What are these shooting modes on my Nikon Camera?

by Brittany Horton on November 29, 2010

One of the most common questions we receive about photography and cameras is how to use some of the most popular cameras and settings out there. You finally have bought a digital camera, but now how do you use it? In this post I will go over the digital mode dial on one of the most popular brands of cameras, Nikon, and what they mean. See our follow up post for Canon shooting modes.

The mode dial is the dial located on the top of the camera, close to the on-off button.Nikon Camera Shooting Modes

Nikon SLR Shooting Modes

Not all cameras have the same shooting modes, these are the basics mode settings on a Nikon D80. These modes are very similar to some shooting modes on digital point-and-shoot cameras.


The automatic mode on almost all digital SLR cameras is the mode where the camera chooses all of the settings: focus, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, among many others. This mode is for every level of photographers, if you are just starting out and learning about your camera and looking through the lens, or if you are a professional and you need to take a quick picture without having the time to play with any of the other modes. The automatic mode will choose the settings for you based on the scene that is being photographed, if there is low light, it will choose to open the aperture and slow down the shutter speed, if it is bright outside it will close the aperture and speed up the shutter. The automatic setting also requires you to use automatic focus, so the camera will pick the focus and depth of field to be used. The automatic mode will also use the on-camera flash when more light is needed.


This automatic mode setting is for when you want to take portraits or group shots. Along with softening skin tones, this mode will soften the background details to add depth to the composition. The softening of the background details will allow your subject to pull away from the background more. Great for when taking portraits in front of scenery and landscapes.


This automatic mode setting is for landscapes and scenery images. It will increase your details to make your image more vivid. The on-camera flash will not be used in this mode so that you will not accidentally illuminate your foreground. This setting is perfect for when you want to take a picture of something farther away to get “the big picture,” even if it is not just a landscape. Details in sky and mountains are perfect for making that landscape photography excellent. If you are not able to get close enough to the scene that you would like to get a photograph of, use a telephoto lens, like the Zoom-Nikor 70-300mm.

Close Up

This automatic mode setting is for anything that you want to get close to, such as flowers, bugs or butterflies, and other miscellaneous small objects. It is highly recommended to use a tripod while using this mode since it is possible that any hand movement may blur the image. If you do not have a tripod, try to rest your camera on a flat surface during the shot. This mode focuses in the center; one way to manipulate this center-focus option is by halfway pressing the shutter release to focus, move your composition while still pressing the button halfway, and then complete the click. As long as you do not move forward or back and change the depth of field, just move parallel to your object, you will be able to change your composition while still using the center focus that is automatically set. If your image is still coming out not in focus, try taking the image a little further away; the standard lenses are only able to get so close. If you would like to take pictures even closer, look into getting a macro lens, like the Nikkor Micro 60mm.


The automatic sport mode setting will help you to take stop-action photographs of sports or other fast speed images. Sports mode makes your shutter speed very fast allowing for items in the scene to be frozen. This is great if you are wanting to get stop-action photographs of any sports game, or to even try out during a firework or water-work show to freeze the water and light flares in motion. The on-camera flash does not automatically get used in this mode. To get closer to the field or to the show, use a telephoto lens, like the Zoom-Nikor 70-300mm.

Night Landscape

The night landscape mode is for nighttime landscapes, so that you still get the detail that you want in the scene, but with a low shutter speed to allow for more light. It is highly recommended to use a tripod for this mode, as the low shutter speed will blur the image without it. If you do not have a tripod but still want to try and take this night portrait, try putting your camera on the ground or on a flat surface. This mode also automatically turns off the flash so that you will not inadvertently highlight the foreground.

Night Portrait

The automatic night portrait mode will help you take a better portrait in low light or at night. This mode will help to make your portrait stand out, while still including elements of the background, creating the perfect balance for that excellent photograph. If you are able to use a tripod or flat surface with this mode it will help, though it is not required. Since the on-camera flash is used in this mode, your subject will be frozen, but hand movement may blur the background if it can not be reached by the flash.

M = Manual Exposure

The manual setting on most all cameras allows you to choose your shutter speed and your aperture to create any match of the two that you desire. You will be able to choose if you want the image to be a little darker, a little lighter, or even a slower shutter speed, and you can interchange the two as needed. In this mode you will see the aperture and shutter speed numbers through the viewfinder. You can use your main command dial and sub command dial on your digital SLR to change these settings. In this mode you can have auto focus turned on or off, and you can choose which selectors to use for your focus if automatic focus is turned on. This setting is recommended for more experienced photographers. If you are just getting started with your camera, and you want to use this mode, start off experimenting with the settings and seeing what works, your goal is the get the smaller bars as close to zero as your are able to. Use of this mode may require a tripod and flash.

A = Aperture Priority

If you would like to choose your aperture, allowing you to choose your depth of field, aperture priority is a good choice. Aperture priority will allow you to set the aperture, again with your dials, and will choose the best matching shutter speed for you.This will allow you to change your depth of field manually, so you can increase or decrease the focus on your background details, as well as let you bring both into focus if you would like.

S = Shutter Priority

Shutter priority is the exact opposite of aperture priority, it allows you to select if you want a fast or slow shutter speed while the camera choose the best aperture for the shot. You are able to use this for stop-action shots as well as blur motion images. If you slow down the shutter speed on a moving subject you can blur the action, illustrating the motion in the photograph. Both the aperture and shutter priority modes allow you to get out of the box with your images and experiment with what your camera can do.

P = Program Automatic

If you would like to choose some of the settings, but not all of them, this is the mode to use. While on the P setting on your camera, you can tell the camera some of the settings that you wish to use, while the camera chooses the correct shutter speed and aperture. This mode is good for when you want to do something creative with your images and get different variations of light and depth of field, but still want the camera to help you with the settings. You still have control of the flash and focus during this mode.

If you have a specific question on your camera, leave a comment below for us and we will help you learn more.

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