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.

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.

Driving in the UK

Earlier this year my wife an I spent about ten days in the UK, including driving, which can be a little intimidating for people used to the road laws from another country and driving on the “other” side of the road.

As an American driving in the UK, I was careful not to say they drive on the wrong side of the road. But I will say that we undeniably drive on the right side of the road, and I’ll let you work it out from there.

While the information here is correct to the best of my knowledge, please refer to the linked sites with the corresponding regulations to make sure it is still accurate or to clarify anything that is unclear. Feel free to leave any questions or corrections in the comments.  

The most obvious difference is that in the UK they drive on the left, and the driver sits on the right in the car. You may find some left hand drive cars, but if you rent in Britain you will get a right hand drive car. It wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it might be, but you need to pay a little extra attention, especially at turns. The more disconcerting thing is passing on the right instead of the left on the motorway.

Renting a car

When renting a car, remember that through most of Europe the standard is a manual transmission, so if you can’t drive manual, make sure you request an automatic. In Britain you might want to anyways, since the shifter will be on the opposite side if you are used to left hand drive cars.

I had no problem just presenting my US driver’s license to the rental company. You can drive on a US license for up to a year, if you are staying longer you need to get a UK driver’s license. For more details check out the uk.gov site. If you have a driver’s license in a non-English language you should get an international driving permit before driving in the UK.

The rental experience was a little different than the US, they were much more polite and hands on, making sure everything was OK, walking us around the car, etc., the flip side being that the whole experience was slower. Don’t know which I prefer, but there is is.


The roads in Great Britain can be a lot narrower than you are used to. We found ourselves on a lot of single lane roads, with only periodic places where cars could pass, and even on some of the larger roads there were frequent narrow spots where there wasn’t a center line. The normal rules are that a car going down a hill should give way to a car coming up. In my experience it was more like a fairly polite free for all. If it is easier for you to pull over, do it. If there is a passing place on the right, stop opposite it so that the oncoming vehicle can pass, and be prepared to back up to a passing point if needed.

The roads are divided into Motorways, which start with an M, such as the M25 around London, and A, B, and sometimes C roads. A Roads are named A and a number, like the A39 along the west coast of Cornwall.

A Roads are generally bigger than B Roads, which are bigger than C roads (C Roads are often not marked with a number, and are only known by their road number for administrative purposes) Because most of the roads numbers were designated decades ago, this is not always true. For instance, a B Road may have become much larger than it originally was, and they were never renamed, making it larger than some A Roads.

Speed Limits

Speed limits were one of the biggest problems I had, as I had not gotten acquainted with the national speed limits before driving. If you are driving a car and not towing anything, the national speed limits are 30MPH in built up areas, 60MPH on single carriageways, 70MPH on dual carriageways (divided highways  in the US) and motorways. Any deviations have signs posted, with a number in a red circle indicating the maximum speed in miles per hour. Where the speed returns to the national speed limit there is a sign that is a black slash through a white circle. Why they can’t just post the speed limit I don’t know, but there it is.

The other thing you might see is variable speed limit signs, which are then accompanied by lighted speed limit signs indicating the current speed limit. If the signs are not illuminated, the national speed limit applies.

There is a generally applied 10% + 2 MPH over the speed limit allowed, but don’t count on it. Everything I have seen is that it is a guideline that the police often use, but is discretionary, not codified anywhere. You can be fined for even one MPH over the limit.

Road signs

Road signs are pretty intuitive, but you should probably look through the road sign list on gov.uk. One that might be confusing is that a circular sign with a red outer circle means “don’t do X,” even without a slash through it.

Average Speed Cameras

Average speed cameras measure the time between passing two cameras, and calculating your average speed. This means that even if you slow down for both, they can still nick you for speeding.

A Few Other Things

You can be fined for touching your phone while in the car with the engine running. Including being parked, paying with your phone at a drive through, adjusting GPS, etc.

The same applies to messing with GPSs, etc.


Just don’t. We visited London at the end of the trip, dropping our car back at Heathrow, and taking the tube to our hotel. That worked well, and is what I am planning to do for any future visits.

Returning Home

When we got back home, I had my wife drive back to the house since she was not driving in the UK at all, and I was a little concerned about switching driving sides again. I actually did fine, apart from occasionally second guessing which side I should be driving on, for about two weeks, at which point I found myself driving on the left for a short time on a back road. Since then I haven’t had any issues, but it is best to remember that there might be a little while unlearning your UK driving habits. Long term I have still found myself second guessing the

Five Gift Ideas For Photographers

Having trouble finding a gift for the photographer on your list? It can be difficult since not all accessories work with all cameras, and it is difficult to know what they have and what they could use. The following are a selection of consumable or semi-consumable items, or the you can never have too many kind, that are useful even if the recipient already has one.

Links are affiliate links (I get a percentage back if you buy through them), but these are all products that I buy and use.

  1. Sensor Gel Stick* (~$60) – This one and the next are specific to DSLRs or interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras. Digital camera sensors get dirty over time, and there are several specialized tools to clean them. The gel stick is a block of adhesive gel on a plastic handle that makes it easy to pick up dust from the sensor. Although cleaning the sensor can be scary if you are not used to it, it can be done by anyone, and most cameras include a function to lock the shutter and the mirror up.
  2. Sensor Swab Kit ($15-$20) –  When the Gel Stick isn’t enough, sometimes you need to use a swab and cleaning fluid. These kits contain both. You will need to know if they need full frame* or crop sensor* sized swabs.
  3. Lens tissues* (<$10) – While microfiber cloths are the most common these days, some people still prefer disposable tissues, since there is less likelihood that they could pick up bits of grit that could damage a lens. Previously I have used microfiber cloths, but am planning to switch for that reason.
  4. Think Tank Cable Management* bags ($15-$30) – Don’t let the name fool you, these are very handy for organizing anything, not just cables, in your camera bag or luggage. With a clear side, it is easy to see what is in them if you have a few. There are several sizes, the 10 or 20 is probably a good starter.
  5. Training (various) – training is one of the most valuable things you can get a photographer. A KelbyOne membership (use this link* for a $20 discount on a one year membership) or courses from CreativeLive* can take a photographer’s work to the next level. I use training from both, and they are both great. Pricing is on two different models, CreativeLive is an outright purchase, you buy a class and it is yours to keep. KelbyOne is a subscription service, you get access to all the classes for as long as you are subscribed.

Have you given any great photography related gifts? Please share below in the comments.

* These links are affiliate program links through Amazon or the associated vendor. If you follow the link, I get a percentage back to help maintain this site and bring you more content.