DSLR Mode Dial: Which Mode Is Best?

9 Aug


Nearly every DSLR has a mode dial. This dial has a lot of letters on it – P, Av, Tv, M, and Auto are just a few you might see. In addition, you’ll probably see some symbols as well – a lightning bolt, a person running, or a flower. In this article, I’ll tell you exactly what these mean, and which you should use.

The Symbols

First, let’s look at the symbols. Feel free to just gloss over this, as it’s not very important in sports photography (see below).

  • Action mode (aka sport mode) tries to freeze action. It increases shutter speed and ISO.
  • Landscape mode stops down the aperture to f/8 or smaller (remember, bigger number = smaller aperture), to increase depth of field and make sure the entire landscape is in focus.
  • Portrait mode uses a large aperture, like f/2.8, to give the image background blur. This makes the background less distracting and gives the subject “pop.”
  • Night portrait mode uses a long exposure to try to capture the night scene, then fires the fill flash to illuminate the subject.

But you know what? None of these modes matter in youth sports photography. The symbol modes don’t really help us much – they’re mostly for beginners who don’t understand the concept of exposure. You might think that we’d want to use action mode for youth sports photography, but this isn’t the case. We want to use the letter modes – P, A, S, and M.

The Letters


There are four main letters on each mode dial. Let’s see what they do.

P – Program mode. This mode is basically Auto for exposure– it sets your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for you. You don’t have to worry about exposure at all. The difference between Program mode and Auto mode is that Auto controls everything for you, while Program simply controls exposure and leaves the rest (flash, exposure compensation, etc.) up to you.

A or Av – Aperture Priority. This is much simpler than it sounds. It allows you to set the aperture (Av), and it automatically sets shutter speed (and ISO if you want)* for you. This way, you can get the aperture you want without having to worry if the exposure is always right. The camera does all the hard work.

S or Tv – Shutter Priority. This mode is very similar to Aperture Priority, but it’s for shutter speed. It lets you set your shutter speed (Tv), and it comes up with a good aperture (and ISO if you want)* for you. You can make sure you get a good shutter speed, and the camera will make sure your exposure is right.

M – Manual. This is full manual mode. You have control over everything – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. It’s up to you to balance them correctly to get a good exposure.

*Note on ISO: if you want the camera to set ISO for you, set ISO to Auto. I recommend against this, but if you’re just getting started, it could be a good way to learn.

Photographing beauty of the underwater world

Which is best?

As I’ve said previously, I think everyone should at least practice with manual mode and try to understand the basics of exposure. If you can shoot comfortably in manual mode, that’s great. You’ll get a lot of benefits doing this, including unprecedented control over your images. However, if you aren’t as comfortable, I have another solution which is much easier, but will give you nearly the same amount of control.

Here you go: use aperture priority. This mode lets you do pretty much everything you need to do with exposure in youth sports photography. Here’s what to do: set the aperture to the lowest number your lens allows. The lower the better. Now set your ISO to 100.

Then look at your camera’s shutter speed (since you’re in Av mode, the camera set the shutter speed for you). What does it say? It needs to be fast enough to freeze the sports action. If it’s around 1000 or higher, you’re good to go. But unless it’s a sunny day at noon, it’ll probably be closer to 250. This is too slow, so simply bump up the ISO to 400. Now see what the shutter speed is. Continue raising the ISO until you have a decent shutter speed that will stop action nicely.


In really dark situations, you’ll probably set your ISO to 3200 or higher and still not have a fast enough shutter speed. In this case, go as high as you can without the image getting too noisy (grainy), and leave it at that. There’s only so much you can do in low light – the aperture is at its brightest setting, and ISO is as high as you want to go. Shutter speed will have to suffer a little. Your images might have a little motion blur in them, but there’s nothing you can do. Do your best and keep shooting.

Now you can perhaps see the advantage that a 70-200 f/2.8 has. f/2.8 will give you much more brightness than f/4 will. Therefore you can raise your shutter speed more. f/2.8 lenses can be expensive, but they are often worth it.

This is another reason that an 85mm f/1.8 lens is so great for low-light indoor sports. It’s f/1.8, so it lets in a crazy amount of light. That f/1.8 also lets you get a nice creamy background to really give the subject “pop.”


One huge advantage of using Aperture Priority mode is that you don’t have to constantly check the exposure. The camera does all the fine-tuning for you. This is especially helpful when you’re in a situation where the light changes a lot. For example, a partly cloudy day when there’s sunshine but cloudiness as well. Another example would be a field with shadows over half of it. Sunshine, clouds, and shadows call for three totally different exposures, but the camera takes care of it automatically. All you have to do is shoot.

Also, Aperture Priority is cool in that it sets the fastest shutter speed you can get away with. Many people like to use Tv (Shutter Priority) to set their shutter speed fast, but I say that if your aperture is as low as it can go, and you have a relatively high ISO, your shutter speed will be as fast as the lighting allows anyway. I think aperture priority achieves a similar effect (fast shutter speed), but greatly simplifies it.


So the two main things we want in youth sports photography (regarding exposure) are creamy background (achieved by large apertures like f/1.8, f/2.8, etc.) and frozen action (achieved by fast shutter speeds like 1000).

How do we do that? We can either use M (manual) or Av (Aperture Priority). Manual requires you to set everything and frequently check and adjust based on lighting conditions. Av lets you set aperture and ISO, and the camera sets the shutter speed. This means you don’t have to check and adjust; the camera does it for you. Using Av mode would be a good option for you if 1) you’re not comfortable with manual mode yet, or 2) if the lighting conditions are changing frequently.

To wrap it up, Av and M are generally the best modes to use. Most professionals use either of these two when shooting sports.

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