Mode Dial | Features Explained | Beginner’s Guide

mode dial
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google+

Where Is The Camera Mode Dial?

The mode dial of your camera is the large rotatable wheel located on the top left-hand side (Canon and Nikon) of your camera with a lot of images and letters on it. If you are learning about this for the first time, pay close attention now as this could potentially change the way you know your camera forever and help you take great images overtime.

We are going to discuss here the camera mode dials of two prominent brands Nikon and Canon.

The camera mode dial of Nikon and Canon manufactured cameras looks something like this.

Camera Mode Dial

There is absolutely no need to feel baffled about this strange looking knob as this would be your best friend, believe me! The two images above look a little different from each other but, trust me, they perform the exact same function in both the cameras. Nikon and Canon just have different names for these functions. That’s all.

Below is a diagram that shows exactly what the similarities are; have a good look so that you may help your friend if he has the camera of the other manufacturer. Just help him out.

Let’s get cracking then.

Okay, largely we can categorize the functions the camera mode dial performs into two categories;

  •  Automatic:           The camera selects ALL the settings for the photograph.

                             Green ‘Auto’ mode (Nikon) or the Green Box (Canon), Scene modes.

  •  Semi-automatic:  You select a few settings for the camera and the camera selects the rest for you.

                             Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program mode, Flexible Program mode.

  • Full Manual:         You select all the settings for the camera and tell it what to do, like a BOSS!

                        ‘M’ mode (Don’t start with this, but try to aspire for this setting for it will give you the most amazing set of photographs that you have seen countless number of times as wallpapers and on the internet. Only this time it would be with your name across it as it’s photographer, won’t that be cool?).

Let me demystify these larger categories even further and explain, so that they become absolutely clear to you.


Automatic Modes:

Oh Lord! If you have purchased a DSLR camera and wish to take good photographs with it then come out of this ‘Automatic’ mode already. This is a mode that the manufacturer HAS TO place in the camera so that people, with absolutely no knowledge or the zeal to take a great photograph ever in their life, do not make a fool out of themselves.


Trust me if I were on the board of directors for either Nikon or Canon; I would take this mode out of every DSLR cameras first thing. There is ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE in spending so much money on a piece of such sophisticated machinery that could take incredible images and then riding it on the ‘Auto’ mode just because you have it. You might as well take images with a cell phone at least that would not be disgracing the camera. Please don’t. This should be the first thing that you do the second you buy your DSLR.

Scene modes:

Scene modes are pretty much a fancy version of the infamous ‘Auto’ mode. Here the camera has a set of internal preset that it follows as you select a specific scene mode. Basically, the camera selects a specific focus type, light metering, white balance, etc; that is likely for the type of scene that you have selected and functions accordingly. For example:

  • Sports Mode increases the ISO of your camera and bumps up the shutter speed so that you are able to capture fast moving objects like a ball or a fast moving car.
  • Night Portrait opens up the aperture as much as possible so as to allow in more light. It can also select a longer shutter speed so that the photograph is properly exposed. The pop-up flash may also ‘pop’ now so that near standing subjects are illuminated.
Night life

Scene modes are pretty much self-explanatory, let me now get into the good stuff!

By the way did you change the mode on your camera now? Please for heaven’s sake move out of ‘Auto’ and ‘Scene’ modes. If you have, continue….

Semi Automatic Modes:

Now that you have taken the first BIG step in taking great images, lets take a step further.


The mode dial of your camera has many semi-automatic modes for you to choose from, depending on the subject, the available light and your level of dexterity with the camera’s settings.

In my opinion, you should start with any of these semi-automatic modes. Spend some time to get to know it better, and later change it to some other semi-automatic mode. Repeat the process until you have a firm understanding of what each mode does and more importantly when it is required.

I should start by saying that in all the semi-automatic modes you CAN select your desired ISO (don’t bother about it now, I will explain it later). Just remember for now that ISO is a measure of how sensitive your camera’s image sensor is to light. Just set it to 100 now and you are set.

‘P’ Mode:

‘P’ mode or the program mode on your camera’s mode dial lets you decide a few settings for your camera, while making sure that the images that you take a properly exposed. Think of it as a safety net that you have while trying to play a little with the settings of your camera. This mode frees you up a little so that you don’t have to worry about the proper exposure and totally dedicate your concentration on two of the most important things in photography, focus & composition.


Depending on the available light, your camera will decide what it needs to expose the shot correctly. However, you can change the shutter speed by using the master dial of your camera. The master dial is the dial at the back on the top right corner of your camera.

Press the ‘info’ button and you will see the difference yourself. As you turn the master dial to the right, the ‘P’ sign on the top left hand corner changes to P* (this is the symbol for Flexible Program Mode) and the shutter speed increases but the aperture NUMBER (note : A smaller aperture NUMBER means a larger aperture and vice versa) falls.

info button

The camera basically juggles the shutter speed and the aperture so that it can achieve the proper exposure.

In Nikon, U1 and U2 (U means user) is the same as Flexible Program Mode (P*); only here you can pre-select the exact settings that you want, so that you don’t have to fidget with the camera settings. You can then just rotate the camera mode dial in either U1 or U2 and start shooting.

C1 and C2 are the same Canon counterparts.

Shutter Priority:

Priority as you all know means preference. When you select this mode on your camera mode dial, the camera understands that you want to select the correct shutter speed for the scene. The camera would then adjust by changing the aperture. Mainly the camera selects a suitable aperture value here for a given shutter speed,and in the process attain correct exposure.

humming bird

Shutter priority is mainly used where ‘motion’ is the primary focus of your shot.  As you start to begin understanding shutter speed and the changes it brings; you will see that shutter speed is primarily used to show motion or capture motion. A humming bird flapping its wings very very fast needs a very fast shutter speed (say 1/5000 of a sec)  to capture the flapping wings with clarity and not as a blur. Similarly, you may also want to show motion by selecting a lower shutter speed so that the wings appear as a blur, if that is what you are aiming for.

Aperture Priority:

Selecting the aperture priority mode on the camera mode dial allows you to select the specific aperture for the shot, while the camera selects the shutter speed for you. You may want to use this mode when your primary focus is the depth of field (DoF) of the photograph, which in simple words means the ‘amount’ of your photograph that you want to have in focus. Generally while shooting landscape, photographers select a high depth of field so that everything is in focus in the frame. Also while shooting a portrait, they may select a shallow depth of field so that only the subject is in focus and is hence, well isolated from the background, i.e., they pop from the photograph.

depth of field

Manual Mode: (Eventually where you should land up!)

As the name explains, manual mode is MANUAL. There is NOTHING AUTOMATIC about it. It is also, by the way, the reason people buy a DSLR in the first place. You are in total control, the moment you select this on the camera mode dial. The camera simply obeys your command.

In manual mode, you can select independently – the shutter speed, the aperture, the ISO, whether or not you want a flash, EVERYTHING. It’s like magic down here.  However, since you have just started, it is best not to start using it right away as you still need a deeper and elaborate understanding of the camera and the exposure triangle.


Just keep in mind that if you seriously and diligently practice what you have just read, you will eventually be good enough to tell the camera what it should do rather than the other way around. Till then the mantra is read ->practice->repeat! Best of luck in your new venture!

Happy ClickinG!