Many of our readers aren’t old enough to remember the almost seismic response from the photographic community back in the spring of 1978, when Canon introduced the “multi-mode” Canon A-1 camera and introduced the world to the concept of Program mode in SLRs. For the first time, SLR users who wanted the convenience of totally automatic operation had it at their fingertips. Cameras have come a long way since the late 1970s, but Program mode is a concept that remains an industry-wide standard in today’s digital SLRs.
In fact, Program mode is so commonplace that many SLR users have come to ignore it, and that’s sometimes unfortunate. Whether you’re just getting started with digital SLRs or are an experienced enthusiast, the ubiquitous P-mode can be an important go-to option in some circumstances.
Many entry-level shooters have come to rely on just leaving their camera’s Mode Dial on the full-auto “green zone” setting, with an occasional visit to settings like the Action mode or Landscape mode. Obviously, the benefits of fully-automatic operation and the comfort zone of a one-setting-for-all-situations are enticing for the casual amateur shooter.
But the unfortunate side effect is that they lose access to so much of what the camera can do. Any time a Canon EOS camera is in any of the full-auto Basic Zone settings, the following become essentially impossible to do:
- Deliberately lighten or darken an image with Exposure Compensation
- Use AE Lock to lock in an exposure reading
- Manually select a focusing point
- Set an ISO speed
- Select a specific Picture Style
- Change metering mode
- Choose a particular White Balance setting
- Change to single-frame or continuous drive settings
- Activate Highlight Tone Priority
- Set any Custom Functions
- And much more
There are more things that the full-auto Basic Zone settings prevent you from doing, in the interest of simplified operation, but you get the idea.
But no one is saying a user has to go into full Manual exposure mode to be able to set an ISO or use Exposure Compensation. Even if a shooter still isn’t comfortable with setting an aperture or shutter speed, there’s an answer: turn the Mode Dial to the “P” setting.
Many beginners don’t realize that the P-mode is as fully automatic as the full-auto Green Zone. The difference, however, is that now all built-in camera features and menu settings become possible. Without leaving the comfort of fully automatic exposure control, it’s now easily possible to change almost anything to get the results you want. A few examples:
Manually pick a single focus point to put focus right on your primary subject; select AI Servo AF and set the camera’s drive mode to “continuous” advance. In all likelihood, you’ve transformed the camera. Focus tracking of moving subjects will usually be markedly superior, with far fewer problems with interference from other moving objects. Speed and responsiveness will likely be greater. Sharper shots, with better “timing” of those decisive moments, will be a lot easier to achieve. And we haven’t even gotten into setting “back-button AF”!
Manually pick a focus point to focus on foreground or background; lock focus with One-Shot AF and easily lighten or darken the picture to get the effect you want. Exposure is still automatic, but once again, you become the master of what you’re photographing. The ability to use Exposure Compensation to slightly lighten or darken a shot is huge – the impact of bright sky in a scenic picture often causes the camera to give results that are a bit dark. P-mode once again puts you in control.
Manually pick a focus point to put focus right on the eye nearest to the camera; pick a White Balance and Picture Style setting to give you the skin tones you want; set One-Shot AF mode to lock focus once you put it on the eye(s). Again, by choosing a few simple settings, the whole experience is transformed. Even the most casual shooter can take a look at the first shot he or she takes on the camera’s LCD monitor and if something just doesn’t look right, it’s easy to make a couple of changes to get the colors, focus or brightness they want.
Lighten or darken flash output with Flash Exposure Compensation. This one’s simple: many times, the automatic E-TTL flash results are a great starting point but they might not be quite right. A perfect example: that bride in a white wedding dress just looks a bit dark in the first flash picture you took. In P-mode, you have full access to virtually every camera feature, including Flash Exposure Compensation. Dial-in a bit of “+” compensation and take another shot — it’ll likely be a lot closer to what you wanted (this is the case with both the camera’s built-in flash or an accessory Canon Speedlite on the camera).
Many seasoned DSLR enthusiasts sneer at the thought of using the camera’s Program mode, feeling that any serious shooter at least sets his or her own aperture or shutter speed (if not fully using Manual exposure). We’re obviously not here to tell anyone that the Aperture priority (Av) and Shutter priority (Tv) modes should be bypassed in favor of the Program mode, but there still can be times when P-mode is a viable option for the knowledgeable shooter.
You'll always see the speed the camera is selecting, so it's easy to tell when dangerously slow shutter speeds are approaching. The Auto ISO feature on many EOS digital SLRs gives yet another means to preserve sufficient shutter speeds for reliable hand-holding, in many circumstances. In today’s digital SLRs, Program mode is relatively smart. Every Canon EOS camera knows not only about the lens you have mounted on the camera, but even the focal length you’re at with a zoom lens. Program mode uses this information to preserve fast enough shutter speeds to avoid camera shake. With longer lenses, the system will try to use faster shutter speeds whenever possible. And, if shutter speed drops below about 1/lens focal length, the shutter speed display in the viewfinder blinks on and off to warn you that shutter speeds are possibly too slow for reliable hand-holding.
Program mode also tries to ensure that any flash pictures are taken at shutter speeds fast enough to avoid blurs with ordinary subjects. Depending upon the level of ambient light, EOS cameras in P-mode will set shutter speeds with flash between the camera’s fastest x-sync speed, down to 1/60th of a second. So balanced fill-flash is possible even in sunlight. Indoors, a (usually) safe speed of 1/60th is the slowest possible. So, again, P-mode for many will make flash a point-and-shoot operation.
All the Custom Functions, and virtually all the Menu settings an experienced user is accustomed to using, will remain available with the camera set to Program mode. Once again, unlike the full-auto “green zone,” the P-mode makes no effort to simplify overall camera operation by disabling access to various settings and Custom Functions. A few other notes of possible interest to the more experienced DSLR user:
Turn the camera’s Main Dial (adjacent to the shutter button) and change the speed/aperture settings. This relatively unknown feature transforms the usefulness of Program mode in the hands of the experienced shooter. By completely bypassing the common complaint among enthusiasts that Program mode gives no control over speeds and apertures, a quick turn of the Main Dial lets users raise/lower shutter speeds and simultaneously change apertures to match. So in one motion, it’s simple to dial-in a small aperture for a landscape picture and then quickly change to a faster shutter speed to shoot that flock of birds flying over that same landscape. It’s not even necessary for the shooter to take his or her eye away from the viewfinder.
There are a limited range of useable speeds (in Av mode) and especially lens apertures (in Tv mode) that the camera can use if light changes, particularly if you manually choose one ISO setting. This is rarely a problem in active hand-held shooting, but quite possibly a concern if the camera is in a fixed location and being fired over time by remote control or an interval timer.
Even with a fixed and manually set ISO, P-mode gives a much broader range of available speeds and lens apertures in these situations. And, if combined with Auto ISO, the Program Mode truly lets situations from bright noon sunlight to night scenes be properly exposed with little input asked from the photographer.
Attention all wedding and event shooters! If you find yourself shooting flash pictures, and often are in dim indoor lighting one moment and rushing outside for quick candids in bright sunlight, Program mode gives you one less thing to think about as you dodge the attendees and other photographers to put yourself in position for the next shot. Its ability to shoot balanced fill-flash in any daylight scene — setting speed and aperture automatically — and still allowing indoor shots at safe and hand-held speeds, makes P-mode an attractive option for some users and situations.
No one is suggesting that the Program mode is the perfect answer for every shooter, in every situation. But there are valid reasons for the most casual of shooters and the most experienced pro to keep their minds open to the possibilities it can offer — because there are times that its combination of fully-automatic exposure, with full access to all camera features, can turn it into a real problem solver.
Experiment with it from time to time; practice using the Program Shift function; venture into areas of the Menu & Custom Functions where perhaps up to now you haven’t.
Finally, remember that there are moments when even the most skilled professional is shooting pictures where he or she may not care about the visual effects of a particular shutter speed and/or a particular lens aperture. Program mode may be just the answer in those situations!