When I set out to write the first of this series of articles, I thought I would quickly follow with another one entitled “Use the Picture Modes”. Later I sat down with my D80 to try to understand what the different modes actually did, hoping they were common wisdom put into program form. After an hour of butting heads with the camera, I concluded that I simply can’t recommend using them.
What’s wrong with picture modes? They are programmed to keep the camera in its comfort zone when you really need it to work hard. Under picture modes, the camera will automatically select sensitivity (ISO) for you, but that maxes out too quickly at 400 when it is capable of respectable results up to 1600. Likewise, with picture modes the camera is completely overeager with popping up the built-in flash.
This latter decision has such overwhelming impact on your images that the camera should simply never make it for you. Flash is a big scary topic – scary enough that even some professionals will not go there. For now, I recommend you just don’t use flash.
My advice with respect to camera modes is this: exclusively use “P” mode. It’s "P" for pictures.
My advice needs to be expanded a bit to be useful. First, dig into the menus and enable “automatic ISO” with a wide sensitivity range and moderate ideal speed (e.g. 1/50s) if your camera has these options. While you’re there, enable automatic-area focus if you’re very uncomfortable with focus. Then finally put the camera in “P” mode and leave it there.
This way your camera will operate in a mode that is very closes to the fully-automatic “green box”, but with the full range of your camera’s capabilities and sans flash.
What about the common wisdom I hoped was baked into the picture modes? It doesn’t really matter. By far the most important things on your mind should be composition and focus. In the end, a portrait is a picture composed as a portrait, not a picture taken in portrait mode.