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Gear talk: Shooting in Program mode

24 April 2014


There’s nothing more tragic than a lovely DSLR camera that’s forever stuck on auto mode — D-Photo and Dion Mellow from Snapshot Cameras explain program mode as your first step to creative freedom

If you have recently stepped up to a DSLR camera then you’ve probably already noticed the decent results you can get using Auto mode. But no matter how fancy automated features may get, you’re always going to take better, more rewarding pictures once you take manual control of the camera. Knowing when and how to use the many different features of a DSLR can be confusing to begin with, but switch your dial from Auto to Program mode (P on the mode wheel) and you’ll be taking a simple first step towards truly mastering your camera.

All camera brands and models do things slightly differently — if anything here doesn’t make sense for your camera, consult your manual

What is Program mode?

Program mode is a type of automatic setting that gives you control of some, but not all, of your camera’s settings. According to Dion Mellow, professional photographer and equipment expert at Snapshot Cameras in Hamilton, the main reason to switch to Program mode is to gradually increase your control over the camera.

“In Program mode you can adjust your exposure, ISO, white balance, flash, and focusing area — you can’t adjust any of these in Auto.”

In Program mode the camera selects an aperture and shutter speed combination based on your chosen focal length, with the rest up to you. So let’s take a look at what you can do with these adjustable options.




In Auto mode your camera will asses the scene and decide if the flash should be fired or not (unless you put it in auto-flash-off mode, in which case it will never fire). In Program mode that decision is up to you; if you want it, simply push the flash button on the side of most cameras and the unit will pop up, ready to fire.

By controlling the flash you are able to use it in creative ways that the Auto mode would not have thought of, such as using fill flash outside on a sunny day, Mellow explains.


“It is also useful any time the background is significantly brighter than the subject of the photograph, particularly in backlit subjects.”

Mastering flash techniques can be a very fulfilling aspect of photography, and the control and experimentation you can experience in Program mode is a great introduction.



Program mode automatically selects the aperture and shutter speed of a shot (the elements that dictate how much light gets inside the camera), but you can control how much light the camera needs by adjusting the ISO value.

As Mellow explains, the ISO value tells you how sensitive your sensor is to light.

“The higher the ISO, the less light you need to capture a photo, so in turn you will not need as long a shutter speed.”

If you wanted to shoot in a darker environment where a flash would be inappropriate, and at a fast enough shutter speed to hand hold the camera, you could dial the ISO value up to, say, 800 in order to correctly expose the shot. Just hold down the ISO button and rotate the command dial to make ISO changes.

To much grain

However there is a downside: the higher up you go with ISO the more electronic ‘noise’ — random, strangely coloured little blips — will be present in your image (see above).

Exposure compensation


While Program mode automatically chooses your aperture and shutter speed values many cameras will let you tweak these slightly using exposure compensation — kind of like the kiddie pool of manual control.

Depending on your camera you will be able to push the exposure up or down slightly (usually in increments of a half or full stop), making the resulting image lighter or darker through adjustments to the aperture and shutter speed.


“You would underexpose (darken) an image when your subject is brighter than your background or overexpose (lighten) an image when your subject is darker then the background,” says Mellow.

“If you’re shooting landscapes with a lot of sky that’s getting overexposed (white instead of blue) you can underexpose to bring the blue colour back into the sky.”


To adjust your exposure compensation settings in Program mode hold down the +/- button and rotate the command dial.

White balance

White balance

If you have ever taken a photograph of something and had it come out with colours that appeared different from how your eye saw them then you’ve encountered the need for white balance adjustments.

As Mellow explains, not all light is the same colour and it varies based on the temperature of the light source.

“Tungsten lights are warm and give an orange colour cast to photos whereas fluorescent tubes are cool and will give your images a green colour cast.”

You don’t tend to notice these colours in person because our eyes do a good job of compensating — we see whites as white. In much the same way your camera’s auto white balance feature is pretty good at automatically removing colour casts, but not always.


When you do run into shots that come out with a colour cast you can adjust your white balance setting with a bunch of preset compensations — tungsten for hotter light, fluorescent for cooler, flash to adjust for the temperature of your camera’s flash, daylight, cloudy, shade, etc.

Your camera’s preset white balance settings will likely do a pretty good job any time auto white balance lets you down. You can also manually set the white balance on most cameras by entirely filling your frame with a colour (many use a purpose-bought white card or grey card) so your camera can ‘learn’ what that colour looks like under the specific light conditions and adjust all other colours accordingly.

The above adjustments should give you plenty to play around with now that you’ve cast off the shackles of Auto mode, but Program mode can still be very limiting, says Mellow.

“In Program mode the camera will choose your shutter speed and aperture so you cannot control depth-of-field or movement.”

 This article originally appeared in D-Photo no. 53