When to Use Each Exposure Mode (Even P!)

One of the confusing things for new photographers is the different exposure modes. What do P, S (or TV), A (or AV), and M mean, and when should you use them? And what about those icons? When would you use one vs. another? And why do cameras have “P” when every third photography tutorial seems to be about getting out of it? Let’s break it down, so you can always choose the proper mode.

Why Exposure Modes Matter

Exposure is composed of three things (well, there is a fourth, but for this we will focus on three) aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Feel free to skip to the next section if this is old hat, but if you are not familiar:

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open; the longer it is open, the more light is allowed in, and the more motion blur you can get in the image. Shutter speeds are expressed in fractions of a second, up through seconds. Each full stop is double the time of the previous one, although there are some jumps where this is not quite followed, so one stop from 1/250th is 1/125th, while the next stop is 1/60th.


Also called the f-stop, the aperture is a mechanism that closes down part of the lens. The smaller the aperture (the larger the f-number) the less light is allowed in, and the more depth of field (the area in acceptable focus) you get. Portraits often use a small f-number aperture to blur the background, while landscapes usually use a higher f-number to get the whole image in focus.


ISO is the relative sensitivity of the sensor to light. The higher the number, the brighter the image, but usually at the cost of noise and a reduced dynamic range (the difference between highlights and shadow where usable detail is recorded).

What the Exposure Modes Mean

Each mode gives you a varying level of control over the image. In P, or Program, the camera picks both aperture and shutter speed (and ISO if Auto ISO is enabled). In A, or AV mode, the photographer chooses the aperture, and the camera fills in the appropriate shutter speed. S, or TV (Time Value) allows the photographer to select the shutter speed, and the camera fills in the aperture. M requires setting both. The photographer can set the ISO, or if Auto ISO is enabled, the camera balances the ISO with the other exposure factors.

Subject Specific Modes

Some cameras have modes for portraits, landscapes, sports, etc. These are all extensions of P, but favor things like a shallow depth of field for portraits or faster shutter speeds for sports.

When to use M

Most tutorials seem to favor M, but in my experience, it is not the one most people shoot in. Being comfortable shooting in M is valuable, but don’t feel it is the only serious option or “how all the pros shoot.” Manual mode gives you the most control and is best when you are in control of the lighting, when there is something tricky, like a lot of contrast between foreground and background, and when using manual flash.

Any time you are using manual flashes, either speed lights or studio lighting, you will need to shoot in manual, since the camera cannot meter the flashes.

You can also enable Auto ISO, which gives you automatic exposure with full control of shutter speed and aperture but make sure ISO is not getting too high or low. This is a good way to shoot for video, so the look does not change drastically in the middle of a clip.

When to use S (or TV)

Shutter priority (Time Value in Canon speak) is best when you need to maintain a minimum shutter speed, like to freeze the action in sports or wildlife photography, or want to use a longer shutter speed to create intentional motion blur. Just remember that the aperture range is going to be smaller than the shutter speed range, so you generally need to keep a little closer eye on your ISO (or enable Auto ISO) than when using A or P modes.

When to use A (or AV)

From my own experience and from talking to and reading others, aperture priority (aperture value to Canon users) seems to be the preferred mode most of the time for most serious photographers. My cameras are in A most of the time. It is generally safer than shutter priority since there is a much wider range of shutter speeds, and controlling depth of field is generally the priority. A is suitable for most situations, but especially for subjects like portraits or landscapes where you want extra control over depth of field.

No one uses P, right?

Since it seems like most photography tutorials focus on getting you out of P, it is natural to wonder why it is on cameras in the first place, and especially high-end, professional cameras. The reality is there are times where P is the right choice.

DSLR/mirrorless photography can be overwhelming when you start, and leaving the camera in P allows new photographers to focus on composition and how they see the world. Yes, we want to learn to use the other modes, but it is easier to let the camera take care of exposure when you start. Unless you are going for specific looks right away, leave your camera in P while you get the other pieces worked out.

OK, I hear you say, but no PRO uses P, right? While it isn’t as common as the other modes, there are some situations where it is appropriate, like times where conditions are changing rapidly, and capturing the moment is more important than the specific look of the picture. These times include events, news, and (I’m sure this will be controversial, but) weddings. Joe Buissink, a wedding photographer with a client list (and day rate) that almost anyone would envy, always keeps the camera in P, because he wants to make sure he gets the moment, and when you are moving between very bright and very dark settings in a wedding venue, P keeps up with it better than anything else. Please don’t take this to mean you can leave it in P Mode with no thought. Watching further in the video, he is doing plenty to control the exposure but can always fall back to P when something comes up suddenly.

Specialty Modes

Some cameras have special modes like Sport, Portrait, landscape, etc. These are extensions of P, but weigh the settings towards the most common settings like high shutter speeds for sports, more depth of field for landscapes, and less for portraits. These can be useful when learning or in the other situations where you might use P.

Where to go from here

It is valuable to know how and when to use all the modes available on your camera. Once you learn to use them, they are all useful tools in your toolkit.

No single mode is perfect for everyone in every situation, and all the modes can get good results in many situations, but there are times when certain modes work better. Learn your camera and the modes it supports well, and don’t get too caught up in anyone’s opinion of how you should shoot.

Now, get out there and create something beautiful.

Male Northern Cardinal

When I started taking bird photos, the cardinals were strangely elusive, somehow always staying just far enough back that I couldn’t get a decent picture. Since then, I bought a ground blind (affiliate link), which allowed me to get even closer. The next thing was to get a cardinal in a snowstorm, which I had the chance to do this week.

Does the new 14″ MacBook Fit in 13″ Bags?

Any time the dimensions of a device change, one if the questions is whether the existing accessories like bags or cases will still fit. I recently bought a 14″ MacBook Pro, and since I own a Think Tank BackStory 13 (which I received as a review product) I was wondering if the new MacBook would fit. While the 14″ MacBooks are a little larger than the current 13″ MacBooks, they are very close to the dimensions of the earlier Retina MacBooks, so they fit many of the bags for 13″ laptops. I have a few different ThinkTank bags, and managed to check a couple others at a local camera shop. Here is what I found:

Any of the 15″ bags should have plenty of space. The 14″ MacBook is closer in size to 13″ computers than 15″, so it fits in any of the 15″ bags I’ve tested (The MindShift BackLight 26, Retrospective 30 shoulder bag, and Retrospective Backpack 15)

BackStory 13: It fits snuggly without stretching anything. I have managed to barely fit an 11″ iPad Pro, as well, but that is getting very tight, especially with the Magic Keyboard.

Retrospective 7: The computer fits and the bag closes fine, but the computer is a bit taller than the laptop sleeve. I would use it, but the computer is maybe a little larger than planned.

Vision 13: Nothing special to note here, the MacBook fits great.

PhotoCross and Urban Access 13: I was not able to confirm these, but the size listed is similar to the Vision 13, so I would expect it to fit in either of these.

Let me know in the comments if you have tried any others, or have different experience with any of these.

Use this link when buying from Think Tank, and receive a free gift with qualifying purchase of $50 or more. (This is an affiliate link, if you purchase using it I will receive a commission)

New Gear – Tether Tools ONsite Relay For Continuous Power

Sometimes we need to run cameras longer than the stock batteries allow for. Time lapses and shooting video are just some of the activities that can benefit from a continuous power source. Most camera manufacturers have a way to provide external power to the camera, but there are drawbacks to these systems that the Tether Tools ONSite relay (formerly/also called the Case Relay) address.

For most of the systems, there are two parts, a power supply and a battery adapter. The adapter fits into the battery compartment of the camera, and provides the correct interface between the camera and the power supply. Tether Tools provides both parts of the system, although some camera systems require the use of the OEM battery adapter (check tethertools.com for compatibility information.) If you have multiple cameras, check them all to see if any have special requirements. My Nikon D610 is listed as working with the Tether Tools battery adapter, while the D850 needs the official Nikon one.

The main advantage to the ONsite system is in the power supply. Instead of being locked to a specific plug type, it uses a USB connection, so anything that provides a 5 Volt, 2 – 2.4 Amp power, including wall chargers and power banks, will work to power it. Even better, the adapter includes a battery, allowing it to be moved between power sources. For example you can switch to a new power bank without interrupting the camera. This also eliminates the concern over a power interruption, since the battery will keep the camera running for quite a while. The battery is 1200 milliamp hours, making it about two thirds the size of a stock Nikon EN-EL15 (original, a, and b at 1900 milliamp hours, or a little over half an EN-EL15C at 2280 milliamp hours.)

The OEM Nikon battery adapter and Case Relay power supply

What I like:

  • Provides constant power for video or time lapse.
  • Internal battery to to move to a fresh power bank and protects against power fluctuations.
  • USB input for maximum flexibility

What could be improved:

  • To work with Nikon and Canon OEM battery adapters, an additional adapter cable is required. I would prefer the whole camera-side cable could be replaced with a compatible one.
  • The power level of the on-board battery is only visible as a 3-color LED, it would be nice to have something a little more detailed, such as a 5-LED strip.
Adapter for the Nikon OEM Battery adapter.

Other notes:

  • The cables are rather short. This makes sense for using power banks, but you will probably need an extension if you plan to use AC power adapters. You can get a camera-side cable from Tether Tools, any standard male to female USB extension for power side, or an AC extension cord. I prefer the shorter cables, since it makes it easier to keep cables organized.
  • Make sure to check compatibility for your camera. There are some instances where specific cameras need the OEM battery adapter and others can use the Tether Tools version. If you are looking at a new Nikon or Canon camera, you probably want to err on the side of ordering the OEM adapter.

You Might Need One if:

  • You do time lapses that run up against battery limits.
  • You shoot a lot of video.
  • You use a video rig that makes it hard to access the battery.
  • You shoot weddings or other events and frequently have to change batteries.
  • You have a camera set up for YouTube, streaming, or the like that stays in one place.
  • You shoot in the cold. Not only can you use a larger power bank, it could be kept insulated or even warmed to maintain power.

You can buy one at:

Or Tethertools.com

Overall, this is a strong product, and the integrated battery is a great idea. If you are looking for a constant power system, I would recommend this over the standard manufacturer adapters.

Do you use constant power? What are your use cases? Let me know in the comments.

Looking for more gear information? Check out my post on whether high-end memory cards are really worth it.

* Affiliate links, if you purchase from this link I get a commission

Keeping track of Lensbaby Data

For anyone used to EXIF data, it can be frustrating not having lens and F-stop data from Lensbaby lenses. You can take notes, for instance in the Lensbaby Field Guide, which is great for the purpose, but taking notes can be cumbersome in the field.

My first version of lens tracking was to take a picture of the lens/optic before putting it on the camera, which gets you the information on the lens you are using but can be a little problematic since you might not have the opportunity to, or you can easily forget to, take the image before putting the lens on, and you do not get f-stop data.

My latest version is a card (well, a folded piece of paper) that lists the current (and some out of production) lenses and optics on one side, and the F-stops on the other. At any point, you can take a picture of the card with your thumb on the appropriate lens and flip it over for the f-stop (if you want to record that.) Once you import the images to your editor, you can tag them with the appropriate information (most will not let you edit the EXIF data, so I just use keywords) and delete the photos if you want.

Indicate the lens you are using, and flip the card over for the f-stop

Here is a PDF of the card, feel free to print and use it. The blank spaces can be used to add other lenses or other data you would like to add. Fold the page into thirds along the long lines first, then fold it in half. In this format it also fits perfectly in the top of my favorite case for Optic Swap optics:

The GP-2 Kit Case from the MindShift Gear Gear Pouch Bundle – Small or Medium bundles is perfect for three optics and the card (Purchase from Think Tank with this link and get a free gift with a qualifying purchase of $50 or more. Affiliate link.)

Do you have any tips you would like to share? Drop them in the comments below, and remember to use discount code WHOLDMANN at Lensbaby.com for 10% off.

Are High End Memory Cards Really Worth It?

What is the difference between a $20 SD card, and a $120 UHS-II or XQD card, and are the premium cards worth the extra money? I recently got an XQD card and a Sony Tough Card, a hardened UHS-II SD card, and here’s what I found.

The cards used were (links are Amazon Affiliate):

The 3 test cards, slowest to fastest

To test the cards I am using a D850, shooting full resolution 14-bit compressed RAW files in continuous high. I was shooting high ISO to make sure the shutter speed wasn’t slowing it down, and shot the stopwatch on an iPhone. I then took the first 50 shots from each series, and compiled the times (a few times are estimates since the numbers are changing in the image). The running average is based on the current and previous 2 times.

I did not test exporting to my computer since it seemed to be limited by the speed of my external disk as much as anything.

Continue reading “Are High End Memory Cards Really Worth It?”

More shots of the Milwaukee Art Museum

D850, 24mm PC-E, Platypod MAX, 3 Legged Thing ballhead. Processing in Luminar.

Like almost anyone in Milwaukee, I love shooting at the Milwaukee Art Museum. We have a family membership, so I have more opportunities to shoot inside, too. My son and I went last week, and I set up on my Platypod MAX with a 24mm PC-E tilt/shift.

The Platypod is great for getting super-low angle shots like this. I had envisioned the blurred people, so I was shooting with a 6-stop ND filter, about .7 seconds.

The Final. Processing in Capture One Pro 12.
Reuben helping out.

This building is the gift that keeps giving. What are your go-to places to photograph? Leave it in the comments.

62 Megapixels from a Mavic

One of the features of the Mavic 2 Zoom is the Super Res mode. Super Res creates a multi-row panorama that starts at the wide end of the zoom range to compose, and when you hit the shutter button it zooms in and takes 12 images, stitching them into a panorama that covers the original field of view.

I have not used that much, since it creates a JPEG rather than a RAW file, which among other problems loses too much dynamic range. Unfortunately due to the nature of RAW, it is not really possible to save a panorama in RAW. RAW takes the data directly from the sensor and writes it to a file, and that only really works with one image.

Then, I found buried in the settings: “save originals in RAW|JPEG”

In DJI Go 4, select Camera Settings > General camera Settings > Turn on “Save original panorama”, and then select RAW. 


With this I am able to get access to the full dynamic range of the camera, and really high resolution. 

Super Res image, original is about 62 Megapixels
100% crop, bottom center

So far, my workflow is like this:

Import the images into Capture One (or your favorite editor), and edit one of the images. I usually pick either the image with the most of the main subject in it, or the most contrast to set black and white points.

Once you are happy with this, copy the adjustments to the remaining images. Double check them all to make sure the adjustments look alright across all the images. If any further adjustments need to be made, they need to be copied to all the images. 

I export the images as 16-bit TIFFs, which stores the most data, and gives the final panorama almost RAW-like editing options, but take up more space, so you may want to remove them after the panorama is stitched. 

For stitching, I usually start with Photoshop, which is very good about 80% of the time, and pretty much useless in the other 20%. So far the Super Res panoramas stitch well in Photoshop. 

Once the stitch is done and you are happy with it, crop the image, flatten the it, and do any final color and exposure adjustments in Adobe Camera RAW. 

The final images that I created were around 62 megapixel, since you an get a little more around the edges than the default stitching in-camera.

Having the ability to create high resolution images with reasonable dynamic range in RAW format really adds to the flexibility and value of the Mavic 2 Zoom. 

You can get the Mavic 2 Zoom from DJI or Amazon. (Affiliate links)

What Are Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs)?

As you shop for photo paper, or look at my Paper Finder, you may run into papers claiming to be OBA free, or low OBA. What are OBAs, and why would you want to be free of them (or not)?

OBAs are Optical Brightening Agents, also known as Optical Brighteners, Ultraviolet brighteners, or artificial whiteners. When hit with ultraviolet light, they fluoresce, emitting a blueish light that makes the paper look brighter and whiter.

Brighter and whiter are two things we want from our paper, so what’s the problem? The main problem is that the OBAs degrade over time, becoming less effective. This makes the paper look less bright over time, and since the light that the OBA emit has a bluish tint, the apparent color can shift as the OBAs degrade.

If you are unsure of the OBA content of a specific paper, looking at it under a blacklight is the fastest way to check. Papers with OBAs will glow a bright bluish white, while OBA-free papers look a dull purple or pink.

Three different papers under a blacklight, Left to right: Canon Pro Luster, (High OBA), Red River San Gabriel Baryta 2.0 (“Low” OBA), and Breathing Color Signa Smooth 270, an OBA free fine art paper.

The same papers under normal light.

So, should you always avoid OBAs? Probably not. With normal prints the trade off is probably worth it to get the bright white that we expect with a photo paper. Most “photo” papers contain OBAs, so other than a few high-end baryta papers you are going to have OBAs if you want a classic photo look. Photos in an album are probably not going to degrade enough to notice, photos that are properly displayed under glass should look good for many years, and photos displayed in less than ideal conditions can be reprinted in the future. Even fine art prints on archival papers need to be displayed correctly to get the full archival benefits of the materials used.

I have also seen it recommended to display prints under UV blocking glass, since it is the UV light that not only fluoresces the OBAs, but also degrades them. Based on my understanding it seems like this would just make the print look like the OBAs had burned out, since no UV light will fluoresce them. If you are looking for archival permanence, you are probably better off starting OBA free, but if you have a print you want to protect this is probably the best way. Incidentally, even OBA free prints will last longer displayed under UV glass.

In fine art prints, longevity is of paramount importance. This is especially true with limited edition prints, where the photographer commits to only print a certain number of prints, so reprinting is not an option. In the case of selling prints, the buyer should also be considered. Fine Art buyers frequently know exactly what they want, and may demand OBA-free papers. On the other end, people buying postcards or greeting cards may want a photo look, and not expect archival permanence.

Test some different papers (Amazon list, affiliate link), and see what results you like, or check out my paper finder, where you can filter based on OBA content.