Six scene modes you may actually want to use

Are scene modes useful? These are!

Some scene modes seem unnecessary, but I've used these, and find them very useful!

1. Night Scene Portrait
This mode was designed for taking pictures of people at night using the camera's built-in flash to illuminate them while a slow shutter speed pulls detail and color in the background. When making a portrait in front of a cityscape or sunset in normal exposure modes, the foreground or the background will typically be exposed correctly but it's unlikely you'll achieve a balanced exposure between foreground and background that looks dead black. Night scene mode automatically selects a long exposure time so the background will have sufficient exposure and the aperture will be chosen so that when the flash is fired it will accurately illuminate the main foreground subject.

Tip: Since you can end up with a slow shutter speed and fairly wide aperture with the flash turned on—that's the whole point of trying to balance flash and background—be careful where you focus and it's a good idea to use the camera's focus lock to ensure sharp focus on your subject. You may also need a camera support—a tripod, monopod, or a wall—to steady your camera and avoid shaky backgrounds.

Night moves: My friend Tony photographed me one night after we went shopping in Tokyo's akihabara district using an EOS Digital Rebel in Night Scene mode. The camera determined an exposure of 1/60 sec at f/3/5 with an ISO setting of 400. ©2003 Tony Gomez

2. Surf and Snow
It's a matter of opposites again. Where night scenes fool metering systems with point of light and lots of darkness, beach and snow does just the opposite and give you lots of light making the built-in meter want to under expose the shot. Choosing the Surf and Snow Scene mode tells the camera what it's up against and produces well-exposed images.

No more grey snow: Going out to play (or shovel) in the snow? Try some shots in Surf and Snow mode to see if the exposures aren't better that you've had before. This New Year's Day's shot of Mary had an exposure of 1/500 at f/10 and ISO 200. ©2007 Joe Farace

3. Text
This is a mode that when you think about it, is not too different than photographing in the snow: Lots of white background with thin black text for foreground. While it's boring when you wanna do some copy work and want the text to be sharp and "clear." This is the mode for you.

4. Sunset
Sunsets and sunrises are notoriously difficult to shoot because you have lots of dark areas and a brilliant light source in the same frame. Using this mode sets up the camera to deal with these high contrast circumstances and the color balance is designed to produce the beautiful warm glow that you see with your eyes but is somehow elusive to capture in a photograph.

Tip: Depending on how large this example photo is displayed you may be able to see the ant-sized people (as silhouettes) walking on the beach, which is why it's always a good idea to have some foreground interest in sunset scenes such as this one.

Big orange ball in the sky: Nothing says sunset like a shot of the "sun setting slowing in the West" and this photograph of the beach at Acapulco benefitted from the camera's Sunset scene that automatically determined the exposure to be 1/500 sec at f/4 and ISO 80. ©2005 Joe Farace

5. Kids
This mode is optimized to capture candid photographs of kids who may not want to sit still for a portrait and also produces healthy and bright skin tones so it's biased toward higher shutter speeds and ISO settings as well as warm skin tones.

Tip: For examples, such as the one shown, with kids riding on bikes or skateboards be sure to try the same kind of camera panning techniques that you might use for sports!

"Look, Ma!" Natalie is not sitting still; she's riding down the street and that's why Mary photographed her while panning the camera to slightly blur the background while keeping the subject sharp. Automatically determined exposure was 1/160 sec at f/6.3 and ISO 400. Because it was near dusk, the flash was automatically fired too. ©2008 Mary Farace

6. Pets
Not only are kids hard to photograph but so are pets. If you want to photograph those precocious tabbies Hot Shot and Fat Cat bouncing around in their natural environment this is the mode for you. Get this; when you select this mode you sometimes get the additional choice of the kind of pet. With cameras such as the Pentax K100D, you can select cat or dog. Some engineer at Pentax must read the Darby Conley's "Get Fuzzy" comic strip.

Got fuzzy: Chihuahuas are active dogs and most pets aren't going to sit still to pose so this scene mode is biased toward high shutter speeds. Every now and then the pet needs to catch a breath and the secret, if there is any, is to wait for that moment. In the meantime, you'll need to just keep making many different shots--I made nine of this doggie—to capture that decisive canine (or feline) moment. ©2006 Joe Farace

By no means are these the only Scene modes available and each new camera models seems to invent new ones so that every possible photographic situation may be tuned over to the camera to make exposure decisions. While purists may deride the concept that these creative decisions are being turned over to hardware instead of the human being holding that hardware, well they said the same thing about autofocus and we all agree that going back to manual focus seems sort of archaic. My guess is that Scene modes are here to stay and the only decision is to learn when to use them and when to turn over creative control to the computer inside your noggin.

Joe Farace is co-author of "Better Digital Available Light Photography" along with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Barry Staver. It is published by Focal Press and is available in all the best bookstores, including Barnes & Noble and

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