By Julie Adair King

In Auto mode, the digital camera tries to figure out what type of picture you want to take by assessing what it sees through the lens. If you don’t want to rely on the camera to make that judgment, you may be able to select from several scene modes, which select settings designed to capture specific scenes in ways that are traditionally considered best from a creative standpoint.

For example, most people prefer portraits that have softly focused backgrounds. So in Portrait mode, the camera selects settings that can produce that type of background.

For the most part, shooting in scene modes involves the same process as using Auto mode — but there are a few variations to understand, so the next four sections outline the most common scene modes.

You select the scene mode that you want to use either from a dial on the camera or via camera menus. Check your camera manual to find out what the scene mode symbols look like on your camera and also to discover any other scene modes that may be available to you.

Portrait mode

Portrait mode attempts to select exposure settings that produce a blurry background, which puts the visual emphasis on your subject. In certain lighting conditions, though, the camera may not be able to choose exposure settings that produce the soft background. Additionally, the background blurring requires that your subject be at least a few feet from the background. The extent to which the background blurs also depends on the other depth-of-field factors.

portrait
The portrait setting produces a softly focused background.

Check your camera manual to find out what other image adjustments may be applied in Portrait mode. Most cameras tweak color and sharpness in a way designed to produce flattering skin tones and soften skin texture.

If you’re photographing a group and not all of your subjects are positioned near the focus point, be careful with Portrait mode. You may wind up with a depth of field that’s too shallow, leaving some subjects slightly blurry. Your next best bet is Auto mode.

Also, if you’re not sure that your subject will remain motionless, you may get better results by using Sports mode, which is designed to capture moving subjects without blur. The background may not blur in that mode, however.

Landscape mode

Whereas Portrait mode aims for a very shallow depth of field (small zone of sharp focus), Landscape mode, which is designed for capturing scenic vistas, city skylines, and other large-scale subjects, produces a large depth of field. As a result, objects close to the camera and objects at a distance appear sharply focused.

landscape
Landscape mode produces a large zone of sharp focus and also boosts color intensity and contrast.

Like Portrait mode, Landscape mode achieves the greater depth of field by manipulating exposure settings — specifically, the aperture, or f-stop setting. So the extent to which the camera can succeed in keeping everything in sharp focus depends on the available light and the range of aperture settings provided by the lens. In the meantime, know that you also can extend depth of field by zooming out to a wider angle of view and moving farther from your subject, too.

On most cameras, Landscape mode also increases contrast and adjusts colors to produce more vivid blues and greens. Additionally, flash is usually disabled in Landscape mode, which presents a problem only if you need some extra light on an object in the front of the scene.

Close-up mode

On most cameras, Close-up mode — also known as macro mode — is represented by a little flower icon. On some point-and-shoot cameras, selecting this mode enables you to focus at a closer distance than usual. For a dSLR, the close-focusing capabilities of your camera depend entirely on the lens you’re using. But in either scenario, your camera or lens manual should spell out exactly how close you can get to your subject.

Choosing this mode typically results in exposure settings designed to blur background objects so that they don’t compete for attention with your main subject, as with the wedding cake. Again, notice that the background table is significantly blurry — which is a big help to this image because if all those objects were in sharp focus, they would compete with the cake for the eye’s attention.

As with Portrait mode, though, how much the background blurs varies depending on the capabilities of your camera, the distance between your subject and the background, and the lighting conditions. Should you prefer a greater or shorter depth of field, adjust this aspect of your pictures.

closeup
Close-up mode also produces short depth of field. Notice how all objects on the background table are blurred.

Unlike Portrait and Landscape modes, Close-up mode generally doesn’t play with colors, so they appear similar to how they look in Auto mode. You may or may not be able to use flash, and the region of the frame that’s used to establish focus also varies, so check your manual to find out how this mode is implemented on your model.

Sports mode

Sports mode, sometimes also called Action mode, results in a number of settings that can help you photograph moving objects such as the soccer player. First, the camera selects a fast shutter speed, which is needed to “stop motion.”

sports-mode
To capture moving subjects without blur, try Sports mode.

With some cameras, dialing in Sports mode also selects some other settings that facilitate action shooting. For example, if your camera offers burst mode or continuous capture, in which you can record multiple images with one press of the shutter button, Sports mode may automatically shift to that gear. And flash is usually disabled, which can be a problem in low-light situations; however, it also enables you to shoot successive images more quickly because the flash needs a brief period to recycle between shots.

The other critical thing to understand about Sports mode is that its ability to freeze action depends on the available light. In dim lighting, the camera may need to use a slow shutter speed to properly expose the image, in which case your chances of freezing action aren’t great. On the other hand, a little blurring in an action photo can sometimes be acceptable and add to the effect of motion.