Photography is an incredibly subjective and heavily saturated field, and with that comes a great variety of opinion on just about everything, from big topics such as which camera body is the best (and what a minefield that topic is!) to others such as what you should be carrying in your bag. The best thing about all of this is that there is no right answer – whatever kit you choose to use, whatever you do with it and so forth is completely down to you, your style of photography and what you wish to achieve. Photography is, remember, an art form and not a rigid process with set rules.
Nonetheless, I read a post on a forum recently in which someone made an off-the-cuff comment about how pointless ‘scene modes’ are on DSLR cameras, and that if one ‘takes photography seriously, or is any good at it’ (I am paraphrasing, but not that much!) they should never need to use such modes.
If you’re new to photography and unsure what I’m talking about here, then take a look at the dial on the top of your camera. Along with the more commonly used modes such as ‘M’, ‘A’ (or ‘Av’ depending on your camera), ‘AUTO’, ‘S’ (or ‘Tv’, again depending on your camera) and ‘P’, you will see little symbols which denote scene modes. The symbols are relatively consistent across models, and some cameras have modes that others don’t, but the consistent ones are ‘Portrait’ mode (denoted by a head), ‘Landscape’ mode (denoted by a mountain), ‘Sports’ mode (denoted by a running figure), ‘Macro/Close View’ mode (denoted by a flower) and ‘Night’ mode (this one I’ve seen called different things and with different symbols, but generally it is denoted by a symbol of a person with a star above it).
Each of these scene modes optimises the camera’s focusing, aperture and shutter speed for a given set of conditions, and is programmed to try and minimise commonly made errors. Furthermore, it changes how the camera processes the image by altering colour saturation and sharpness. Now all of these settings can be controlled in full in Manual (‘M’) mode, or heavily controlled for a given effect in, say, Aperture Priority (‘A/Av’) or Shutter Priority mode, but I genuinely feel these scene modes, whilst they’re something I rarely use now, are good for two reasons:
- If you have a limited amount of time to compose and capture a shot (example, walking down the street and something catches your eye that you know won’t be there in a short while, such as a street performance), a given scene mode (in this example, probably sports mode to capture the fast movement of a dancer or similar) may be the perfect go-to solution to avoid missing the shot, or capturing it in a panic and ending up with a horrendously under or over-exposed image that no amount of software will fully fix in post-production;
- For those completely new to photography, scene modes are great to experiment with and see what the camera produces. If you like what you see, you can then remember the settings the camera selected and replicate those settings in manual (or similar) mode both there and then, and also in the future when presented with a similar scene. This is, in my opinion, a really good way of absorbing knowledge as to what works in what conditions, and can really help you develop as a photographer.
The chances are that as you grow as a photographer you will leave these scene modes behind most of the time, as you will develop an innate knowledge of what settings work well in what conditions, and you will mentally compose your image before you even get your camera out, and so have an idea of what you’ll be setting everything to. However, if you’re just starting out I really think you should dismiss the naysayers and give them a go. One thing is for sure, they will help you build confidence, help you take more photographs, help you not to miss a moment and help you learn! Actually, that’s four things. Perhaps I should rest my case there.
The shot below I captured in Thailand in December 2017. There’s nothing mind-blowing about the image, it is just a nice memory to have of the hotel that we stayed in. However, I consider it to be nicely composed, with good depth of field, nice colour and exposure. What mode did I use to get it? Night mode. Not Aperture Priority, Manual, Shutter Priority or anything else. I had my wonderful wife waiting on me and so I was a little time pressured to get the shot and then re-focus (get it) on what was more important! So rather than debating about which settings would be best, especially as I wasn’t carrying a tripod and so a lengthy exposure time would not be ideal, I whacked it into night mode, framed the shot, tried to avoid any camera shake and pressed the shutter button. I shall let you be the judge of the image, but this was captured in a ‘scene mode’ and yet it produced the same effect I would have done with a lot more planning:
Interestingly (and because scene modes can help us learn), the camera ramped the ISO up to 800 (the base setting is 100, and ISO relates to the extent to which your camera’s sensor is sensitive to light) and gave ne an aperture of f/3.5, which is actually quite a wide aperture for this kind of shot where you’re trying to obtain a greater depth of field (things more in focus from the front to the back of the image). Because it was so dark outside, this still required an exposure time of 0.5 sec – exceptionally long without a tripod. Yet I have gotten away with it do you not think?
The image looks to be pretty well in focus throughout, there’s no blur caused by shake and the light is nice. So as an amateur I could happily take away from this that when I am shooting in dark areas, knocking up my ISO is a good starting point. I would also learn that in dark scenes, I may be able to get away with a slightly wider aperture than normal without losing detail, and I would know that as long as I can get my camera steady, a tripod is not always essential. These are very rough and ready points, but there is no disputing they can only help one to develop on their photographic journey.