When, if ever, is it smart to use scene modes?

Throughout the years, camera manufacturers have looked for ways to make operation of the camera easier, both in the ancient days of film photography and in today’s digital photography. For example, all cameras now offer autofocus, where the camera adjusts the elements in the lens to create the sharpest focus, rather than relying on the photographer to twist a dial and manually set the focus as occurred dozens of years ago.

Perhaps the most obvious change in the name of simplification was the creation of automatic settings on cameras, where the camera measures the light in the scene and then determines the proper settings to use to create the best possible image. No longer did the photographer have to understand shutter speed and aperture settings. With the advent of automatic settings, the point and shoot camera was born.

At some point, camera makers decided the automatic setting might be a little too simple, and they decided to add the ability to record scene modes to the digital camera. Scene modes involve settings that the camera automatically determines, but you select the type of scene you’re planning to shoot, giving the camera a hint as to what settings it should use.

Some photographers mock the idea of scene modes. After all, the automatic setting should work perfectly fine the majority of the time, so why complicate things and slow down the process by having to pick a scene mode?

And they have a point. A basic camera is going to be able to record photos of a good quality in the most basic fully automatic mode most of the time. So if you want to shoot quickly with the least amount of hassle, just use automatic mode all of the time.

But if you’re looking for a few tweaks beyond automatic mode, scene modes can fit the bill. Even though a scene mode does not give you as the photographer a significant amount of control over how the scene is recorded, the camera will apply automatic tweaks. For example, when selecting Landscape from the scene mode, the camera may automatically expect you to have a lot of greens (grass and trees) and blues (sky) in the photo, so it may apply a filter that enhances those colors slightly, giving you a bit of a different look than what the camera does in fully automatic mode.

However, keep in mind that each camera’s scene modes behave a little differently. For example, when shooting a portrait photo, you may want the aperture to be as wide open as possible (small f-stop number), which will blur the background. So you can select Portrait from the scene mode list, expecting this to be the case. But your particular camera’s portrait mode may involve exposing the skin tones correctly, rather than worrying about the background focus.

So if you want to use your camera’s scene modes, it’ll pay dividends if you do some experimenting with the different scene modes of your particular camera, determining exactly what features each scene mode emphasizes. That’s the best way to ensure you’re using the scene modes options on your camera effectively.

Once you have a good working knowledge of advanced settings and how to use them, you’ll find that scene modes are not really all that useful. You’ll be able to more precisely control the settings yourself, achieving the look you want. But while you’re learning more about photography, the scene modes can be a helpful option for some people!