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PASM: Understanding and Using Different Modes on Your Camera

One of the best things about DSLR and mirrorless cameras is the degree of control you get over pretty much every aspect of shooting, exposure, image quality, and even post-production. However, once you get your hands on one of those, all those different dials and buttons can be pretty intimidating, which is why some beginners choose to stick with Auto mode. This isn’t terrible, because your camera can take reasonably good photos in Auto mode, however, they won’t always turn out as good as they could have been. Besides, why wouldn’t you want to make the most of your camera?

Once you start doing some basic research, you will find that your DSLR or mirrorless camera, or perhaps even an advanced compact camera, will have four different modes on its dial (or inside one of the menus): P, A, S, and M, also commonly referred to as PASM. There are also plenty of other automatic modes, such as Night, Portrait, Macro, or Sport, but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on PASM modes, as they provide you with more flexibility and superior photos once you figure out how each one works, and when you should use them. But first, let’s take a look at some of the basic principles of exposure, which will help you understand these modes easier.

  

The Basics

When you take a photo using your mirrorless camera or DSLR, the sensor is exposed to the light for a particular amount of time. This time is also known as shutter speed. The higher the shutter speed (for example, 1/250s), the less light will be captured by the sensor. This is great for fast-moving subjects, whereas slower shutter speeds (measured in seconds or minutes) are suitable for night photography, long exposures, and any kind of situation where there isn’t enough light. However, most of them require a tripod, since shutter speeds slower than 1/60s capture photos which are blurry, which happens if your camera is handheld. 

Another parameter that plays a role in exposure is the aperture of the lens. In simple terms, the aperture of the lens is a hole with which you can control the amount of light that falls onto the sensor. The aperture is also shown as f-stop values. The higher the f-stop number (such as f/16), the less light will enter the camera. This creates a deeper depth of field, which results in more of your image in focus, but which can be problematic in low-light situations. Lower f-stops (such as 1/1.6) with fully opened aperture allow the camera to capture more light, but at the expense of lower depth of field. This is something you might want at times, especially if you are going for a blurry background or foreground effect (also known as “bokeh”).

There is also ISO, which controls the sensor’s sensitivity to light. Again, this is great for low-light situations, but there is a trade-off. High ISO values create noise, which makes for grainy images. Once you understand how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work, you can learn to balance them and find the best combination of the three for any situation. This is where PASM modes come in.

Programmed Auto (P)

 Also known as Program mode on all Nikon, Canon, and Sony cameras. You can use this mode to select different combinations of shutter speed and aperture offered by your camera.

However, you can also change just one of these parameters, and your mirrorless camera or DSLR will change the other one for you. This is why it’s a great mode for beginners, as it provides them with more control over one, and selects the other one for them.

If you want a higher shutter speed in order to shoot sports, simply adjust it by turning a dial on your camera, and the camera will adjust the aperture for you. If you want a lower depth of field, select a lower f-stop, and the camera will change the shutter speed.

Fun Fact: Most photographers have absolutely no idea what the P setting actually does!

 

Programme (P) is a popular camera shooting mode for beginners

Program mode also allows you to change a number of other parameters, such as metering modes, Auto Focus (AF) point, Flash, Exposure Compensation, as well as White Balance. Most of these options are decided for you in Auto Mode, which is why Program Mode is great for those looking to learn a bit more about exposure, as well as their camera. It’s ideal for day-to-day situations where you might not have enough time to adjust all of the parameters, but where you want to end up with a properly exposed image.

Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av)

Aperture Priority (A, or Av) is a camera shooting mode that controls the amount of light that enters the camera

You will find this mode under A on the dials of Nikon and Sony cameras, apart from Canon, which uses slightly different labelling, Av, which stands for Aperture Value.

This mode enables you to control the aperture of the lens, and with it, the amount of light that hits the sensor, as well the depth of field.

For example, if you select a small aperture in A/Av mode, such as f/16, the camera will adjust the shutter speed automatically in order to compensate for lack of light and capture an image with the right exposure. The larger the aperture, the faster the shutter speed.

Pro Tip: Try to avoid using the widest aperture available if you use interchangeable lenses. Images tend to be sharper when they aren’t taken at the maximum aperture. 

When should you use Aperture Priority mode? If you are looking for a greater degree of control of over depth of field, as well as the amount of light that hits the sensor. For example, if you want to separate your subject from the background or foreground, you would use a very large aperture. This is ideal for capturing portraits, as well as smaller details. Using a very small aperture gives you a very deep depth of field, which is perfect for landscape photography.

Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv)

You will find this mode under S on most cameras. Again, Canon is the exception, because its dial has this mode labelled as Tv, which is short for Time Value.

Just like its name indicates, shutter priority mode allows you to control the shutter speed at which your mirrorless camera or DSLR captures the image. The camera then automatically selects the aperture value that is needed for correct exposure.

For example, if you select a faster shutter speed on your camera, your aperture will be larger. This is done in order to maximize the amount of light hitting the sensor.

Shutter Priority (S, or Tv)  is a camera shooting mode that controls the length of time that light can enter the camera

When should you use Shutter Priority mode? If you are looking to capture fast action such as sports, this is the mode you should go with in most situations, since fast shutter speeds allow you to freeze any kind of movement. On the other side of the spectrum, you can also blur any kind of movement with slow shutter speeds, such as fast-moving vehicles, waterfalls, or clouds. Slow shutter speeds are suitable for low-light conditions, provided that you use a tripod.

Fun Fact: Using really slow shutter speeds and tripod, you can capture images of a city without any people or traffic in it, since none of the moving subjects will be registered by your camera.

Manual Mode (M)

Manual mode (M) is a camera shooting mode that gives full control to the photographer

Finally, we arrive at the most complex mode of them all:  Manual mode. Manual mode can be found as M on most cameras, and unlike all of the options we have described previously, this one allows you to control every single aspect of exposure and shooting independently from one another. This includes shutter speed, exposure, ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation, among others. While this is great, you may want to refrain from using Manual mode if you are just starting out and haven’t yet mastered how and why to use other modes on this list.

For instance, if you choose both fast shutter speed and small aperture, you will probably end up with underexposed photos, which means you need to make up for lack of light through some other means, such as ISO. You are fully responsible for how your images turn out, which is both a curse and a blessing. Manual mode is perfect if you have time to think about all of the exposure variables, as well as when the camera isn’t exposing the way you intended it to in other modes.

Final Word 

Once you are familiar with how PASM modes work, you will be able to decide which one of them works best in a given situation. We hope that this short guide on camera modes will make those decisions a lot easier, whether you have a DSLR, mirrorless, or an advanced compact camera. Good luck!

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