BGB002 - Ok, I admit it. I use Program Mode (P) in my photography

July 20, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Program (“P”) Mode on your camera

Ok, I admit it. I use Program Mode (P) in my photography

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I've had many discussions with fellow photographers about the use of the Program Shooting Mode (P). In these discussions I am constantly bombarded with comments like "P mode is for wimps", "I thought you were a serious photographer”, “Why would you ever use P mode?", "P mode is for idiots who can't figure out how to use their camera" and "No self respecting photographer would ever use P mode." Well, I think these comments are hogwash.

03 Mode Dial Canon 103 Mode Dial Canon 1    01 Mode Dial Normal 101 Mode Dial Normal 1

First of all, let me say that I use all 4 of the "Manual" modes - M, A, S, P (or for Canon M, Av, Tv, P) depending on the situation.  However, I shun and absolutely never use the "Scene Automatic" modes - or as I call them the “Dummy” or “Point & Shoot” modes (portrait, landscape, sports-action, etc.).  I also never use the full automatic modes. These modes rely on code written by some underpaid programmer in some office building deciding what I want when I dial in one of these modes. If I happen to know what this programmer was thinking AND that happens to match what I'm after AND the lighting situation I have happens to be somewhat close to what this programmer had in mind  AND I'm happy with whatever shutter speed, Aperture, and ISO the program selects then these modes work OK. But, the odds of all that being the case are at best small and at worst the exact opposite of what I desire.  Then the kicker is that in these modes you have no option to tweak the settings the camera comes up with if you don't happen to agree with them. So, I never use these modes.

I do use all of “Manual” modes which are M (Manual), A or Av (Aperture Priority),S or Tv (Shutter Priority), and P (program). Since many serious and pro photographers dislike the use of "P" mode, why do I use it?

04 Question Mark 104 Question Mark 1

First, it should be noted that "exposure" is controlled by 3 things: Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO. That's it. At the instant an image is taken there will be a shutter speed, an aperture and an ISO that is used to take the shot. For any given combination of these 3 items, it does not matter to the image if you manually picked those values or the camera picked them or you picked some and the camera picked others. Which shooting mode you use, which metering pattern you use, and if you have AUTO ISO turned on are all just convenience choices on your part to arrive at settings for Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO.

05 Exposure Triangle05 Exposure Triangle

In some situations it may be more convenient to select a specific Aperture and let the camera select the rest. In other situations, it may be more convenient to select the aperture and ISO and let the camera figure out the shutter speed. Or, you may choose to just set them all by hand. Even if you choose to let the camera determine one or more of the settings, you may also decide to tweak the value(s) the camera came up with to deliberately under or over expose the image by a certain amount using Exposure Compensation – It’s OK, and sometimes mandatory, to disagree with your camera.


What is “P” Mode?

For those not familiar with P mode, let me explain how it works. In P mode, when you press the shutter button half way down, the camera selects both the shutter speed and the aperture depending on the light coming through the lens. In some camera models, if you have Auto ISO turned on it will also select the ISO. In other words it does pretty much the same thing that the full "Auto" (or green box) does but there is a big difference. “P” mode will never pop up the built-in flash for you. It may blink the flash icon to tell you that the camera thinks you should use the flash but it won't automatically turn it on. The second BIG difference is that whatever settings it comes up with can be changed by you with a quick turn of a dial on the camera giving you ultimate final control of the exposure settings.

In “P” mode I can change the ratio of shutter speed & Aperture with the turn of a dial.  This is called ‘Exposure Shift’.  As it lets in more light with a larger aperture it reduces the shutter speed by the same amount leaving the result in the overall exposure the same but obtaining it with a different combination of shutter Speed and Aperture.

I can also move another dial to either increase or decrease the overall exposure.  This is called “Exposure Compensation”.  On cameras that only have a single control dial, you may need to hold down a button while turning the single control dial to invoke this function.  When you set the camera to over or under expose compared to what the camera thinks is correct the camera will show you a scale with a mark either on the “+” side to show over exposure or on the “-“ side to show under exposure (some cameras show you an icon with a +/- sign and a number).

06 Exposure Scale06 Exposure Scale

Between these two dials, one for Shift and one for Compensation, I can achieve virtually any combination of Aperture and Shutter speed I desire very quickly.  This then brings us to the question of when do I use P mode instead of one of the other 3 modes?


When to use “P” Mode

When I’m walking around with the camera hanging on my shoulder I many times leave the mode dial on P, with Auto White Balance (AWB) turned on, Evaluative/Matrix meter pattern selected, and the center single focus point selected.  I’ll either have Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) turned on or Continuous shooting (burst mode) turned on.  I do this so I can shoot quickly.  For example if a Mountain Lion (which we have in the hills around here) happens to jump down from a tree onto the trail in front of me I want to be able to grab the camera and shoot within 1 or 2 seconds – before the cat sees me and runs off into the brush.  “P” mode affords me the best chance of getting at least a half way decent shot in under 2 seconds. 

As I’m bringing the camera to eye level (within the 2 seconds) I am also moving the Exposure Compensation dial on the back of the camera with my thumb if the subject is overly dark (e.g., panther) or overly bright (e.g., polar bear).  I know that each click clockwise is 1/3 stop overexposed vs what the camera wants, and each click the other way is 1/3 stop under.  So, a light colored mountain lion would get 1 or 2 clicks toward over exposure.  Since I usually have AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) turned on I’m also getting an additional two shots, at 1.6 stops over and 1.6 stops under at the same time – just in case.

Now, if the cat seems content to hang around for more than a few seconds, I’ll turn my dials to select a better shutter speed or a different aperture or other changes as I continue to shoot, but I usually stay in P mode in this situation but am paying close attention to the shutter speed and aperture values showing in my view finder and tweaking as needed with my camera dials without lowering the camera from my eye.  If the cat decides to hang around even longer, then I’ll move to one of the other manual modes (A, S or M – Av, Tv or M on Canon).

In a different situation where I’ve stopped at some location that I’m going to work for awhile, like Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone, where my subject is not going to run off while I’m fiddling with my camera, I move off of P mode and into M, S, or A  (M, Tv or Av on Canon) and take more time with my settings.

(Image of Bryce in winter shot in Aperture Priority (A, or Av) mode

Bryce Canyon in early morning from Sunset Point #1Bryce Canyon in early morning from Sunset Point #1



I consider “P” mode as a quick and easy way to get a shot that may not be there a few seconds later.  I also use it if I know I’m only going to take one or two shots at a given location before moving on as it’s easier than changing to another mode and I can get to the same combination of settings I’d get in the other modes anyway. 

Since “P” mode re determines the settings for each shot, if I’m going to take more than 1 or 2 or so shots at a given location I’ll move off of P so as to have more consistency between shots allowing me to make subtle, or not so subtle, changes from a consistent set of values.

If you haven’t done so, give P mode a try and see if you like it.  I do.


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