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Getting Acquainted: Auto and Scene Modes (And When to Use Them)

Last updated on 06/10/2013

Digital camera scene modes often result in better images and more customized results then using auto--if used properly. Check out how to use scene modes in this Getting Acquainted series article. Check back next week to learn about using manual modes.
By Hillary Grigonis










Scene modes still allow the camera to automatically choose the best settings, but allow the user to indicate what settings are more important.




Most of the time, a good digital camera is pretty adept at sensing the lighting conditions and selecting the optimal shooting settings. Auto and the no-flash auto lets the camera do the thinking and the photographer do the snapping, often resulting in clear, well lit photos.

There's just one problem—camera's can't actually think. On an automatic setting, the camera picks up the amount of light that's available and adjusts accordingly. But the camera can't tell that your subject is moving fast, that you want everything but the fireworks to be black or that you want a soft background for a still life shot. But even average consumers (who don't have the terms f-stop or shutter speed in their vocabulary) can take better photos by using the scene modes built into their camera. Scene modes work like auto because the camera selects the settings, only the user can achieve better results by telling the camera exactly what it is taking a picture of.

Scene modes will vary on how (or if) the flash is used, how fast or how slow the snapshot is taken, how soft the background is and how bright the colors are, just to name a few. By understanding the scene modes on your camera, you can take better shots for different scenarios, even with just a point and shoot. Take a look at some of the newest modes to enter the foray, and when to use the most common ones.

The newest scene modes

Maybe you understand sports and portrait mode, after all, they were on your last camera too, but there's a few new settings you've never seen before. Here are a few of the modes that have come up in the past few years:

Panoramic. The panoramic mode is fun, and quite different from any other camera setting. This option stitches together several photos (the number will depend on the camera manufacturer) for one long photo. Generally, the camera screen provides step-by-step instructions for taking a panorama. On most models, the camera prompts you to pan horizontally (like if you were taking video of the entire scene), then the camera software combines the information into one image automatically.

Handheld. The term “handheld” is now being attached to a few different scene modes, but there's one key difference. The handheld mode, often Handheld Twilight (Sony) or Handheld Night Snap (Pentax), takes three low-light photos then combines them into one to reduce blur. The handheld mode is great for shots that normally need a tripod, like a night landscaping. Like the panoramic mode, however, it does require the camera software to do it's magic, which means the camera is tied up for a few moments before you can take another picture.

High Dynamic Range (HDR). High Dynamic Range is an older concept in photography, but a newer scene mode. Some camera models offer HDR as a scene mode, others as an editing option for after the image is taken. High Dynamic Range, put simply, emphasizes the light and shadow in an image. Using HDR usually means the camera takes multiple pictures, then combines them into one for a dramatic effect. If you take a shot and see that the shadows are not very detailed or the bright areas are too washed out, then it would be a good shot to try using the HDR setting.

Modes for action and speed

Digital cameras can determine how much light is available and adjust settings automatically, but they can't determine how fast the subject is moving. Scene modes like sport, kids and pets freeze the action when having a fast shutter (i.e. taking photos quickly with little motion blur) is essential.

Sports. This mode (usually indicated by an icon of a running person) uses the fastest shutter speed for the available lighting with no flash. The autofocus is also usually adjusted for a moving target. The sports setting is good for shooting more than just athletic events and is useful anytime the subject is moving fast.

Kids.Like the sports mode, the kids setting uses a faster shutter to freeze the action better. This setting also uses flash, softens skin tones and brightens colors.

Pets. Similar to the kids mode, the pets setting freezes action for fast moving critters, but doesn't try to soften skin.

Modes for low light










Using a mode designed for low light lets the user indicate if preserving the colors and lighting effects, like in a sunset, are important or not to the shot.





Low light photos are often the most challenging. Most digital cameras include several different modes to make shooting in the dark a little easier. The newest, and often most effective low light mode is a handheld one that combines multiple shots to reduce blur—but it may not be the best option, especially for fireworks and fast moving subjects.

Candlelight. Using a flash would destroy the lighting effect produced from candles, so this setting turns it off automatically. That nice orange glow produced from the flame remains in the shot too.

Sunset/Sunrise. The sunrise and sunset mode enhances the colors in the sky. No flash is used. Some models also have a dusk/dawn mode, which works similarly but enhances the blues in the sky as well.

Night Landscape. This setting tells the camera that the lack of light is part of the photo, allowing for the best capture of city lights at night with no flash and slower shutter speeds. A tripod is recommended.

Night Portrait. The night portrait mode uses a slower flash to light up a subject relatively close to the camera, while keeping the lighting effects in the background.

Party/Indoor. This mode uses a flash while maintaining some of the original lighting. The setting is one of the best for low light with moving subjects.

Modes for still life

In ideal shooting conditions when there is plenty of light and the subject is stationary or slow moving, the camera can instead focus on dramatic colors and softer backgrounds by choosing the right mode.

Landscape. When taking shots of the overall scenery, the landscape mode emphasizes greens and blues. This setting also keeps a majority of the picture in focus in order to capture the detail of the whole scene.

Blossom or Flower.Just as the name suggests, this setting is for shots of flowers, producing vivid colors and a soft background. Some models also include a similar mode for autumn trees that emphasizes reds, oranges and yellows.

Food. A simple setting for more dramatic, detailed food shots.

Portrait. The portrait mode is best for taking shots of still people or other semi-stationary objects. This setting usually softens skin tones and keeps the person in focus while keeping the background out of focus for a nice effect. The flash is generally used if the lighting is insufficient.

Modes for tricky scenarios

Most cameras today also include a few settings for shots that are common, yet tricky. These settings aren't as commonly used, but step up at the right moments.

Silhouette. Cameras sometimes detect a backlit subject and compensate with a flash;at other times, the subjects are under-lit, but not completely dark. If your intention is a dark figure against a bright background, the silhouette mode is an excellent tool.

Beach/Snow. Water and snow can reflect the sun, often making the exposure or white balance off in an image. The Beach/Snow mode compensates and results in a better image, often also working to enhance the blues in the water and sky.

High/Low Key.When snapping a white object on a white background, the high key setting is used to achieve the best look; similarly, the low key mode works well for dark objects on a black background.

Underwater. Water does tricky things to light, so waterproof cameras usually have a setting for underwater to compensate.

Macro. Using the macro mode tells the camera's autofocus system to focus on objects close to the camera, while keeping the background nicely blurred. Many cameras have this available as a scene mode and as a setting that can be applied to nearly any shooting mode; look for an icon that looks like a flower.

Museum/Candid.Some cameras also have a mode, by various names depending on manufacturer, that makes taking pictures a little more discrete. This mode turns off beeps and unnecessary noises, as well as the flash and is great for scenarios where noise is unwelcome or may ruin the shot.

Finding the scene mode options

How to select and change the scene mode varies by camera model, but most are changed in one of a few ways:

  • The mode dial. Many models use a dial with the various modes on them. Commonly used modes will sometimes be included directly on the dial, or there will be one scene option and the individual scene options will be selected on a control wheel or through the menu.
  • The menu. On point-and-shoots and other models without a mode dial, changing the scenes is accomplished by using the menu.
  • If you can't find out how the modes on your camera are changed, check the manual (if you don't have the manual, they are usually readily available as electronic copies online). Basic or older cameras may not have the variety of scene modes many cameras offer, or may not have any at all.

    Beginners and novice photographers can improve the quality of their photos by using the appropriate scene modes for what they're shooting. The various scene modes keep picture taking simple, like the auto modes, but help the camera determine the best settings for the situation.

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