Take Better Photos: Our Guide To Digital Camera Scene Modes

Scene modes

When I got my first camera, I was intimidated and confused by all the dial settings, each marked by its own cryptic image.

A miniature moon? No, thanks. A flower reminiscent of Super Mario Bros.? Think I’ll stay away from that one.

Boy, was I mistaken! Eventually I learned those tiny pictures were representative of camera scene modes and I discovered how to use them effectively. Sure, you can take great photos on your own. But you can take even better ones if you let your camera help you.

Let’s walk through each of the scene modes and demystify their meaning!



Landscape mode opens the aperture to put more of the image into focus. (Image: Leah Schmalz)

In technical terms, this mode closes your aperture to let less light through the lens and produce a sharper image. In everyday terms, it’s great for snapping pics of fields, mountains, desert, forests — you name it.

Any time you find yourself wanting to capture a stunning view, employ this mode as a shortcut. Some cameras even enhance blue and green shades with this setting to make your landscape really pop.

Keep in mind that because your aperture isn’t letting much light through, your camera may compensate with a slower shutter speed. Beware of shaky focus in your pictures by setting your camera on a sturdy surface or using a tripod!


Portrait mode

Portrait mode closes the aperture to focus on the person’s face. (Image: Leah Schmalz)

So everything you just learned for landscape mode? Reverse it to the opposite and you’ve got portrait mode.

Landscape mode lets you focus on far away scenes, but portrait eliminates the background to emphasize the subject. A wide-open aperture lets you draw attention to the person’s face, while a faster shutter speed makes sure you get a sharp image with no blur.


Macro mode

Macro mode limits the focusing distance for extreme close-ups. (Image: Leah Schmalz)

Unless you’re really into ultra close-ups, you probably don’t want to shell out the money for a macro lens.

This setting mimics the effects of the lens by switching to a closer focusing distance. That means you can move so your camera is practically touching whatever it is you’re shooting and come away with a clear picture.

Small, detailed objects like flowers or bugs work well for this mode because you can capture intricate details that would be missed from farther away.


Sports mode

Sports mode freezes action by speeding up the shutter. (Image: Leah Schmalz)

Ever tried to take a picture at a sporting event and wind up with nothing but blur? Sports are fast, so your camera has to be even faster. Sports mode speeds up the shutter speed to at least 1/500 of a second to capture the action.

Don’t stop there! Flip to sports mode to freeze a car, animal, or any other fast-moving object. It’s a handy trick so you can avoid fumbling with your manual settings and get the shot before it’s too late!


Night mode

Night mode slows down your shutter, which can result in light trails. (Image: Leah Schmalz)

There are two variations to this setting, and I find that they both produce some really cool results. The night portrait mode uses something called slow sync flash, where the flash is deployed while the shutter stays open longer. The result is extra light for your subject and a brighter background.

Plain old night mode simply keeps the shutter open longer- a lot longer. Any motion will show up blurred with some pretty rockin’ colors. You can get some fun shots at parties, during a night out on the town, or at an amusement park at night, to start.

These are just the most basic modes that you’ll find on a wide variety of cameras. Some newer models are equipped with extras that can be super fun to mess with. Do you have fish-eye mode? Play with the bubble effect it creates for some goofy shots! Other scene-specific modes, like beach or snow, are useful as well. Take advantage of all your camera has to offer!

Got a favorite scene mode you love experimenting with? Let us know about it in the comments! 

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Leah is a freelance writer, photo junkie, and avid traveler. When she's not chipping away at a story, you can find her exploring the outdoors or planning her next adventure. Read about them on her blog, Relentless Adventure.

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