Tuesday, October 14, 2008

P(rogram) Mode- Is There Any Use For It At ALL?

The answer is: YES, there are plenty of uses for it.

If you're new to the DSLR world (or the photography world for that matter) and you own a camera that has the letters: P A S M on its mode dial, means you have access to a camera with manual modes (or modes that allow you to chose the settings you want the camera to use).

This article will cover the P letter of your mode dial, one of the most overlooked modes of all. The Program Mode.

The weakness of Auto Mode..

Your Alpha DSLR has an Auto mode, and this is a mode you use if you dont want to worry about anything else but to pick your subject and pressing the shutter. Just like a pilot would use autopilot when flying his 747 over the Atlantic.

However, the thin line between human intelligence and artificial intelligence is the fact that humans can make decisions without following a parameter or protocol, and machines can't, no matter how advanced they get, they will still be following a set of rules programmed into them.

Therefore, you may be in the zoo, and there is the tiger yawning while waking up and you take a shot of it. Your camera is set to Auto and when you review the subject, you realize that the shot didnt quite showed up the way you wanted it to and youll have to spend time fixing it on the computer or the shot is just useless. Or maybe you want the camera to use different settings than the ones it used.

If you dont have much experience handling a DSLR and making changes on your own like you would in M(anual) Mode or you want to have the camera do most of the thinking for you but still be in control, you should use P Mode.

P for Program.

Program mode is one of the most overlooked modes of all (being guilty of this charge myself...). Why does this happen? Because both Auto and P mode behave the same, they select the settings for you, which makes a lot of people think: If Auto does this, why should I bother with P Mode at all? and they discard it.

But there is a thin line that makes a huge difference between Auto and Program. The ability to program the camera and make it remember your changes. Ergo, P Mode, and P for Program.

Auto vs. Program.

Auto and Program modes select aperture and shutter speed for you, among other settings. Thats the reason why many people think these modes are the same, and in theory they are the same, but at the same time theyre not.

In Auto Mode, the camera selects every single setting according to its calculations (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, White Balance, whether to fire the flash or no, DRO use, what metering mode to use, etc.). You can change or adjust the settings, BUT (and this is important) it will NOT remember your changes if you change the mode dial to something else or turn the camera off.

And here is where P mode makes its heroic entrance through the glass roof.

Program mode could be called the Auto mode of the manual Modes. This is because it will select shutter speed and aperture for you, but it has a lot more room to move around than Auto.

The reason why this mode is called Program is because you insert into the camera your selection of settings for the camera to use, you're PROGRAMMING it in other words, just like you would program a microwave to heat something for 20 seconds by pressing 2, 0, Start.

The advantage of this mode over Auto is that it REMEMBERS your changes, no matter if you go to Auto, Portrait, Sports or Landscape Mode or even turn the camera off. This is something Auto doesnt do. Auto resets everything when you turn the mode dial to something else or turn the camera off.

So why should I use P Mode?

Strictly sticking to use Auto mode wont give you the experience and know-how of what the camera will do in the conditions youre shooting at. Auto mode is like the Point & Shoot mode: you point and you shoot the picture, camera does the rest. Using Auto all the time is, in my own personal opinion, a complete waste of DSLR capabilities. DSLR gives you immense control and options to craft your photographs like YOU want them to look, sticking to Auto will just make them look like snapshots taken by a point & shoot camera, and it may not pick the settings YOU want.

Program mode is the perfect place to start learning the capabilities of your Alpha DSLR by manually changing them YOURSELF while still having the camera decide what other settings to use that you havent mastered yet. Or if youre a skilled photographer and you want the camera to move within the paramaters YOU want, you should use this mode as well.

Sure, the Program mode selects both shutter speed and aperture for you, but you can OVERRIDE that.

Program Shift

You can either change the shutter speed or the aperture when using P mode. This is called Program shift and it has two modes:

Ps Shift: You can change the shutter speed and the camera selects the aperture.

Pa Shift: You can change the aperture and the camera selects the shutter speed.

This is how you invoke it:

1.- Set camera to P Mode (duh! what are we talking about? ;) ).

2.- While looking through the viewfinder, half press the shutter and the aperture and shutter speed will be displayed.

3.- When those values are displayed, you can change one of them by moving the Front and Rear dials of your camera (in A700/A900), the value changed will depend on how you've set the dials (Front: shutter speed, back: aperture or viceversa).

In a A100/A200/A300/350 you can do Program shift,but it has a twist. The default setting for the shift is set to Shutter Speed, so whenever you move the dial, it will control the shutter speed. You can go to Pa Shift by changing your dial setup.

Menu->Custom (clockwork icon) 1->Ctrl Dial set->Aperture

Keep in mind that you should pick the one you use the most, since you cant change both at the same time.

Once youve set the Program shift, you will be able to control one or both of the values and the camera will chose the proper setting for the one youre not controlling.

Keep in mind that you cant use the flash and Program Shift together. If you pull the flash up, program shift will be cancelled. You cant use it either if the flash is up already.

ISO behavior in P Mode.

You can either set ISO to Auto and let the camera pick the one that works best according to it, or you can select a fixed value for ISO.

In the A700/A900, you can determine how high or how low in the ISO scale the camera can go when using P, A or S mode.

The A700 allows you to set the minimum ISO at 200 or 400. The maximum ISO can be 400, 800 and 1600.

The A900 has a more intelligent approach, giving you ranges. You can select ranges going from:


To configure the ISO you allow the camera to use:

Menu->Recording (camera icon) 2-> ISO Auto Max/Min (A700)

Menu->Recording (camera icon)2-> ISO Auto Range (A900)

For A100/A200/A300/A350 users, you cant select this. You got to either set the ISO value yourself or let the camera do it. On the bright side, the cameras have a very good Noise Reduction on high ISOs, so dont be afraid to use them.

Using the flash in P Mode.

You can also use your in built flash in P mode, but keep something in mind.

Whereas in Auto mode, the flash fires when the camera thinks its necessary, in P mode the flash will fire ALWAYS. So dont expect the flash to fire like in Auto mode, and dont forget to change your White Balance to flash as well!


If youve read this far, now you know whats the P mode for. Take advantage of it and dont discard it as just some repeated mode in your mode dial.

Program Mode gives you more playing space when taking pictures, and its a good point to start controlling the camera and becoming the photographer in control of the situation. Whereas Auto is pretty simple to use, it may not yield the results youre looking for. In my personal experience in a A700/A200, the Auto mode tends to underexpose the shots by selecting fast shutter speeds and wide apertures. It does it in an effort to have the shots properly focused and not blurry, but the trade off is that you got to spend time infront of a computer fixing the shots.

P Mode will spare you this hassle if you use it properly.

I suggest you try it out and learn to use it, it may be the perfect solution for those days where you dont want to adjust every single setting but still be in control of the result the camera will yield.

Until next time.

1 comment:

  1. I was really suprised to hear that this is a very much un-used feature as I use it pretty much all of the time. Very much overlooked considering it gives you the best opportunity to control depth of field, and to produce more creative long exposure shots, while keeping noise to a minimum by having full control over iso settings.
    Great Blog btw!!!
    Being a photographer that started out over 20 years ago with a Zenit 11, I suppose I'm more predisposed to choosing settings than the "automatic" generation.