Common Digital Camera Scene Modes

Technology is a beautiful thing. Every year hundreds of new or enhanced products are produced. Digital camera manufacturers come out with new models a couple times a year, each company trying to outdo the other.

They’ve gone crazy with the variety of scene modes that are being added to new cameras. Digital camera scene modes are a simple way for you to “tell” the camera what type of picture you are taking. The camera will then optimize the settings for that particular shot. Some modes change how colors are recorded, others change whether or not the flash fires. The trend now is to add special effects and things that you’ll probably never use.

"Hill City Farm" captured by Michael Edminster

“Hill City Farm” captured by Michael Edminster (Click Image to Find Photographer)

How often will you use a starburst effect? Do you take a lot of photos that require a pastel color effect? Even the semi-popular sepia mode is not needed, as far as I’m concerned. One click in your editing software and you’ve got sepia.

If you’re like most people, you’ll only use a few of the scene modes on your camera. Here are details on the 5 modes you’re most likely to use:

Landscape Mode

Landscape mode should be your choice for all of those breathtaking views you want to shoot. Scenic vistas of the beach, the mountains, a field of flowers or a city skyline are all prime uses for Landscape mode. Your digital camera selects an exposure combination to maximize what’s in focus from front to back.

Although it’s not absolutely necessary, using a tripod or some other sort of support will help. Walk around a bit to find the best vantage point. Sometimes a small shift to the left or right (or up or down) will make the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.

Portrait Mode

Portrait mode is for taking people pictures. Whether it’s a single person or a group of people, you should use the Portrait mode. Your digital camera will select an appropriate shutter speed and aperture combination to capture your subject and blur the background. The idea here is to make the background less distracting.

Newer digital cameras incorporate autofocus technology that actually scans the picture looking for faces. It’s usually called Face Priority or Face Detection. It especially helps when your subject is not dead center in the picture or when you have a group of people. Nikon, Fuji, Sony and others manufacturers are putting this technology in many cameras.

Check your owners manual to see if your digital camera uses this technology and whether it’s automatic or you have to enable it manually.

Beach/Snow Mode

Having been a longtime resident of Florida, and as a current resident of Colorado, I can attest to the real benefit of the Beach/Snow scene mode. Both film and digital camera light meters are calibrated to a medium tone. Overly bright or dark scenes are not recorded properly. Beach/Snow scene mode is for all those bright scenes.

Big open areas of water on a sunny day. Long stretches of white sandy beaches. Snow covered mountains on your next ski vacation. These are all perfect times to use Beach/Snow mode. You are telling the camera that your subject matter is quite bright and it will compensate accordingly. Instead of muddy grey snow it will be recorded bright and white as it should be.

Sports Mode

Whether it’s kids soccer or baseball, or an NFL game, Sports mode is designed to help you stop the action. Your digital camera will set the shutter speed as high as possible for the lighting conditions in order to stop action. Sports mode also puts your camera in Continuous shooting mode (hold the button down and shoot 3-4 pictures in a row) and forces the flash off. If you can, setting the ISO to 400 or 800 will also help. A few cameras do this for you.

You’ll want to get as close as you can for great Sports and action pictures. First get physically close, right on the sidelines if possible. Move up and down the field with the action. (Not so easy at hockey games.) Then use your zoom lens to get the shot you want. Take some wide shots to show all the action, along with tight shots of one or two players. This will help tell the story much better.

Be sure to pay attention to what’s going on in the game. You may have to jump out of the way of the players!


“Dawn after the storm” captured by Anna Ash (Click Image to Find Photographer)

Sunrise/Sunset Mode

While most Scene modes change the aperture or shutter speed used, Sunrise/Sunset mode changes how the colors of the scene are recorded. The goal is to record the beautiful quality of light at these times of day.

Sunrise and sunset are times when the world is bathed in beautiful warm light. You’ll hear photographers refer to this as Golden Light or the Golden Hours. By using these settings instead of Auto mode you’ll capture that beautiful light and the dramatic colors. Try it for yourself next time you photograph a sunset and you’ll see the difference.

The next time you read your manual (You do know where it is, right?) check out all the scene modes your digital camera has. Perhaps there are a few that you would find useful for your style of shooting. Try them out, along with the 5 listed here, to improve the pictures you take.

Karl Peschel runs, a website for people who want to learn about digital photography techniques. Karl loves to teach people about photography and strives to explain things in plain English instead of techno babble. Check out the website at and see for yourself. Sign up for the ShootLikeAPro Newsletter and get the free mini-report Top 10 Tips for Better Digital Pictures.

PictureCorrect Comment: Even though a night mode exists on most digital cameras, it is no substitute for some kind of tripod. We recommend that both amateur and professional photographers carry some kind of portable tripod. We find the gorillapod to be especially practical.

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One response to “Common Digital Camera Scene Modes”

  1. sharon says:

    hi. thanks for this.
    I tried to go to your suggestion— karl but it seems to be a broken link? any help?
    thank you!

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