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2006.04.06

While visiting an online forum, I found a question which went somelike this: I can’t believe my new ultra-zoom camera, it doesn’t have a sport-mode! How do I take sports pictures then?

This brings me to today’s topic, scene-modes. What is a scene-mode? In most cases, it is a preset or a bias for the automatic exposure (aka Program). Sports-mode usually chooses the fastest shutter-speed which would give a correct exposure. This is the same thing as choosing the largest aperture, which incidently is frequently called portrait-mode. Sometimes there are distinctions, like the sports-mode may boost the ISO, while the portrait will not.

Here are the important facts about scene-modes:

  • Scene-modes control parameters of a camera such as aperture, ISO sensitivity and white-balance.
  • There are no absolute defintitions of scene-modes, each camera is free to decide what it does for a given scene-mode.
  • Nearly all scene-modes can be replicated using full manual-controls plus image-parameters.
  • A scene-mode sets settings for an adequate exposure while manual-controls allow deviation from the exposure calculated by the camera’s metering system.

For cameras with manual-controls, the value of having scene-modes is virtually none. They basicaly trade some automation for some unknowns. That is the reason I personally never use them. After all, my idea of the settings for a landscape picture may differ from that of my camera’s landscape-mode.

For cameras without manual-controls, scene-modes influence settings which have no direct controls. In such cases, scene-modes can be useful, specially when they do things like preset the focus to the hyperfocal distance or allow shutter-speeds longer than the automatic mode. Therefore, in the absense of manual-controls, scene-modes have greater value.

Some digital cameras have special scene modes which involve additional image processing like perspective correction, making people slimmer, swapping image colors and applying special effects. The value of these modes is really minimal since the photographer looses the picture as it was seen, plus these effects can also be done later using an image processing application such as Photoshop.

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