Using DSLR Automatic Modes

Keep Things Simple and Shoot in Auto Mode

When most photographers make the switch from point-and-shoot cameras to advanced DSLR cameras, they're probably looking to take advantage of the extensive set of manual control features that the DSLR camera offers. They're likely looking to escape from the point-and-shoot world of basic, automatic cameras.

However, you don't always have to operate your DSLR camera in manual control mode. The DSLR camera has a variety of automatic control modes, just like a point-and-shoot camera.

Camera shooting in the forest
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How to Use DSLR Modes

With most DSLR cameras, you will set the automatic modes through either the mode dial along the top panel of the camera or using the on-screen menu, accessible through the menu button on the back.

The top of a DSLR camera.

Most DSLR cameras have a fully automatic mode, a fully manual control mode, and a few mixed modes, where some settings are determined by the camera automatically, while others are set manually by the photographer. These modes are a great way to ease yourself into the transition from a point-and-shoot camera to a DSLR, as you can learn about how to use the camera gradually.

A close up of a camera mode dial.
  1. A mode. When using the mode dial, most DSLR cameras have an A mode. However, this is only a partially automatic mode. The A on the mode dial stands for aperture priority automatic, which means the photographer or the camera sets the aperture first, and the camera then automatically adjusts the other settings based on the aperture setting.

  2. S mode. The S mode is similar, allowing the photographer or the DSLR camera to set the shutter speed first, and the camera then adjusts the other settings based on the shutter speed. The S mode is short for shutter priority automatic.

  3. P mode. Programmed auto, usually marked with a P on the mode dial, is another partially automatic mode. The DSLR camera will select the best shutter speed and aperture setting, depending on the available lighting, and the photographer can control the other parameters.

  4. AUTO mode. The DSLR camera’s fully automatic mode probably will be marked with an AUTO label on the mode dial or an AUTO label sometimes paired with a camera icon. In fully automatic mode, the DSLR camera operates as a point and shoot camera, determining all of the settings automatically.

    With some automatic modes on a DSLR camera, you can choose to shoot with the flash off, and all other settings are automatically set, regardless of the external lighting. This is a good mode to use when you are prohibited from using a flash, such as at a concert. Normally, this flash off mode will appear on the mode dial next to or in combination with the AUTO label.

  5. SCN mode. Another type of automatic photography you can perform with most DSLRs involve scene modes. With a scene mode, you select the kind of scene you want to shoot, and the camera will create the camera settings automatically that most closely match that scene. You can access scene modes through the mode dial or the on-screen menus.

    Scene mode on a DSLR camera.

There's no shame in using your DSLR camera in fully automatic mode, as most of these cameras do a great job in picking the settings for you and exposing the photo correctly. You'll have good success shooting in fully automatic mode for those quick shots.

When you're having success in fully auto mode with your DSLR, just don't become so caught up in this easy-to-use mode that you forget why you purchased the DSLR camera in the first place. Turn the mode dial to M sometimes to give you full manual control over the settings, too.

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