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P: Program Mode


There's a reason Program mode is only one click away from the Automatic modes: with respect to aperture and shutter speed, the camera is doing most of the thinking for you. So, if that is the case, why even bother with Program mode? It doesn't give as much control over the image-making process as the other Creative modes, but there are occasions when it comes in handy, such as shooting in widely changing lighting conditions, or when you're willing to give up ultimate control of the scene in the greater service of getting the shot. Think of a picnic outdoors in a partial shade/sun environment. I want great-looking pictures, but I'm not looking for anything to hang in a museum. If that's the scenario, why choose Program over one of the Automatic modes? Because it still offers choices and control that none of those modes can deliver.

When to use Program (P) Mode Instead of the Automatic Modes

  • When shooting in a casual environment where quick adjustments are needed
  • When you want control over the ISO
  • If you want to make corrections to the white balance
  • If you want to shoot in RAW

Let's go back to our picnic scenario. As I said, the light is moving from deep shadow to bright sunlight, which means the camera is trying to balance our three photo factors (ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) to make a good exposure. From Chapter 1, we know that Auto ISO is just not a consideration, so we're not using that setting on the ISO dial (right?). Well, in Program mode, you can choose which ISO you would like the camera to base its exposure on. The lower the ISO number, the better the quality of the photographs, but the less light sensitive the camera becomes. It's a balancing act with the main goal always being to keep the ISO as low as possible—too low an ISO, and we will get camera shake in our images from a long shutter speed; and too high an ISO means we will have an unacceptable amount of digital noise. For our purposes, let's go ahead and select ISO 400 so that we provide enough sensitivity for those shadows while allowing the camera to use shutter speeds that are fast enough to stop motion.

Let's set up the camera for Program mode and see how we can make all this come together.

  1. Turn your camera on and turn the Mode dial to P.
  2. Select your ISO by rotating the ISO dial (see the sidebar, "Starting Points for ISO Selection").
  3. Point the camera at your subject and activate the camera meter by pressing the shutter button halfway.
  4. View the exposure information at the bottom of the LCD.
  5. Start clicking. As you shoot, feel free to adjust the ISO to compensate: if the photos are coming out blurry, increase the ISO to raise the shutter speed; if the image looks good, try dropping the ISO setting and see if you can keep the quality while reducing the digital noise.

The downside to shooting in Program mode is that you're relying on the camera to pick what it believes are suitable exposure values using its internal meter. Sometimes it doesn't know what it's looking at and how you want those values applied (Figures 4.1 and 4.2). That's when it's time to start adjusting the settings by hand.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 (left) The camera settings are affected by the flat sky as well as the color of the paint on the front of the building.

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 (right) By recomposing slightly, the light meter focused on the wall, resulting in a change of exposure.[Photos: Jeff Carlson]

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