Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Scene Modes

So you look at your camera, and it has a little wheel that lets you choose different modes. Almost all of us have these features, whether we use a point and shoot camera or even some of the entry level DSLR's. The question is, what are these modes really good for? The answer is that with a little study and maybe even a little trial and error, scene modes can help you get the most out of your camera, especially if you have a point and shoot camera. But before we can start to take advantage of our scene modes we need to be able to interpret what they mean. Night Mode seems to be fairly plainly named, and Fireworks Show mode is pretty self explanatory, but why should I use Party/Indoor mode instead of regular automatic mode? Isn't my camera supposed to take good pictures all the time?

My wife has a point and shoot camera that I am going to use as an example quite a lot because, well its nearby. So with that in mind lets look at my wifes scene modes.

Her camera is a Nikon Coolpix 4600, and according to the manual it has the following scene modes.

  • Party/Indoor
  • Beach/Snow
  • Sunset
  • Dusk/Dawn
  • Night Landscape
  • Close Up
  • Museum
  • Fireworks Show
  • Copy
  • Back Light
  • Underwater
  • Panorama Assist

Lets take a look at the description for Party/Indoor mode and see what we can figure out from the description.

The manual describes it like this with the included image:

Use for shots that include details of the background, or to capture the effects of candlelight and other indoor background lighting.

What can we tell from this picture and description? Well it looks to me like the camera is going to leave the shutter open longer after the flash fires to try and gather background light. I would also guess that its going to turn up the ISO even though you are using the flash to try and gather the light faster. If you weren't using this mode, the camera would take a picture of the woman, and then stop. There would simply be a black background. Roll your mouse over the image to see what that picture might look like if it had been taken in normal automatic mode.

Lets take a look now at the Night Landscape and Fireworks Show modes. These two modes look like they could be pretty similar. Lets look at the descriptions for them.

First Night Landscape mode:

A slow shutter speed is used to produce stunning night land-scapes. Focus is fixed at infinity.
The manual recommends that you use a tripod with this mode, and pay special attention to that part about focus being fixed at infinity, its important.

Now the description for Fireworks Show mode:

Slow shutter speeds are used to capture the expanding burst of light from a firework. The camera responds more rapidly to the shutter-release button, ensuring that you can capture the start of the burst.
  • Focus is fixed at infinity.
  • Follow the firework as it ascends and press the shutter-release button all the way down at the start of the burst.

These two modes look like they could be similar. So lets compare a couple images and see what the differences are.

First up we have the Night Landscape mode image. This was taken off of my apartments balcony at night. In normal automatic mode the flash would have fired and lit up the wires that you can barely see in the image. Once the wires were exposed the camera would have stopped you would have seen nothing of the background, which in this case was the whole point of the shot. Using a night mode like this was the only way to get this shot with this camera.

Remember too that in the night modes the focus is fixed at infinity. If it weren't it's most likely that the camera would not have been able to find anything to focus on at all since night scenes are too dark for the camera to focus in. Lets move on now to the Fireworks Show mode.

FireWorks.pngThe image at right was taken with the Fireworks Show mode. The difference is subtle at this size but take a look at the aperture and exposure time. The 5.7 aperture is going to give you a sharper picture which will look better showing the fine lines of fireworks. The ISO was also left lower because fireworks are probably going to be bright against a night sky background.Notice that overall the picture is darker than the first one. Night Landscape mode is trying to pick up buildings and things like that, while Fireworks Show mode is assuming a night sky background that will look much better nice and dark.

So what should we take away from these examples? Well for all of you point and shoot users out there, the point of this post is drive home the importance of using your scene modes with your camera.

Point and shot cameras usually do not allow the fine level of control that DSLR camera's allow, and these scene modes are an important way to take back control over your pictures. Your camera is not a mind reader, it relies on you to tell it what to do. Using scene modes you can tell your camera what you expect it to do. Otherwise it has no idea that you want it to gather background light, or that you want it to focus at infinity despite the fact that it can't find anything to focus on because it's too dark outside.

Armed with this new knowledge, I encourage you to break out your manual and read about the modes that your camera offers, and then go out and experiment!

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