What Is the Mode Dial on Your Camera?

This mode dial from a Samsung WB850F camera, shown on the far right, contains eight shooting options.

by Kyle Schurman

Depending on the type of camera you own, you may be overwhelmed with the large number of buttons, dials, and parts that the camera has. If you only have time to figure out one part of the camera, pay attention to the mode dial. If you're unsure what that means, continue reading to answer the question: What is the mode dial?

Defining the Dial

The mode dial is one of the most important parts of the camera, giving you access to the shooting modes. It helps to know what each icon means to achieve the best results when shooting.

Most advanced interchangeable lens cameras include a mode dial, as well as some point and shoot cameras. Most of the time, the mode dial is on the top panel of the camera, although it sometimes is aligned on the back panel. (Keep in mind that not every camera will have a mode dial, and not every mode dial contains all of the options discussed here.)

Advanced Shooting Modes

  • The P mode is short for “programmed auto,” which means the camera controls shutter speed and aperture, leaving the user to control the other settings. Use P for basic shooting situations where you want a little bit of control.
  • The S mode is “shutter priority,” which means the camera selects the fastest shutter speed, and other settings are secondary. Use S mode for shooting fast-moving subjects.
  • The A mode is “aperture priority,” which means the camera sets the best aperture for the image, and other settings are secondary. The A mode is good for softening background details.
  • The M mode is “manual,” meaning all settings are done manually. (In the photo here, the A, S, and M modes all are combined under one section of the mode dial. You then will select the exact mode you want on the LCD screen.)

Basic Shooting Modes

  • The Smart mode, also called the Auto mode, is the opposite of the M mode. In Auto mode, the camera makes its best determination of what all of the settings should be, based on the lighting conditions and the subject matter. This is a common mode for a point and shoot camera. Sometimes, the Auto mode is represented by an empty rectangle or by a simple icon of a camera. In addition, the Smart or Auto mode may be in a different color from the other selections on the mode dial, as it is in this photo.
  • The Scene mode, also called the SCN mode, is another point and shoot camera type of feature, allowing you to select a “scene” that is most similar to the type of photo that you plan to shoot. For example, if you want to shoot a child’s birthday party, you might select a “night” mode, a “candle” mode, or a “party” mode.

Special Shooting Modes

  • The Movie mode (icon with a movie camera) is used to change the camera's settings to prepare for shooting video. In this mode, you typically can use the shutter button to stop and start the movie, although some cameras also have a dedicated movie button.
  • The GPS mode allows you to control the camera's built-in GPS unit. (Not all cameras have a GPS unit.)
  • The Wi-Fi mode allows you to set up and use the camera's built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. (Not all cameras can use Wi-Fi.)
  • The Special Effects mode (icon with a star inside a camera) gives you access to any special shooting modes that the camera may contain, such as a black and white mode.
  • The Macro mode -- usually marked by an icon resembling a tulip flower, but not shown in this photo -- is used for shooting extreme close-ups. Macro allows the camera to focus properly on a close-up photo and adjusts the flash intensity to allow for proper exposure.
  • The Portrait mode (icon with a head turned to the side, not shown in this photo) is good for blurring the background and making the subject’s face stand out.
  • The Panorama mode (icon with a rectangle that's stretched, not shown in this photo) is the mode to use when you want to stitch together two or more images to create an especially wide image that shows a view of 90 degrees, 180 degrees, or more.
  • The Landscape mode (icon with mountains, not shown in this photo) increases the depth of field in focus and is good for landscape and nature photos.
  • The Sports mode (icon with a runner, not shown in this photo) is good for capturing fast-moving subjects.
  • The Flash mode (icon with a lightning strike, not shown in this photo) allows you to switch between automatic flash, no flash, and constant flash.