A Brief Explanation of Your Camera's Shooting/Scene Modes

Fact: most people don’t read their manuals when they buy a new camera. Further, if they do, they have no idea what most of it means to them. If you’re one of those people, or know them, then this is the blog post for you. As a photography instructor, I’ve seen lots of people take photos then look at their images and wonder why they’re not getting the results that they want. Something I learned in computer programming is that technology only does what you tell it to do, not what you want it to do. More on how to tell your camera what you want after the jump in a concise compilation.

Author’s Note: For the photographers out there that read this blog and are wondering to themselves, “How the hell can you not understand what shooting modes mean?! Obviously, switching your camera to X will give you Y.” Please understand that this article is to help the wide majority of people that use point-and-shoots as their main cameras. They far outnumber us DSLR people.

First off, know that many of these scene modes can be reached via the dial on top of your camera. If not, then they can be found in the menu systems and look something like these. Try to match the pictures below to the ones on the dials up above.

Starting from top left going to the one right next to it and continuing in this fashion, here are an explanation of the common modes:


This mode is best for taking a portrait of someone. What it will do is focus on the person’s face (sometimes via Face Detection) and make everything else in the photo blurry or out of focus. Use this in good lighting when you want to take snapshots of people. A good example is a simple photo of your girlfriend. It can easily be identified by the fact that the symbol is a person’s head.


This setting is for those really, really close up shots of things. There is a macro shot here (it’s the one of the ring.) Use this when you want to take pictures of bugs, the insides of flowers, small objects, or even your dog’s nose. It’s easily identified for the symbol of a flower. Think flower = getting close up to take it’s photo.


This setting is best used in winter time when you’re out in the snow and there is plenty of it around for you to just snap photos of. However, that snow will also cause inaccuracies in your color. Changing your mode to Snow will help you achieve taking photos in such conditions. It’s easily identified by the symbol of a snowman.


You should switch to this setting during this time of day or when the lighting is similar. It will give you a more orangish look to your photos as well. Use this when you’re out with friends at a theme park of some sort on their pier when the sun is going down. It’s easily identified by the symbol of a sun over lines, meaning water of some sort.


This scene is best used when you’re on vacation and you encounter something large that you want to take a picture of. A perfect example is being in Greece and wanting to take a picture of the sea while you’re on top of a mountain. Another is being in the middle of a giant field and wanting to take a picture of it. It’s easily identified by the symbol of a mountain within a frame.


Use this mode for when you’re taking photos of your kid playing soccer. Note that the quality of your image may decrease slightly though because the camera needs to change its settings to capture faster movements. It’s easily identified by the symbol of a person running.

Nighttime Scene

Hold your camera very steady while using this mode because it will take a long time to shoot. Use this when you’re basically shooting a landscape but at night. The flash won’t fire for this scene at all. It’s easily identified by the symbol of a city with the moon up.

Night Portrait

Think nighttime scene combined with portrait. The different is that in this one the flash will fire. You still need to hold very still as it will try to capture the background as well as your subject. It’s easily identified by the symbol of a person with the night sky behind them.


Switch to this mode when you’re at a party and the lighting is all weird. Combine it with face detection for best results. It’s easily identified by the symbol of a party hat with confetti coming out.


Use this during the 4th of July when you’re shooting the fireworks up above. It can also give you some cool and wacky colors when shooting with it otherwise. It’s easily identified by the symbol of something that looks like fireworks in the sky.

One more very common mode is Kids/Pets. It’s easily identified by the symbol of either a dog, cat or kids. Take a wild guess what this is for?

Always remember to switch your modes. You may forget to do this but if you don’t like your results, program your brain to do something about it.

You spent the money on the camera for the holiday season, put it to good use.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.