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How to Use Your DSLR Camera Auto Modes

An introduction to help you learn how to use your DSLR camera auto modes and improve your personal photography skills.

We are so lucky to live in a time when we have such easy access to take pictures of our family! We never have to miss documenting those little daily moments. But cell phone cameras only go so far. My friends and clients often ask me how to make the most of their “real” cameras. Over the next few months I’ll be sharing tips to help you learn to use your DSLR camera.

How I Started Taking Pictures

I got started with photography back in high school during my journalism and yearbook classes. But it wasn’t until I became a mom that I developed a true love for the art. I began scrapbooking when my son was born. Ten years and 20+ scrapbooks later I began a scrapbook project where I took a photo every day for an entire year.

This Project 365 ignited a desire to grow as a photographer. I was dissatisfied with the limitations of a point-and-shoot camera. It was time to make the jump to a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera. As my photography skills improved friends began asking me to take photos of their families too. I loved working with families and capturing their special bond so I decided to begin a small, part-time business.

I have been a professional photographer since 2011. You can check out my work at Anne Zirkle Photography. I love photographing families and my work with newborns is probably my favorite!

I think it’s important to hire someone to take photos of your family, but you are the photographer the other 364+ days. Your cell phone will work a lot of the time. And some of the information we’ll cover in this series can be used to improve your cell phone pictures too!

But how about that camera you got as a gift that is collecting dust because the pictures just aren’t as good as you thought they would be? Let’s brush of the dust and figure out how to make it work to take the best pictures possible!

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Let’s Learn to Use Your DSLR Camera Auto Modes

First, you need to be able to access your camera’s user manual. If you don’t have the hard copy, you can simply Google your camera’s make and model with the phrase user manual. While I can help you with the principles of photography, I am not an expert on every camera brand and model. Your manual will help you locate the buttons, knobs, and menus as you learn to use your DSLR.

A few things you should learn to do with your camera from your manual for this lesson:

  • select your shooting mode
  • locate your focus point(s)
  • adjust your picture style/picture control
  • change your LCD screen to view your histogram

Shooting Modes

For today’s lesson, we are going to talk about the auto shooting mode. Generally there are three types of shooting modes in a DSLR: auto mode where the camera decides everything, semi-auto modes where you have some artistic control but exposure is decided by the camera, and manual mode where you have complete control of both the artistic look of the photo and the exposure.

What is the point of those different modes? Shouldn’t the camera be able to figure out the proper exposure? After all, the camera wasn’t cheap!

Let’s take a look.

Auto Mode

When you select auto mode, the camera chooses what it focuses on and it determines what the exposure should be based on the overall lighting for the image. Here is an example (sorry but I am using camera phone photos for these examples!). The camera exposed for the sky. And as a result, the people, the actual subjects of the photo, are extremely underexposed. Have you ever had this happen?

Learning to Use Your DSLR Camera

This is the basic problem with auto mode. The camera is reading the data it is given to determine the exposure, but it doesn’t actually know what is supposed to be in focus or what part of the image really needs to be properly exposed.

You don’t feel ready to try anything but auto mode or your cell phone, so what do you do? The best solution if you are shooting in auto mode is to adjust your subjects. You may not get the background you originally wanted, but simply turn your subjects so that their faces are turned towards the light and the background is darker. This work around will at least make sure that you can see the faces of your subjects!

Learning to Use Your DSLR Camera

Different Auto Modes

Many entry level DSLRs offer a variety of Auto Modes that give you some degree of control over your photos. The most common auto modes are:

  • Portrait – Shoots with a more open lens to create “bokeh” which is a fancy word for the parts of the photo that are more blurred and out-of-focus. It creates a more shallow “depth of field.” Make sure that the auto-focus points are on your subject’s face because the background and foreground will be softly blurred.
  • Landscape – Shoots with a more closed lens so that the focus is consistent throughout your photo. The “depth of field” is more wide in this mode.
  • Close-up or Macro – Allows the lens to focus when it is at a close distance to the subject. Good for taking pictures of flowers or other still life. It shoots with a more open lens to create bokeh/blur and keeps the subject in focus. Be sure the auto-focus points are on the subject.
  • Flash disable – Allows you to turn off the flash, but that may affect some of the camera settings. You will need to watch for any camera shake. Consider using a tripod in this mode.
  • Moving subjects/Action – Increases the shutter speed to stop motion
  • Night Portraits – Opens the lens, like portrait mode, but the flash may fire

Picture Styles/Picture Control

Canon and Nikon offer some processing options that will affect the way your pictures look. Canon calls it “picture styles” and Nikon calls it “picture control.” There is typically an option for Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape, and Custom. Other brands may offer similar options: check your camera’s manual.

These controls are typically set through a menu. They adjust different effects for your JPEG images such as the amount of color saturation, the amount of blacks, the level of contrast, and the degree of sharpening.


  • Get your camera out of its box or bag.
  • Pick it up every day for the next 2 weeks and spend 10-15 minutes taking pictures in each of the different auto modes each practice session.
  • Practice taking pictures at different times of day and in different lighting using the different modes.
  • Look at your photos on your computer (the back of the camera is deceptive and won’t give you a true idea of how your photo turned out) or get them printed and see how the different modes affect the way the image looks.

Next up…

Our next lesson will look at the semi-auto shooting modes. We will explore when each of those modes is most beneficial and how becoming comfortable with these modes is a great step towards shooting in manual!

If you have any questions or suggestions, send me an email or leave a comment! Follow us over on Instagram and Facebook to see everything we’re up to.

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