Why you should use “P” mode on your DSLR.

This article is quite long and needs to be read in its entirety, get comfy, grab a coffee sit back and enjoy.

How many times have you read or seen in a video that “P” mode is for beginners and you should learn to shoot in aperture or shutter priority modes or go full manual. It makes me wonder just how many “Pro” level photographers have even looked at shooting in P Mode as a serious shooting solution. Camera manufacturers dont put P mode on a camera just for fun. Its a serious shooting mode once you know why you should use it.

The term P Mode refers to Program Automatic mode. For this article I’m referring specifically to Canon DSLR’s, but if you own a Nikon or Sony or some other camera you might want to see if what I mention here is available on your camera. I know it was on my Fuji XA2.

The two cameras I will reference here are the Canon EOS 1000D and the Canon EOS 650D as I own both of these. Earlier model Canon DSLR’s may or may not be able to do what is described here, while all models after the 1000D should.

Firstly lets look at what the mode offers for the user to change.

Immediate changes can be made to:

  • White Balance
  • ISO
  • EV
  • Flash ( On board and external)
  • Drive modes (single multi etc..)
  • Picture styles (for jpg setups including aspect ratios )
  • All “Q ” menu functions
  • All metering modes
  • There are many more settings, all accessible in the menus that can be changed.

“In reality pretty much every other setting other than aperture and shutter speed is available to the user.”

However the above statement isn’t wholly accurate and this is the mistake many reviewers, commentators and tutorial providers miss. P mode is a very handy setting, It allows the photographer the opportunity to spend time on composition, when photographing fast moving objects, when the moment is the essence of the process and where having to consider aperture & shutter speeds will almost guarantee you will miss the shot.

The image below was taken with the 650D using the EF-S 55 -250 II IS lens, handheld.

Aperture was f6.7 @1/400s at 163 mm focal length and ISO 100.

As most of us know these little guys dont stay still for long. Trying to shoot this in aperture priority and deciding on the fly what aperture to use makes tracking the subject and making quick changes tough. Somewhat easier on mirrorless cameras as you can see your changes in the EVF or LCD as you alter settings. Thats not readily doable on a DSLR, not impossible, but in variable lighting conditions difficult at least. Shutter speed is somewhat easier to set, as you can set it to something that will easily freeze the motion, but may under or over expose as a result. Again this is where the mirrorless cameras come into their own. However you dont need to rush out and buy a mirrorless because of these factors, far from it.

Too see the full sized version right click and select open in new tab.

The same can be said when shooting fast moving birds. The Kingfisher ( pictured below) sat still on the post just long enough for me to take 3 shots before moving off.  If I had to change any settings he would have been gone. This is one of the great benefits of shooting in P Mode, the ability to see a possible photograph unfold before you and take the shot with out having to pre think your cameras settings.

Too see the full sized version right click and select open in new tab.

The image above is a 60% crop as is the bee image, you can see the unedited versions below.

Too see the full sized version right click and select open in new tab.


Too see the full sized version right click and select open in new tab.

So far you may be thinking, “So What ” its still a version of auto mode. Again this isn’t quite correct, in Canon cameras, DSLR’s and its probably true of  the new Canon mirrorless cameras as well ( I will report back later on this ) you can change the aperture and shutter speeds on the fly with a simple roll of the command wheel.

Dont believe me? try this: The hidden secret to P Mode in Canon cameras.

In P mode switch your camera to Liveview, aim at a target and roll the command dial situated behind the shutter button either left or right. Rolling to the right changes your aperture and to the left changes your shutter speeds.

This gives you the opportunity of switching very quickly depending upon the shutter speed you feel you need and allowing the camera to give you the best aperture setting and vice versa at the same time. No matter whether you are selecting shutter speed or aperture the camera will select the best shutter or aperture setting to match what you select when using the command dial.

Below are two off the cuff images shot out of my office window ( complete with dirt on the glass and spider webs ) to the view outside. This ability to see your settings change is also seen in your viewfinder, you dont need to refer to the LCD therefore if you have your camera up to your eye all you need do is roll the command dial and your will see the settings change. Its a very very handy tool.

The first is shot at f4 1/500s at ISO 400 @ 65 mm Fl.

The 2nd is shot at f23 1/20s at ISO 400 @ 65mm Fl.

f4 1/500s at ISO 400 @ 65 mm Fl.   Too see the full sized version right click and select open in new tab.


f23 1/20s at ISO 400 @ 65mm Fl … Too see the full sized version right click and select open in new tab.

Its easy to see the difference with the F4 shot having only the subject (bush ) in focus and everything beyond out of focus and soft in appearance. In the F23 shot everything is in focus, both near a far. Even the spiderwebs on the window are just about in focus.   Note the flash of blue on the post centre frame in the F23 image. Thats a Kingfisher sitting there. There was only a few seconds between the two shots and thats what I was referring to about zero time to worry about settings.

This is the fundamental reason I shoot almost exclusively in P mode. I will only shoot other modes if I’m after a specific look or need a different effect, shooting from a tripod or astrophotography. All the images shown above were shot using P Mode and my usual settings. I generally shoot Raw+Jpeg. It makes the write times a little longer but gives me the option of seeing how the camera processes the image and whether I need to edit the RAW file to better effect.

I will list my standard settings that I have the camera set to when using P Mode.

  • ISO 100, 400 Auto 3200 depending upon conditions
  • Drive Mode: Single shooting
  • AF Mode: Flexizone_single ( Use with single point AF)
  • AF Mode : Single shot
  • Metering: Evaluative or Centre-weighted
  • White Balance: Standard ( usually this does a pretty good job)
  • AF Point Selection: Manual Single point centre (most accurate)
  • EV 0 and adjust as required
  • Picture style: This is found in the menus. Default is auto.
    • Set this to standard
    • Settings for standard picture style are 5,1,2,2 (default is 3,0,0,0 which is the default auto setting.)
    • Numbers are for the following:
    • Sharpness, Contrast,saturation, colour tone.
  • Aspect Ratio: This is set to 16:9 which is my preference for jpegs as it mimics the normal PC monitor screen ratio.

A Note about Picture Style:

As I prefer Fuji colour profiles, I have set the Picture-style settings to mimic as close as possible what you see with the Fuji Provia simulation found in all Fuji cameras. This gives the image a bit more punch in colour and crispness in tone and resolution when using Jpegs processed in camera.

And thats about it for the majority of the shooting settings for P Mode that I typically use. I suggest you spend some time tweaking your settings and then give P Mode a go. Your capture rate is likely to increase with a lot less frustration. If you note what you camera is doing you will become more familiar with how to set aperture or shutters speeds should you wish to do so.

As with all things you will from time to time encounter a situation that requires you to switch to a different mode to enable you to get the result you require. The good thing about P mode is the settings are always retained so once you have it set the way you wish, then they will stay that way. Just remember that each time you take a shot in P Mode the camera will revert to the base shutter/ aperture combination and all you need do is adjust the command dial to change the shutter/aperture settings as you need. Most of the time I just let the camera decide and concentrate on getting the shot right, but its nice to know I have the flexibility with just a roll of the dial.

Hopefully this will help many of you obtain more satisfying results for all the time and effort you put into your craft.

Happy Snappin’


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