I am the kind of person that likes to have absolute control over the machines and electronics I am operating. When I drive, I prefer a manual transmission, I don’t want a blinking light to tell me to put my seatbelt on, I don’t want the seat to automatically adjust when I sit in it and I definitely don’t want some silly device yacking at me to tell me where and when to take my next turn. I like my machines to at least act stupider than I am. That mindset carries over to my camera and the way I take pictures. I shoot manual: manual shutter, manual aperture, manual ISO, manual white balance, manual flash strength and often manual focus. I would guess the number of pictures I have taken on my D80 in full auto mode wouldn’t fill up a single roll of film. When I shoot a picture I know exactly who to blame for whatever went wrong and I know I can probably figure out what to do to fix it, eventually. I know many people don’t think like I do, and I also know that many cameras don’t really give you the option of going fully manual. A whole bunch of point and shoots don’t give you the chance to adjust much of anything, but almost every decent point and shoot out there has a scene mode.
You should be using that scene mode. Here’s why. When your camera is in auto mode, it attempts to make the best guess possible about what you are taking a picture of and how you want to capture that picture. As smart as the camera and its manufacturers may be, it does not know that you are trying to take a picture of your kid’s birthday party. All the camera sees is light and shapes. Even with the best software out there, your camera still has no clue what is actually going on in the scene. That means your camera does not know the difference between a chess tournament, a soccer match and a ballet. That’s where your scene mode comes into play. The scene mode of your camera allows you to give its computer a broad idea of what you are shooting. Obviously, there is a huge difference between taking a picture of your son standing at the free throw line ready to toss in the game winning basket and him standing at the front of the church in a tux ready to throw his life away. Your scene mode gives you the chance to tell your camera to shoot the scene differently.
If you have never shot in scene mode, here is a quick run down of some of the most common choices and what they are generally intended to do. Every camera is going to be a little different, not every scene is going to be on yours, you may have some scenes that aren’t mentioned here and your camera may treat one scene mode a little differently from what I describe here. The best thing you can do is start expirementing with your scenes and see what happens. One easy way to do this is to take a picture of the same object or person in the same place using all the different scene modes and then take a look at the differences.
Portrait: Portrait mode tells your camera that you are going to be taking pictures of people. Generally, this assumes a fairly static, posed position. The camera often goes for a setting that will allow the focus to be clearly on the persons face while blurring the background as much as possible. Usually the flash will pop to put at least a little light on the person to eliminage shadows on their face.
Landscape: This mode is designed for the long distance, broad scenery shots. The camera assumes you are taking a picture of something far away, probably in bright sunlight. Consequently, the flash will often be turned off and the camera will be looking for a distant focus point. Some cameras will adjust the color saturations to make the blues and greens more vivid.
Macro: Macro allows your camera to take close up images of objects, frequently closer than the normal focal distance of your camera’s lens. The most common objects are flowers and small insects, but will work great for any extremely close up image you want to take. For this mode to be effective, usually you must have the lens less than a foot from the object you are taking a picture of. The flash will often not fire. If the flash is on, you need to watch for shadows caused by light hitting the top of the lens.
Sports/Kids: Some cameras offer both these scene modes, but they differ little in actual function. They are both designed to capture fast moving action without blur. This of course includes a basketball game and a game of tag in the backyard. The camera will look for the fastest possible shutter speed to cleanly stop the action. Often times the camera will not use the flash, since it assumes you are either outside or far enough away that the flash will not reach your subject. Use your prefocus/exposure lock in this mode to have the best chance of catching a great action shot. See “QuitMissing the Moment.”
Night Scene: At night, everything gets darker. Now that I have stated the obvious, this is important to your camera because it needs to know that you are in a place with far less light coming in. At that point your camera will probably bump the ISO up as far as possible and turn on any noise reduction software it may have. The flash will probably be turned off and you can expect to have a very long shutter speed. To shoot good night scenes, a tripod or other stable platform is essential.
Night Portrait: This mode is not that different from the night scene, but now your camera will be looking for someone in the foreground. The shutter speed will still be long, but at the end of the shutter time the flash will pop to illuminate the person and eliminate any blur from their movement during the exposure.
Backlight: Backlit subjects can be very confusing to the camera. When something is backlit, the light is coming from behind the subject into the camera. This confuses the camera, so it will expose for the light coming into the lens, without making any compensation for the fact that the front of the subject is going be shadowed or sillhoutted. The backlight mode tells your camera to adjust for this problem, usually turning the flash on and exposes the image so that background is brighter.
Underwater: Unless your camera is specifically designed as waterproof, this mode will not allow you to take your camera into a pool or river. Your camera does not suddenly become waterproof in underwater mode. You have probably noticed how looking through water tends to make something look bent, distorted and discolored. Underwater mode tells your camera to adjust the color and focusing to correctly image objects that are underwater without the distortions we would ordinarily expect to see. This usually involves changing the focus point, adjusting the white balance and turning the flash off (or else you will get a splotch of light in the middle of your picture).
Museum: Frequently when taking pictures of something in a museum, it is behind glass. The glass causes reflections in the picture and can throw off the cameras focusing. Museum mode tells the camera to search for a focus point behind the glass and to adjust so that the glare will not be as noticeable. This mode also turns off the flash, and sometimes will turn off all the camera sounds, since many museums request a quiet, flash free atmosphere (how would you like to have to sit behind a piece of glass and have bright lights popping in your face all day long?).
Snow/Sand: This is another example of two modes that do basically the same function. Snow and sand both reflect a lot of light. When taking a picture on a beach (I don’t want to talk about snow), all that light bouncing off the ground confuses the camera in much the same way a backlit subject does. The camera automatically exposes for all that extra light, leaving the subject too dark. By switching to snow and sand mode, you tell your camera to ignore that extra light and expose for the subject you are shooting. This may cause the ground to be blown out (all the details lost), but your main subject should come out fine.
There are many more scene modes out there, and every camera has a little bit different way of doing them. This should help get you started in understanding and using your scenes. Next time you grab the camera, switch out of the auto mode and start putting your scene modes to use.