriate aperture. Combine this with the Auto ISO capability of many of today’s cameras and you’re good to go.
That all said, I’d like to see you stick with Aperture Priority going forward. Decide how you want the photograph to look at set your aperture (f-stop) accordingly. Shutter Priority mode should be saved for the few times a year when you must have a specific shutter speed.
P – Program mode
The old joke is that “P doesn’t stand for ‘professional'”. I’d go a step further and say that it stands for “Pointless”.
This is the mode you’d MAYBE want to use if you handed the camera to someone else to take a photo of you. Maybe. Even then, why not just switch it to Aperture Priority then hand them the camera???
This mode is pointless as it takes complete control of the camera from you. It assumes that you don’t know a darn thing and want it to do all the thinking for you. But, you’ve spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a camera that can do so much more. Hey, if they include the other modes, you might as well use them. Don’t let the camera take creative control out of your hands. Pretend that “P” mode doesn’t exist.
Auto or “Green Box” mode
Auto is a car…it shouldn’t be a mode. On some Canon cameras it’s a green box. Either way, like Program mode, it’s not something you want to be shooting in. It’s pointless.
As smart as today’s cameras are, this mode is the dumbest. Sometimes it works, but most times it falls short. This mode should be dead to you. You’d be MUCH better off sticking with Aperture Priority (A or Av) mode where you choose how much light is being gathered and how much of your subject is in focus.