Many digital cameras come equipped with lots of automatic and semi-automatic modes designed to make your life as a photographer easier.

These special mode are scene-specific and each mode has a particular purpose. You can easily switch between modes for portraits, landscapes, macro photography, sunset photography, sport and many more.

This page takes a look at the most common automatic scene modes found on most cameras; the icons on your camera will be very similar or exactly the same as those shown below.

Landscape mode

landscape_iconNearly all cameras have a pre-programmed landscape mode that sets everything up for perfect pictures of endless cornfields swaying in the breeze. You can usually get to it by turning your camera’s top dial to the little picture of a landscape, but it’s not the same for all cameras. With some point-and-shoot models, you have to access landscape mode from the main menu.

Landscape mode works by closing your camera’s aperture to a tiny hole. When your aperture is smaller, less light gets through it, but the light that does get through forms a sharper image. This is ideal for landscape photography because you ultimately want to see far and wide when you’re looking at a landscape photo. The sharpness gives added depth and invites your viewers right into the picture.

Do be careful when switching to landscape mode. Because your aperture is now more closed, your camera lets in less light. To compensate, your camera will sometimes dial down your shutter speed, and this can result in camera shake problems. Whenever I’m using landscape mode, I try to use a tripod of some sort or rest my camera on a surface nearby such as a wall or fence.

Portrait mode

portrait_iconThis mode is designed for taking pictures of faces and people and is the exact opposite of landscape mode. You can find it by locating the little picture of a face. Portrait mode works by opening up the aperture as much as your camera will allow blurring out the background and focusing your subject’s face.

With a more open aperture, your camera takes in more light, but your image is less sharp overall; this means it has a shallower depth of field. This decrease in the depth of field makes the objects in front of or behind your subject appear blurry. This is a good thing when you want someone’s face to be the main point of the picture.

Sports mode

sports_iconThe sports mode on your camera is a great mode if you like taking pictures of sporting activities.

Why? Because it freezes the action.

To freeze the action in front of you, your camera has to increase the shutter speed to a number somewhere near 1/500s or higher. As your camera does this, it sometimes opens the aperture to let in a little more light. You might not get as much depth of field, but whatever you’re focusing on will be sharp.

Sports mode isn’t just good for sports. I like to use it when I’m photographing fast moving animals, running water or motorbikes and anything else where I want to freeze the action.

Macro mode

macro_iconA lot of cameras also feature a pre-programmed macro scene mode that makes it easier to take pictures of bugs and flowers from a very up close and personal perspective. Macro mode can be accessed by finding the flower shaped icon, either on the top dial or in the main menu.

Macro mode works by changing the focusing distance on your camera’s lens. When you have a very close focusing distance, you can get right next to objects while keeping them in focus. This allows you to get a little more magnification out of your subjects.

In macro mode, your camera also tends to pick a wide open aperture, meaning you’ll have a depth of field that’s a little more shallow than what you’d get with portrait mode. Without much breathing room, you’ll probably need to use a tripod in your shoot because the slightest movement can make your subject out of focus.

Night mode

night_iconThis one is pretty fun if you’re up late at night with your friends or at a party. Night mode takes advantage of a technique known as slow sync flash. Here’s how it works. Your camera takes the picture using the flash, but it also keeps the shutter open a little longer to capture some of your surroundings. As a result, you get a kind of cool looking motion blur effect.

Night mode is by no means the best mode for taking serious night time pictures. To do that, you’ll want to learn about manual photography and long exposures.

Some cameras have more scene modes than the ones listed here i.e. for fireworks or sunsets; but those listed should be more then enough to get you started.

Program Mode