Canon Camera Modes Explained

Are you confused by all the different shooting modes of your camera?  If you are, you’re in the right place. This article will explain every camera mode on your DSLR dial.  I will wrap it all up in a neat bow at the end with a printable cheat sheet to make understanding the different modes quick and easy.  

First, let’s start with a picture of the camera mode dial that is on most Canon cameras.  

Canon DSLR Mode Dial

As you can see there are multiple modes to choose from.  Some of the modes are “auto” modes and don’t allow you much control of the camera, whereas others are “manual” modes that allow you to have much more control over the settings of the camera.  I will start with the “manual” camera modes and work my way around to the “auto” camera modes. I will explain what camera settings are controlled by the camera and which are controlled by you.  The only settings I will be discussing are the aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, ISO, and white balance. All other camera settings typically don’t have much influence on the exposure or outcome of the image and therefore will be skipped in this article.  

Manual Camera Modes

M (Manual Mode)

This is the truest “manual mode” setting on any DSLR camera.  In this camera mode, you have full control of all the settings including aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance.  You use the meter on the camera to determine the exposure and change the aforementioned settings accordingly. In this camera mode, it is important to understand how the lighting levels affect and determine how you choose the other camera settings.  

AV (Aperture Priority Mode)

The AV or aperture priority mode is a semi-manual mode.  The reason this is classified as semi-manual is that you have control over three of the four camera settings that affect exposure.  In this camera mode, you choose the aperture, ISO, and white balance, while the camera chooses the shutter speed. This mode is a good mode for portraits or macro photography, where capturing the motion of the subject is not as important and the depth of field in the image.  

TV (Shutter Priority Mode)

The TV or shutter priority mode is also a semi-manual mode.  You again have control over three of the four exposure determining settings of the camera.  In this camera mode, you have control over the shutter speed, ISO, and white balance, while the camera chooses the aperture based on the lighting conditions and the other settings you chose.  This camera mode is a good choice for sports photos or photos of moving water.

P (Program Mode)

The P or program mode is also a semi-auto mode on the Canon camera.  With this mode, you have control over two of the four camera settings.  You control the ISO and white balance, while the camera chooses the aperture and shutter speed.  The goal of this camera mode is to get blurry background photos, and the camera will choose settings based on the lighting to make that happen.  This can be a good mode for a still portrait setting.


The is the auto depth of field mode.  In this mode, the aperture and shutter speed are chosen by the camera to make the foreground and background in focus based on the subjects.  In this camera mode, you only have control over the ISO and white balance. I would argue that this mode can only be used in well-lit conditions, as it will choose the aperture and shutter speed settings based on the lighting conditions.  This mode is the opposite of the P (program) mode above in that the camera tries to have everything in the image in focus.

Auto Camera Modes

A+ (Full Auto Mode)

This is a fully auto mode and the camera chooses every setting for you and uses the flash whenever it desires.  This is basically the same as using a point and shoot digital camera or a camera on a phone. This is where most DSLR beginners get frustrated with their camera because it doesn’t produce pictures any better than their phone.  I strongly encourage you to stay out of this mode. Quick plug here: If you want to learn how to use your camera in any of the manual modes you can check out my inexpensive course that is tailored to the Canon camera and will have you off Auto and taking great pictures in no time.  The Ultimate Canon DSLR Photography Course for Beginners

Flash Off Mode

This is essentially full auto mode with the flash disabled.  The premise of this mode is to use it in situations where flash photography is not allowed.  Again, I will discourage you from using this as it is not better than a camera phone with the flash set to off.

CA (Creative Auto)

This auto mode tries to give you more control by asking what kind of picture you want.  This camera mode asks you what kind of colors you want and if you want a blurred background or a sharp background.  The camera then chooses the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance based on what you told the camera you wanted.  So you do get more “creative” control but the camera is still in control.

Portrait Mode

The Portrait mode is an auto mode that assumes you want a blurred background.  You only get to control what type of scene you want and the lighting conditions you are in.  By lighting conditions I mean are you outdoors, indoors, fluorescent, etc. It is basically white balance that you are getting to set without calling it white balance.  As the name says this mode is best used for still portraits.

Landscape Mode

Landscape Mode assumes that you want everything in the image in sharp focus.  It is the opposite of Portrait mode. You get to choose the same settings as in Portrait mode, above, and the camera figures out the rest.

Close-up (Macro Mode)

This mode is used when you are trying to take close-up photos of stationery items, such as flowers or buttons.  With this camera mode you choose the type of color you want in your scene and the lighting type of your scene, just as above.  

Sports Mode

This camera mode is used for shooting subjects in motion such as kids running or birds flying.  The object of this mode is to keep subjects in motion in focus in all images. You have control over the type of color and the lighting type of your scene, and the camera chooses the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance for you.  This mode basically freezes motion with a high shutter speed.

Night Portrait Mode

This mode is for shooting nighttime portraits with an illuminated background.  In this camera mode, you get to choose the color type you would like but that is it.  The camera tells you a tripod is recommended because it will use a low shutter speed to properly expose the photo.  With a low shutter speed, a tripod is used to prevent blur in the image because of camera shake.

The last mode on the Canon camera mode dial is the video mode.  This is pretty much what it says it is. When you select the video mode your camera turns into a camcorder.  

Those are all the Canon camera modes explained.  I have mentioned this above, but I will say it again.  If you really want to start taking great photos you have to stay away from the auto modes.  Learning how to use the manual modes and understanding aperture, shutter speed and ISO are what will make your photos pop and allow you to get creative with your photography.

If you would really like to dive deep and learn how to use your Canon DSLR camera, I created a course that explains all the camera settings, and how to use the different manual camera modes.  You can check it out here: The Ultimate Canon DSLR Photography Course for Beginners.

As promised here is the Canon Shooting Mode Cheat Sheet that details what the mode is used for and what settings you have control over.  

If you have any other questions about camera modes and what they are used for, just drop it in the comments below.  You can find other articles that may interest you here:

Free DSLR and Mirrorless Settings Cheat Sheets and more!


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