P Mode

The idea behind having a DSLR is that it has so much potential. Recently, so many people drop a lot of money on their cameras in the hope that having a better camera will improve their photography. Unfortunately, having a good camera and not using it to its full potential is no different from just owning any old camera.

That being said, no camera is really bad. You can always do something to make your photos look better. I’m starting this photog101 section on my blog in the hope that I might be able to give some advice or suggestions to teach people how to get better images – regardless of the camera they are using. Also, if there any questions or things you would like to know more about, please write something in the comments or drop me an email. I’ll try to keep my explanations simple, and easy to understand.

The first topic I’ve chosen to write about is the P(rogramme) Mode on your camera.

Now, regardless of which brand of camera you are using, it should have something called, or similar to, P Mode. This mode is great to begin with because it is essentially a fully automatic mode without all of the crap.

What do I mean by this?

A lot of cameras come with “auto” modes which have green boxes, pictures of flowers, people running, standing in front of mountains, playing sports, having se… uh… what?!

…but, we’re not interested in those set modes – we are trying to move away from that and get in control of our cameras. “But P Mode is an automatic mode too!” I hear you say. Yes, that is true, however, it still allows you to control EXPOSURE, the ISO and whether you use flash or not. This mode can really be used to start taking control of your camera. (I will deal with the asterisked terms again at some point)

You should find on your camera, some kind of scale that looks like this:


Now, once you’re in P Mode, there should be a way in which you can adjust this scale and set it to a positive or negative value. This is called Exposure Compensation. Some cameras have values that go up to +3 or down to -3, it entirely depends on the camera.

Anyway, I went out the other day and shot this same scene cycling through the values -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2. Here are the shots. Take a look through them slowly and see if you can spot any differences.











I’m not sure what you noticed, and you might disagree with me, but these are some of the things I notice:

  • Different colours look better in different versions. For example, the greens of the ferns in the background really pop in the photo taken at +1. The blue on the windscreen of the white van also looks much better in both 0 and +10 making it a darker blue, +1 making it a lighter blue.
  • The white van doesn’t start looking like a really white van until at least +1
  • -2 is so underexposed that we cannot see any detail around the wheel arch of the white van, however, the black car looks really black.
  • The grey of the bumper doesn’t look truly grey until +1 or +2.
  • In -2, the houses on the other side of the river are clear to see, by the time we have got to +2, the photo has become overexposed. What once were houses along the bank have now become white blown highlights.

So, from what I’ve made note of above, it seems clear that we can massively alter colour tones, shades and levels of detail in a photo by using P Mode and adjusting the exposure compensation alone. Our camera cannot make these kinds of decisions for us. So we, as the photographers, must decide for them.

The problem we have, is that our brains and eyes are very complex biological mechanisms. Our cameras, whilst being brilliant pieces of technology, do not function in the same way that we do. When we walk into a dark room, our eyes and brain adjust automatically so that we can see properly. We can deal with amazingly complex lighting conditions while our cameras really cannot. We can also cope with a much wider range of light from dark to bright – this is often referred to as Dynamic Range but just think of it as the distance between pure black and pure white. Our (digital) cameras can only deal with a small range – this is why it is so important to choose the right exposure to reflect a scene.

Ok, here is a little bit of visual help:


Imagine that this man is the photographer, he is standing beneath a magic waterfall which cascades down. The waterfall is black at one end and white at the other. The man has a bucket, but it is only very small and can only catch a certain range of the water. The man can see the whole range, but he must choose at what point of the waterfall he stands in order to catch the different shades of water. So, he either moves to the right (+1, +2) and gets the whiter, brighter water, or he moves to the left (-1, -2) to get the blacker, darker water. Or he can stay in the middle (0). The choice is entirely his…

Cameras make complicated calculations in order to select exposure, and they do it very quickly and well. However, at times, your camera won’t know exactly what it is you want to do. For example, in the scene above with the white van and the black car: is the area by the wheel arch on the white van important? Or is it the houses on the other side of the river? Should the greens be a nice colour, or does it not matter? How do you want your blue to reproduce, dark blue, or light blue? The camera doesn’t know any of these things – only you do, and that’s what makes you a photographer.

Before you take a photo, you should be looking at the light with your eyes and asking yourself these questions:

  • Is the light uniform?
  • Is there bright sun or dark shade involved?
  • Where is the light coming from?
  • What is the subject or most important part of the photo?
  • Can I get the perfect exposure for the subject of my photo that will give it the perfect colour tone and detail that it requires.

For today, I’ll leave it at this. But I’ll be sure to come back and explain Metering Modes in greater depth at some point. Next, The Holy Trinity.

Frankfurt 2011

5 thoughts on “P Mode

  1. Maxime

    Man, on top of being really helpful, this photog 101 is amazingly explained, with concrete examples and relevant metaphores (the magic waterfall).

    Looking forward to the next chapter.


    1. Nick Bradley Post author

      Hey Rufus, yeah, I agree about that. I loved using old film cameras before I could afford a good DSLR because they allowed me to pay for the film and experiment as I went. I didn’t have to just lam down a massive payment on an expensive camera.

      I had a look at the article. Interesting, but I’m not sure why they are even bothering to compare an iPhone 4S with a 5Dmkii. Also, the 5Dmkii shots look crappy because she has done absolutely nothing to them… Perfect example of not getting enough out of a camera! I think an iPhone 4S can compare to a point and shoot camera, but 21 megapixels of a 5Dmkii vs. 8 megapixels on an iPhone… not exactly fair!