Your Camera Dial – Explained!

With so many options on your digital camera dial, you can be forgiven for forgetting what they all mean. That’s why most head for the easiest option…AUTO mode!

Getting out of auto allows your photography to take the next creative step, so let’s discover what all those functions on your camera dial actually mean.

We’ve tried to make sure that lots of different camera dial types from compacts to DSLRs are taken into consideration. So that most of this information will apply to your camera.

Some cameras may not even feature an actual dial. But all these options and functions should be included within your camera’s menu system.

But some functions that we are going to discuss may be limited to specific camera types or brands, so we’ll try to point that out as we go through!

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Basic Modes

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So, maybe you’ve just treated yourself to a new camera but you don’t know where to begin?

Well, camera manufacturers over the years have tried to help beginners by creating a camera dial loaded with a variation of creative photographic modes.

Some of these basic functions are designed to help you concentrate on having fun with your photography. The camera will do all the hard work by adjusting the exposure based on the conditions you shoot in.

You may find fun and creative colour filters which can be applied to your shots to make it look retro or artistic.

So, it’s the perfect way to enjoy taking photographs and getting to know your camera dial before advancing further.


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What else can you say – it does what it says on the tin! Auto is quite literally the automatic mode that most beginners opt for. The camera will choose all settings based upon its internal light meter which is taken milliseconds before you take a picture. It’s so quick you won’t even notice.

It may be symbolized by a simple green rectangle.


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This icon is your macro function. It will allow you to unlock an extra focus range on your camera so you can get in nice and close to capture small details. Ideal for floral, insects and abstract photography.

Remember to switch back to different setting after using your macro mode though. Otherwise you’ll suffer a delay in your focusing time.


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For the landscape lovers, most cameras have a dedicated mode for bringing out the best in a scene.

This option will automatically make the camera focus on as much of the scene as possible by using a wide depth of field.

The camera may also use a slower shutter speed in some cases to compensate for the small aperture.

It’s always worth using a tripod to avoid camera shake.

Night Time / Party

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Sometimes called Night or Party mode, they both mean the same thing – its suitable for working in low light.

Night mode forces the camera to use slower shutter speeds. Because there isn’t much ambient (natural) light available. It will fire your flash automatically to help with the exposure. So expect some quirky light trails along with freeze framed motion.

It isn’t a good mode to use in the daytime as the slower shutter speed can cause overexposure.


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Ideal for action and rapid movement. Sports mode will do the opposite to night mode and push the shutter speed to a higher rate. This will make sure any motion is frozen still and no movement blur occurs. The camera will widen the aperture if necessary to compensate for the fast shutter.

The camera may implement a facial tracking focus mode to make sure the focus follows the action, but this depends on the camera.


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One of the more common features on the camera dial is the unmistakable portrait mode. Suitable for humans and animals (but subjects in motion may be better in sports mode). The aperture will be widened significantly to reduce the depth of field. Throwing the background out of focus and making your subject the obvious feature. Use it for formal portraits rather than candid shots. If you are a portrait lover then you’ll adore our dedicated portrait photography tutorial!

No Flash

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The flash will not fire under any circumstances, ideal if you are trying to be discreet with some street photography.

It stops accidents occurring where the flash pops up without your knowledge, and spoiling shots.

It’s not a very common feature on many camera dials. As it’s normally included within the menu system under flash settings. However, it’s an important function to know about if you like being a sneaky shooter!


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This is an option for shooting specific specialised scenes (sometimes called creative modes). The choices will vary from brand to brand so it’s hard to detail all of them.

You may see options such as Candlelight, Autumn Colours, Dusk, Toy Camera Effect, Miniature Effect and High/Low Key.

The camera may directly apply colour filters to your LCD screen so you can see the effect live.

Advanced Modes

When you are ready to take your images to the upper level, then this next group of modes on your camera dial will give you more control. Therefore, more creativity in your photography.

The camera will start to take a partial or complete step back, depending upon the setting. So you can directly affect the outcome of the image.

It’s a good idea to experiment with these modes, to begin with.

When you take photographs, try taking some in a basic mode and some in an advanced mode. This way you know you won’t mess up capturing the moment, but it also opens up your learning by adding a creative edge to your work.

Have a look below at all of the advanced modes on your camera dial and see which functions they control, and which parts are up to you!

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The power is in your hands with manual mode, the camera will sit back and let you make all the decisions over aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

It will not help you balance the exposure if you get your settings wrong, but learning this function opens up a whole world of fantastic creativity!

For professional photographers this is the only function they will ever use on their camera dial.

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Aperture Priority

It’s like a shared responsibility these next two options – part of the decisions will be made by you; the camera will help you out with the rest.

Aperture priority allows you to choose the size of aperture, but the shutter speed and ISO are automatically adjusted to give you the best exposure possible.

It’s great to use if you want to learn about aperture, but without the burden of other settings.

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Shutter Priority

So, if you understand aperture priority, then shutter priority will be a piece of cake!

It’s a fantastic tool to use if you want to learn about the effects of long exposures its relationship to capturing stunning motion photography.

The camera will continue to change the aperture and ISO based upon your chosen shutter speed.

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Despite aperture and shutter speed being extremely important to photography. They aren’t the only functions that need consideration on your camera and program mode will help you learn them.

Switching into program allows you control over the ISO, exposure metering and white balance whilst shooting.

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Automatic Depth of Field (Canon)

A Canon only function where you tell the camera which part of the shot needs to be sharp.

It works by the photographer using your focus button and the A-DEP mode picks the corresponding aperture to guarantee it gets the aperture spot on.

It’s like having a virtual assistant when learning about aperture!

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Creative Auto (Canon)

Another Canon speciality which allows users quick access to multiple functions which will appear on the cameras LCD.

You can change the exposure, depth of field, drive mode selection (single shot/burst mode). It’s designed for new photographers to get straight into achieving great quality images.

Creative Auto canon camera
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Sensitivity Value (Pentax)

A unique Pentax mode now, which is more commonly referred to as ‘ISO priority’ amongst the brand’s users. So just like aperture and shutter speed priority. You choose the ISO and camera will adjust the f/stop and shutter values to balance the exposure.

It’s a rare function to see as users ideally use their aperture and shutter speed primarily to increase the exposure, before changing the ISO.

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video camera
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Given that we’re an online photography course, we aren’t going to linger too much on the video mode. I’s pretty obvious what it does. The live view will appear on the camera’s LCD and you can make live adjustments to the brightness of the shot. In the same way that you adjust your aperture.

The little red dot that appears on the LCD screen is the archetypal symbol that the camera is in recording mode.


custom modes
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They’re just a few different terms for customization.

If and when you get more confident with your camera and you find you love shooting similar subjects frequently. It’s worth saving your camera settings to have a quick reference whenever you need.

Think of Custom modes just like a speed dial for your favourite type of photography!

Sweep Panorama (Sony)

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Normally built into many cameras drive modes, Sony like to keep the panorama option on their camera dials instead.

Panoramas change the shots ratio from 3:2 to 3:1 giving you a wider perspective.

As you slowly rotate the camera, the image is built from multiple shots of the scene as it changes, giving you the best reproduction of a landscape.

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