For beginners, fully automatic is the best way to go. Find this exposure mode and
you can ignore all the other photographic settings you have. It will set them all
to auto. There is, however, one setting that will affect your camera's exposure even
when you are on fully auto.
All but the simplest digital cameras will have an exposure compensation control.
On Dslrs and some slr type cameras is easily accessible on the body of the camera.
However, on most compacts, it is buried amongst the menus.
The reason why it is so accessible in the more expensive type of camera is because
it is so useful, especially for those who want some control over what their camera
is doing. However, the reason you might need to use it applies equally no matter
what type of camera you use.
What it does is to adjust your camera's actual exposure relative to the one that
it's metering system has decided is correct. In practice it's the simplest way of
adjusting the exposure on a camera. If you have just taken a photograph that looks
too dark, adjust the exposure compensation to the plus side and take the picture
again. If the image is too bright, move it towards the minus end.
The exposure compensation setting works in conjunction with the automatic exposure
system in your camera. This means that it will have absolutely no effect if you are
set on manual exposure. In all other exposure modes, it works as described above.
You may use this to retake an individual picture or if you find that your camera
consistently under or overexposes. Adjust the setting slightly one way or the other
and use that all the time. One thing you need to find out is when your camera resets
this control after you have adjusted it. Your camera may return it to zero after
each shot, when it it switched off or never, unless all it's settings are returned
to default. This it worth knowing.
Different exposure modes
On the more sophisticated compacts, slrs and Dslrs you will have a choice of exposure
modes. Here is a brief explanation of what they do and when you might want to use
This controls everything. Sometimes more than just the exposure. In most cameras
it won't even allow you to decide whether to use the flash or not. You can still
change the exposure with exposure compensation, but that's it.
Basic program mode
Also called AE program mode, this will release some control of the camera back to
you. There are three settings involved in controlling the exposure; ISO, shutter
speed and aperture. Fully auto controls all three but program mode allows you to
set the ISO number yourself (or leave it on auto). In fact it allows you to adjust
any setting in the camera except the shutter speed and aperture.
You can usually alter the shutter or aperture in program mode, but not independently
of each other. Program mode locks the two settings together so any change in one
is compensated for in the other and the exposure will stay exactly the same. Only
exposure compensation will actually make your picture lighter or darker.
Other program or scene modes
Many cameras have some exposure modes that are identified only by picture icons.
When you look them up in the manual you find they refer to things like "sport/action",
"portrait", "landscape", "night" amongst others. These settings usually work like
fully automatic in that they may set more than just the exposure and you may not
be able to adjust anything except exposure compensation. They are meant to be self
explanatory. When you are taking any of the type of shots described, the appropriate
mode will set your camera up perfectly for it.
Semi automatic modes
These are the exposure modes that are most useful to the serious photographer. They
allow you full manual control over either the shutter speed or aperture whilst maintaining
automatic exposure. There are two of these modes, namely shutter priority and aperture
priority. Both of these modes are similar to the basic program mode in that they
lock the shutter speed and aperture together and don't affect anything else, But
with one vital difference.
In program mode, if you adjust the shutter or aperture before taking the shot, that
setting will only apply to that shot. In contrast, if you set an aperture in aperture
priority mode, that setting will remain until you change it or come out of that mode.
Similarly, when you set a shutter speed in shutter priority mode, only the aperture
will change to give you the correct exposure.
Why are these modes so useful to the serious photographer? Mostly because they are
the essence of how you set up a camera for different photographic effects. The fact
is that even though a fast shutter speed and wide aperture will give you exactly
the same exposure as a slow shutter speed and small aperture (it's known as the law
of reciprocity), the photographic effect will be different.
It depends entirely on what type of photograph you want to take as to just what effect
you need. Once you know whether you need a specific shutter speed or aperture, you
set that using the appropriate mode and let the camera set the other.
For the experiences user only - it will probably say in the manual. In this exposure
mode, you're on your own (use the force, Luke). Actually, You're not completely on
your own. You never are with a digital camera, there is always a computer ready to
In this case it's the fact that your camera's exposure meter will still be working,
constantly reminding you of how wrong it thinks that your idea of the correct exposure
actually is. You have to learn to ignore this. You only need to use fully manual
when you know that the camera will get the exposure wrong. Believe it or not, there
are times when it will do this, or at least not take the shot you want.
For example, if you are taking a lot of pictures in the same lighting then the exposure
shouldn't change. However, you are likely to find that your camera constantly makes
subtle adjustments to the exposure depending on what is in the frame. If you want
to present these pictures as a set, you might prefer a consistent exposure throughout.
Using fully manual is the only way to do this.
Occasionally, you might want a deliberately wrong exposure. So wrong, in fact that
even exposure compensation won't go far enough. Strange as it may seem, it does happen.
For example night photography, fireworks and extremely high contrast situations often
require exposure settings that your camera will think are just plain wrong.
Also, if you ever find yourself working in a studio you should know that automatic
exposure systems are of no use whatsoever in that situation. The reason you use a
studio is to have control over every aspect of the photograph. The last thing you
want in that situation is your camera compensating for what you are doing.