Why do you need Scene settings? Sometimes, the camera's auto-everything default mode can't handle tricky lighting or certain types of subjects, and the resulting images are disappointing, but you don't want to fiddle with complicated aperture, shutter speed, White Balance, ISO, etc. You just want to get the shot. Scene settings are for you.
Some cameras offer dozens of Scene settings; what they offer often depends on the camera's capabilities. Most digital cameras access Scene settings via a surface "Scene" button. The LCD monitor will then display a long list of icons with all the scenes the camera offers. While the on-screen or manual instruction give you some information about each Scene setting, we've provided more tips and suggestions so you can get the most benefit from any Scene setting.
Here's an alphabetical list of most of the Scene settings currently being used; almost, since the technology continues to evolve and some companies develop unique names for certain settings, this list may change, and we'll try to keep up with these changes by updating the list as we hear of new modes. And in the spirit of the Internet, I hereby dub the following The Canonical List of Compact Camera Scene Settings. If you know of a Scene that isn't listed below, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Action (also called Sports mode): Camera will choose a faster shutter speed to stop fast-moving subjects and give you a better chance at capturing a pitcher in mid-pitch, a runner jogging by, or just stopping your hyperactive kid.
Art Filter: Found on some Olympus, Pentax, Sony and other cameras, Art filters give you a choice of effects that you can apply to an image either as you shoot it, or after the fact. These could include painterly effects, grainy, high-contrast black-and-white, partial image blur where the center is sharp but the edges are blurred, and other effects. If you have a camera with an Art Filter (sometimes called Painting Tools or Creative mode), you will have a blast experimenting!
Aquarium: Selects a higher ISO and blue cast cancelling color balance that will let you photograph fish in indoor and outdoor aquariums, where light may be lower and the color is generally bluer. This setting also turns off the flash since that would simply reflect off the aquarium's glass. Tip: Be sure to get as close as possible to the glass of the aquarium so you don't photograph your reflection.
Anti-Blur: Some cameras can reduce or eliminate blur caused by camera movement by using some fancy high technology. The camera captures several images at a rapid burst, then combines them, taking the data that will give you the sharpest shot.
Baby: The Baby setting selects a fast shutter speed and high ISO setting to freeze action when photographing active children and babies. It's similar to the Children setting, but biased towards a not using flash.
Tip: Use this setting when you want a good exposure of a baby in subdued light but don't want the flash to go off.
Backlight: Sometimes you can't help it: Your subject is standing in front of a brightly-lit area, or there's a light shining in the background. Both will mislead your camera into rendering your subject a deep shadow. In Backlight mode, the camera's flash fires automatically to illuminate the shadows. This is also known as fill flash.
Tip: Use this mode even in bright sunlight if the sun is behind the subject, as well as indoors when there are windows in the background letting in daylight.
Beach (Also called Beach/Snow): This setting captures bright, sun-drenched scenes. Normally, scenes with a lot of white or light color, such as beaches and snow-filled vistas, will mislead a camera's light meter into underexposing, leading to an image that's too dark. In Beach, the camera compensates for this automatically by exposing by one to two more stops, brightening the scene, and (in some cases) by reducing contrast.
Tip: You can also use this scene setting when there's a dominant white area, such as a sun-lit side of a building, as well as when shooting regular landscapes if you want it to appear like it was shot closer to sunset--the overall cast is slightly warmer.
Candlelight: A candle-lit scene, such as a birthday party at cake time, can play havoc auto exposure. Flash isn't a good idea, because that will ruin the ambience. Candelight scene disables the flash (so you see the effect of candle lighting) and typically selects daylight white balance for more accurate color. Cameras that have this exposure usually have sophisticated multi-segment metering, which recognizes extremes of light and dark in a scene and compensates automatically.
Tip: Since candles don't generate a lot of light, make sure your camera is leaning against a stable object or is on a tripod to avoid shake. Also, make sure your subject is no more than three or four feet away from the candle (but not too close!) so there's enough light.
Children (similar: Baby): This setting recognizes that kids are fast and may distract the photographer, and sets the camera accordingly. So, the fastest shutter speed available is set in Children mode; if it's too dark, the camera's built-in flash will be activated automatically. Some cameras will also choose a high ISO setting, so a faster shutter speed can be chosen without need for flash.
Tip: If your kid is running , move the camera with her and shoot as she runs past to show her in full action.
Chrome (Also called Positive Film); also see Vivid: Some cameras try to imitate the backlit look of slide film by setting its blue, green and red colors to their most saturated settings. (Digital camera makers may have forgotten, however, that some slide films actually have lower color saturation!)
Tip: Use this setting if you want to exaggerate color in a scene, but note that you may loose some detail in the most intense color areas when making prints.
Close-up (Also see Flower): Many compact cameras normally focus to a couple of feet away, but when the close-up mode is activated, you may be able to focus on objects that are within a foot of the camera--and sometimes to within a couple of inches of the front of the lens. The flash is usually disabled, and focus is limited to the center of the screen.
Tip: Press and hold the shutter release halfway down to lock focus, then quickly re-compose and shoot for off-center subjects).
Collection: See Auction
Color Accent: This setting instructs the camera to seek out a specific color in your image; all other colors are desaturated, so you end up with a black-and-white-and-one other color image.
Tip: Use this to draw the viewer's attention to a particular area or subject in your image--but be aware of other instances in the scene where the same color repeats.
Color Swap: Change the color of your car! This setting lets you tell the camera to replace one color in a scene with another.
Tip:You can also achieve this effect after the fact in Photoshop Elements by going to Enhance > Adjust Color > Replace Color.
Copy (Also called Document, Text, or Business Card): Sometimes, you want to photograph a paper with text on it. Normally, getting a sharp, readable image would be a hit-or-miss proposition. This setting increases your chances by selecting the camera's highest contrast mode and turning the flash off (the flash causes unwanted reflections on flat surfaces). If your camera focuses close enough, you can copy business cards as well as standard-sized business papers.
Tip: Make sure you have plenty of light! The best setup is two lights on either side of your document, facing the document at a 45-degree angle. Or, shoot outdoors in the shade or under cloudy skies. Use a tripod if possible to reduce chance of camera shake. Also be sure the paper is parralel with the front of the camera--a levelling tool can help you do this.
Coupling (or Composite or Paste): Let's say you and a friend are traveling together and want to take a picture with both of you in it--but there's nobody around to take the picture. Coupling divides the screen in half. Take one picture, switch with your friend, then your friend aims, lines up the background so there's no seam, and shoots again. You appear in the other half, and the two shots are seamlessly stitched together. For the technically minded, this is like making a masked double exposure. (Currently this feature is only on some Casio cameras.)
Tip: place something that's easy to identify in the center of the picture, to make aligning the two half-images for easier so they can be stitched together seamlessly.
Darker skin tone: When photographing people with dark brown skin, a bit of overexposure, which the camera automatically sets here, will bring out more details in their faces.
Tip: If your subject is wearing a white shirt or jacket, you might suggest they change into something darker. Otherwise, their faces will look great, but their clothes may show up as bright white blobs.
Dusk/Dawn: This setting captures the range of dramatic colors that the human eye sees when photographing the sky during dusk or dawn. This is specifically for shooting the sky in the direction of the sun. Normally, cameras are misled by this light and try to overexpose, which washes out the color and may promote shaky shots. In this mode, the image is deliberately underexposed to capture the rich color in the subdued light.
Tip: Since shutter speeds may be too slow for hand-held shooting, place or lean the camera against a sturdy surface, or use a tripod.
Face Detection: One of the hottest new compact digital camera technologies, Face Detection monitors the scene and looks for human faces. When it finds one, it locks in focus, exposure, color balance and even shutter speed and aperture so the image will show the face in the most flattering way. Most face detection cameras can recognize as many as nine faces in a scene. Does it work? Read about our field test!
Tip: Make sure your camera is steady--use a tripod or tabletop pod if possible--and realize that if one person is three feet from the camera and the other is twenty feet away, this may be a rare instance where face detection won't work.
Faithful (Also called Neutral Color): The camera dials down the color saturation so colors appear more like the eye sees them and not subtly pumped up, which is how most compact digital cameras record color. This is useful if you are shooting brightly colored subjects where the brightness of the color is distracting.
Fireworks: To capture the expanding burst of color from a fireworks display, the camera chooses a long exposure, turns off the flash, and fixes focus on infinity.
Tip: Use a tripod to avoid shake, which would cause the fireworks to look jagged. Press the shutter release as close to the beginning of an explosion as possible.
Foliage: A great mode to use in the Fall, it pumps up the colors of autumn leaves as well as flowers in gardens, producing vivid colors. Tip: Try shooting some lush greenery, especially on an overcast day or in the shade, in this mode and see how that looks.
Food: Camera switches to close-up/macro mode, the flash is canceled, and white balance settings are shifted to favor incandescent light. ISO setting may be kicked up and the shutter speed slowed down.
Tip: Use a tripod or brace the camera to minimize shake during the long exposure, or sit near a window to get sufficient ambient light.
Fisheye: The camera deliberately distorts the image, enlarging the center to give the image a super-wide-angle/funhouse mirror look. This is a gimmick that can be found in a relatively small number of cameras.
High Dynamic Range Optimizer (also called D-Range or Shadow Detail): The camera either shoots two or three shots in rapid succession at differente exposures and combines them, seeking out the details in the highlights and shadows in each shot, or it boosts details in the shadows of a single shot. The result is brighter, more detailed shadows and a bit more detail in the brightest part of the picture.
High-Speed Burst: The camera catches a large number of images in rapid sequence, usually at lower resolution. Some higher-end Casio and Nikon compact cameras offer this mode, and the resulting images can be 30-50 images captured in the space of a second or two, and displayed either in one composite grid or in separate images, depending on the camera.
Landscape (Similar to Scenic): On most cameras, this mode sets the lens to a wide-angle setting with a small aperture, and fixes focus at infinity so the maximum amount of the scene with be in focus. Some more advanced models automatically sharpen the image as well to bring out greater detail in foliage and geology; some models also enhance colors and contrast.
Tip: To improve sharpness and reduce camera shake, use a tripod or press the camera against a stable surface. Also, some cameras have a "grid" viewing mode on the LCD screen. Use this to assist in composing your scenic, and to keep the horizon level.
Macro: See Flower.
Monochrome (also Black & White): Sometimes the world looks better in black-and-white, and this setting lets you shoot without color. Some cameras have more than one black-and-white mode; the extra modes emulate the effect different colored filters would have on the relative gray intensities of a range of colors. For instance, "red" darkens blue skies, while "green" lightens skin in portratis.
Tip: If your camera shoots RAW images, the color information will be retained even if you're shooting in the monochrome setting. If your only choice is JPEG, it's better to shoot in color and remove color in software later. That way, if you change your mind, your original is still in color.
Movie: With the widespread adaptation of HD Video on a growing number of digital cameras, the Movie Mode has become more important. Usually, Movie mode is accessed via a separate button or clearly marked dial setting on the camera and all you need to do is press that button to record, and again to stop. Tips: If you are recording sound, be sure that, as the camera operator, you are as quiet as possible (unless you're narrating) so the camera can pick up more of the ambient sound. Move the camera slowly and sparingly, and don't zoom during exposure since the on-camera microphone will pick up the sound of the zoom motor.
Museum (also called Manor): Use this mode whenever you're in a situation where flash and sound are not permitted--such as a museum, a theater, or even a library. The camera turns off the flash as well as any beeps, whirs, or bops your camera normally makes.
Tip: You may not be allowed to use a tripod in museums, so if possible hold the camera against a sturdy surface to reduce the possibility of camera shake.
Natural Green: When photographing outdoors sometimes photographers are disappointed with how their scenics come out. Natural Green makes the color of green foliage appear richer and more saturated.
Tip: While this setting might help, sometimes mother nature is a better way to go: Foliage after a rainstorm tends to look greener than dry foliage.
Night Portrait (Similar: Party/Indoor): People pictures taken outdoors at night often look harsh, with the flash fading into a dark background even if there is ambient light from street lamps and the like. Night Portrait combines flash with long exposure to capture background detail and lighting as well as to accurately expose the person or people you're photographing.
Tip: Use a tripod or other sturdy surface to keep your camera steady and avoid shaky backgrounds during those long exposures. Conversely, you can deliberately move the camera during exposure to create a dynamic, motion-filled background while your subject remains sharp.
Night Scene (Also called Night, Night Landscape; Similar: Fireworks): When photographing a city skyline at night, use this setting so the result will look as dramatic as what you see. Auto mode will likely be misled by the many bright lights and dark background, and render the scene too dark. Night scene sets the camera at infinity and chooses the proper aperture and shutter speeds.
Tip: Lean your camera against a steady surface or use a tripod to avoid shake.
Panning: For action photographers, this setting lets you get good results when moving the camera along with a subject that's moving parallel with your camera. The camera chooses a slow shutter speed so you get a feeling of motion from the streaky background.
Tip: As the subject runs or rides by, move the camera with him. Don't keep the camera still, or what you'll get is a sharp scene with a blurred subject as it speeds by. This takes practice--don't be frustrated if it doesn't look right the first few times. Check results on your LCD screen.
Panorama: In this setting, the camera lets you shoot a sequence of two or more (total depends on the camera) images, then automatically stitches them together to create a seamless panoramic view. Some cameras even show a sliver of the previous image so you can make sure the next shot overlaps with the previous one. Tip: Make sure there are obvious elements towards the vertical edges of each piece of the panorama, so the camera will have an easier time correctly overlapping the images for seamless stitches. Practice!
Party/Indoor (similar: Night Portrait): People pictures taken indoors at parties often look harsh, with dark backgrounds. The Party/Indoor setting is designed to expose the background so you can see more details and capture the ambience of the setting while keeping the subjects sharp and well-exposed using the flash. The camera does this by choosing longer exposures, which allows more ambient light to be recorded.
Tip: Hold the camera steady so the background will be sharp. Conversely, you can deliberately move the camera around during exposure to create a dynamic, motion-filled background while your subject remains sharp.
Pet: Brings out highlights and details in animal fur, using in-camera image sharpening, uses a faster shutter speed to catch quick-changing moves. This mode is sometimes combined with Kids mode, perhaps under the influence of W. C. Fields.
Tip: Make sure you have plenty of light for this mode! Outdoors under open shade or clouds would be ideal. And fill the frame with your furry friend.
Portrait: Camera chooses settings that will most flatter a person you're photographing. Aperture (lens opening) will be wider, which throws the background into a blur, and a low ISO is chosen so the detail can be good. Tip: Try shooting in diffused daylight, using the light coming in from a window with the window either on one side of your subject or behind your camera, to get softer, flattering light.
Scenic: See Landscape.
Self-Portrait Timer: When shooting couples or group portraits, in this mode the camera will wait after the shutter is pressed for one more person—presumably, the photographer—to enter the frame before taking the picture. You'll need a tripod for this to work.
Sepia (same as Retro): A variation of the Monochrome (Black and White) setting, Sepia adds a warm, light brownish-orangish cast to the B&W image, creating an old-fashioned look, which some black-and-white photographers prefer.
Tip: Do not use auto color correction tools if you work with Sepia images in Photoshop or other imaging software because it will remove the Sepia tone.
Smile (also called Smile Alert): This mode takes face detection a step further: it prevents you from taking a picture unless the subjects are all smiling (on some versions, it simply warns you that someone is looking grim).
Tip: Sometimes you don't want a smile; in those cases, make sure the Smile mode is turned off.
Snow (Similar to Beach mode): This mode compensates for the brightness of snow, which would otherwise trick your camera's automatic metering into giving you an exposure that's too dark. It also changes the color hue so it isn't as blue, since snow on a bright, sunny day reflects the blue sky overhead.
Splashing Water: The opposite of the Flowing Water scene setting, Splashing Water uses the fastest, most motion-freezing shutter speed possible on your camera. Instead of flowing like silk, splashes water droplets will appear to hang in the air as if frozen.
Tip: Use this mode in bright sunlight for best results.
Sports: See Action
Soft: If you want to shoot painterly still lifes, this is the Scene for you. The Soft setting subtly blurs the overall image, and utilizes a larger aperture for more selective focusing. It's a great way to shoot flattering portraits.
Tip: Turn your flash off and use diffuse lighting, such as window light, to enhance the soft, painterly effect.
Soft Snap: This seems to be unique to Sony cameras. Although Sony isn't forthcoming with specifics, this setting is meant to improve portraits by choosing a warmer color balance for more pleasing skin tones, while at the same time using a less sharp setting (we're not sure if the camera chooses the widest aperture setting to blur the background or simply put an overall blur over the image). On Sony cameras, this is indicated by an icon of two persons, one black and one outline. Please email me if you have first-hand experience with this mode.
Tip: Sony says you can also use this mode when shooting flowers "in the proper atmosphere."
Sunrise/Sunset: Camera adjusts color hue to accurately render the beautiful warm light that can be found when the sun is low in the sky. In auto mode, the camera may "cool off" these colors, ruining the lighting you were waiting for!
Text: See Copy.
Twilight: See Dawn/Dusk. Sometimes called "Handheld Twilight". Use this mode, which can be found on some Sony cameras, to capture twilight skies even if you don't have a tripod. The camera captures several images within a fraction of a second, then combines the data from all images to create a sharp image with good shadow through highlight detail.
Underwater: There's a lot of blue underwater, and this setting reduces it so your camera records colors accurately below the surface. The flash may or may not go off (depending on the amount of available light, just like on land), and you can switch to macro mode for close subjects on some cameras.
Tip: If your camera is not rated for use underwater, you must use an underwater housing designed to fit your camera.
Vivid: Sometimes a scene needs to be "punched up" or run the risk of looking, well, boring. Vivid increases color saturation and contrast for super-colorful images.
Tip: Try this setting on overcast days, and when photographing fall foliage. Don't use this setting at mid-day in sunlight, or when using on-camera flash--the extra contrast will blow out image detail.
YouTube Capture: Sets video-capable cameras to record videos in a format that can be uploaded from your computer to YouTube without any additional formatting.
Did we miss one? If you don't see a mode here, email us and we'll find out about it and update this story!