Point and shoot cameras sometimes get a bad reputation because people think they give the user less control. With a few tips you can move away from full auto mode, take control, and push your digital camera’s performance to take beautiful photos that will make friends do a double take about your powerful, pocket-sized wonder.

The secret: learning when to use the aperture and shutter speed priority modes.

What are these modes?

Nearly all but the simplest point and cameras have a function wheel that lets you change between automatic mode, video mode, and a number of icons like a face and a guy running. The two most important modes for new photographers are the “A” or “Av” mode and the “S” or “TV” mode. “A” stands for aperture and “S” for shutter speed.

Shutter speed is how fast the shutter clicks open and closed. Staying open longer lets in more light for a brighter photo, but makes it more difficult to achieve a crisp photo because if you move, it will get blurry. Shutter speeds are written in the form of “1/10” or
“1/2000” indicating an opening of one-tenth or one-two-thousandth of a second.

Aperture determines how big the camera’s iris opens. A larger opening lets in more light for a brighter photo, but also shortens your depth of field so you can’t have as many details at various distances from the lens are in focus. Aperture stops range from small number like f/2.3 – very open – to large numbers like f/8.0 – a very small opening.

Why Av and S?

These modes tell give you control either aperture or shutter speed and tell the camera to automatically adjust the others to create the best possible exposure. Although these modes are one step short of full manual, making the switch puts you more in control of your art. This is important because you are smarter than the computer in your camera, and you know how your photo should look.

One of the biggest, simplest advantages of using this mode is you stop getting flat, washed out photos. Full auto mode attempts to ensure nothing is over or under exposed, which mutes colors and levels everything out. Taking control is easier than learning how to trick your camera into capturing the photo you want, and it lets you choose to keep a few beautiful contrasts and details in the shot even if they cost you one small area that is slightly too bright or dark for the computer’s preferences.

How do the Av and S modes work and when should you use them?

In Av mode, you tell your camera what aperture setting you want to use, and then it automatically controls shutter speed, white balance, film speed, focus dynamics, flash, and exposure correction, or some combination of those. S mode is the same except you choose the shutter speed at it controls the aperture.

So you can choose to have a huge aperture if you want good bokeh, the blurring of the background to draw focus to the subject, or a small aperture if you are shooting a huge scene with important details in the foreground and background and tons of light.

These are the kinds of details you use to make the decision. In especially dark conditions, you may have to use S mode because without a tripod shutter speeds of slower than 1/60 make capturing an image that isn’t blurry very difficult. If these are a lot of motion that you want to freeze, such as at a sporting event, select a fast shutter speed in S mode and choose a higher ISO. If you really like the quality of the natural light and there isn’t much motion, choose aperture priority and pick a larger setting to emphasize the light.


Until you grow comfortable enough with these settings to use them both quickly in full manual mode, Av and S modes are very helpful with average point and shoot cameras. You basically have no reason to shoot in full auto once you understand these modes, and although there is a small learning curve, once you climb it your photos will be much better because of it.