Nikon Camera Modes

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 entry level Nikon DSLR cameras.  

Nikon DSLR Camera 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.  

A (Aperture Priority Mode)

The A 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.  

S (Shutter Priority Mode)

The S 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 Nikon 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.

Auto Camera Modes

Guide Mode

Guide mode is Nikons way of helping first time DSLR users.  It is a full Auto mode.  When you change the mode dial to guide the LCD screen will show a menu.  It is basically asking if you want to shoot pictures, view photos, or set up your camera.  If you choose shoot pictures, it will then ask you if you want easy or advanced.  After you choose one of those options, it them proceeds to ask you questions about what kind of pictures.  It is basically walking you through getting the pictures you want with very little control over the actual settings because the camera is choosing them for you.  

Auto (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. 

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.

Portrait Mode

The Portrait mode is an auto mode that assumes you want a blurred background.  In this mode you can only control the ISO settings.  The reason for this is, to allow you to have some amount of control of the light being seen by the camera.  So if the lighting conditions you are shooting in are low, you can increase the ISO to get a better exposed photo.

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.

Child Mode

Child mode implies just what it says, that you are taking pictures of a child.  Again in this mode you are only given control of the ISO.  This mode will have everything in focus and allow the skin tones of the subjects to be soft.

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 of the ISO, but the aperture, shutter speed and white balance are chosen for you.  This mode basically freezes motion with a high shutter speed.

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.  As with all the other Auto modes, you only have control over the ISO setting.

Night Portrait Mode

This mode is for shooting nighttime portraits with an illuminated background.  In this camera mode, you get to choose your ISO, which you would probably want pretty high.  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” that needs to be discussed is the video mode.  Unlike the Canon cameras, this mode is not selectable on the Nikon mode dial.  To take video you push the LV button on the back of the camera and then push the red record button on top of the camera by the on/off switch.  

Those are all the Nikon 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.

As promised here is the Nikon Shooting Mode Cheat Sheet that details what the modes are 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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