When To Use Which Shooting Modes In Sony Mirrorless Systems

I'll be talking about the main shooting modes for stills photography: Manual (M), Shutter Priority (S), Aperture Priority (A), and Program Mode (P). And why half these modes are obsolete in 2020.

I'm going to preface my mini tutorial here by saying that if you know what your subject matter is in advance, then there may be only one or two of these modes that you would ever be using. I'll take this a step further. If you're primarily a photographer who takes pictures of people, whether that be street photography, portraiture, or just pictures of friends and family, there are only two modes worth considering, ever.

Based on my three years of shooting on Sony mirrorless systems, there isn't much of a limb to go out on when I state that because of the advancements made by Sony and other companies, that half or more of the shooting modes which have been part of the traditional architecture of SLRs & DSLRs for decades, have been rendered mostly obsolete. This is due to several automatic and programmable features which have been added to the main shooting modes, in particular, the greater flexibility given to Aperture Priority and to Manual Mode.

Modes You Should Never Be Using - Ever

Let's start of with the easy stuff first. As a photographer who has invested in a Sony mirrorless system (E Mount), there's absolutely no reason whatsoever that you should be using any of the consumer automatic modes. The dial is marked as Auto on most E mount camera bodies although you may see the function divided into two different dials, red and green, as is the case with the Sony A6000. Regardless of which system you're on, you don't need these dials.


Because these are the modes included for users who never intend to advance in their photographer, or for beginners who don't know what the other dials are for. They're meant to be used by someone who doesn't really care (or again know) of the true capabilities of the camera they are using or of basic photographic principles. They can be safely ignored.

Modes which I believe are obsolete

Ironically enough, it is possible to advance cameras to such a high point in that they render traditional architecture mostly obsolete. I'm going to list two more modes that you'll unlikely need, starting with the one that is an obvious throw-away mode in 2020.

Program Mode (P) on the dial

This is an ISO-centric mode. You set the specific ISO value and the camera will adjust the shutter speed and aperture according to the correct exposure value for your ISO selection. Likewise, you may dial in either the shutter speed or aperture value to what you like, and it will keep the ISO value you selected as long as it results in an "acceptable" exposure value. This may sound like a great thing, and in the past, maybe it was for a few specialized shooters.

The problem with this mode is that there is very little actual flexibility. For instance, if you set your ISO value to 8000 and then attempt to raise your shutter speed too high, you will be prevented in raising it further. The function will just stop. Until you slow down the shutter speed to a slower value. Likewise, same thing with the aperture settings. If you try to stop down to too small of an aperture opening, it will stop at the minimum setting required to get a proper exposure at your selected ISO.

In my time shooting on Sony mirrorless (Sony A6000 & Sony A7iii), I have never used P mode. It's completely useless, in my opinion, because nobody in 2020 is relying on specific ISO values when they shoot. If one is concerned about complete control of ISO, then Manual Mode is where you should be.

Shutter Priority

This may seem controversial to a few of you, but I assure you it's only because you must be old enough to realize its value back in the days of the DSLR or further back in time to the film era. In 2020, I don't see any value in using this mode. In fact, for me it's as useless as P mode.


There are two main reasons why Shutter Priority is obsolete. First, Sony's automatic focusing has made locking onto moving subjects much easier. Secondly, anyone who's primarily concerned with shutter speeds high and low should be shooting in Manual Mode, where there is much more flexibility and just as easy and quick to use.

The basics first. You select the shutter speed in S mode while the camera determines the correct aperture and ISO (presuming you have the ISO set to auto). The problem with this mode is that your aperture is completely at the mercy of your shutter speed selection. This, in my 2020 playbook, is both unacceptable and unnecessary.

I'll be explaining below in detail why Aperture Priority may be all you need for many situations when shutter speed is a concern or "priority". Obviously, in Manual Mode, shutter speed (or anything you want) is given priority based on your subject matter versus exposure requirements.

For now, let me save you a lot of time and possible frustration when you're shooting exclusively on Sony E mount cameras: Don't waste your time on P and S modes.

The Royal Modes: Manual Mode "The King" and Aperture Priority "The Queen"

As far as I know, I'm the first photographer to refer to these two modes as the Royalty Modes, so don't be confused because you've never heard of the terminology.

In a nutshell, here is how I view both of these modes and how I use them for 100% of all my photography in 2020.

Aperture Priority, the "queen" of the Sony E Mount modes

This is my go-to "automatic" mode in my street photography and most other times while shooting in rapidly-changing lighting conditions, or when lighting conditions aren't so extreme. On a day-to-day basis, I'm estimating I use Aperture Priority at least 70% of the time for general shooting.


I've got a couple personal reasons for this choice but I want to make it perfectly clear that any Sony shooter should be using this mode for most of their shooting needs, especially when shooting outdoors and photographing people in general.

Personal reasons. First, I've invested in Sony lenses and other third party lens options. I shoot only prime lenses, and my focus is people-centric. Because of these personal preferences, I'll tend to shoot with wide open apertures (1.4, 1.8, or 2.8) most of the time when I have an individual subject or multiple subjects at a distance.

Additionally, there's one important feature (the one that makes Shutter Priority obsolete) that Sony added to the Aperture Priority mode. This is the all-mighty ISO AUTO Min. SS feature that is accessible on the first tab in the Sony menu system. This feature is so important that I've programmed it into my Function (Fn) menu for easy access and control. I consider this feature essential when using Aperture Priority. Without it, you can throw everything I said before about Shutter Priority being obsolete out the window.

Set up

I've already written a blog about this feature and how to set it up in your Sony camera. See here: 'Super' Aperture Priority Mode For The Sony A7iii

How I use Aperture Priority

As I've mentioned previously, I photograph people all the time. It's both my passion and my primary job as a photographer. And I'll state this once again because it's vitally important: if you know your subject matter in advance, you'll be better equipped to get the job done because you'll know what settings to dial in. And even if your subject matter isn't primarily people, there's likely a great chance you'll be using Aperture Priority anyway, if not Manual.

My general rule for Aperture Priority is based on the amount of light present. So when I'm walking around trying to capture the action in street photography, I've got two primary concerns. Lighting is always the primary concern followed by what aperture I want to be using in conjunction with quality of light. Then, what's going to be the appropriate minimum shutter speed to get the job done.

My A mode considerations, top-down:

1) What lighting? Bright, low light? Will I be shooting in constantly changing lighting scenarios?

2) What aperture? Am I photographing individuals (when I can open up the aperture all the way to create wonderful background separation)? Or do I want to shoot with something like f8 to capture scenes with a much larger depth of field in order to get everything in better focus. Important in this decision-making process is whether or not there are multiple people facing me, when getting all their eyes in focus is of concern.

3) What's the minimum shutter speed to get the job done? For example, if there is an abundance of light, like in the afternoon of a clear, sunny day, I may be able to set my aperture to f1.8 to shoot street portraits while setting my minimum shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second or higher in order to freeze the action. Likewise, in low light conditions, I could have the same aperture and set the minimum shutter speed down to 1/250 or slower.

Once you learn these three concepts and how they apply to your individual style of shooting (based on subject matter), you'll seldom need to step out of this mode. And when you do, you'll be moving to the King of Modes, Manual.

Manual, the "King" of Sony E Mount modes

This mode is the best mode for any and all kinds of photography. Hands down. It is unquestionably the king of all modes because it lets you control almost every parameter which is needed in order to capture an image. Please note that I'm not referring to manual focus here, but the manual mode (although you can shoot by manual focus in manual mode).

How I use Manual Mode

I don't change my way of thinking when I switch to Manual. I've still got the same concerns that I mentioned above: Lighting, Aperture, and shutter speed. But what Manual does is broaden my horizons with more controls.

The one huge advantage of shooting mirrorless is being able to see your exposure in advance of taking the picture. Hence the "mystery" and confusion of shooting is Manual should be less daunting for beginners because no matter what setting you select to manipulate, you'll be able to see the results immediately in the viewfinder or LCD and be able to adjust accordingly.

One of the common scenarios when I make use of Manual mode almost exclusively is when I'm shooting a subject in direct sunlight, especially during Golden Hour or during times when the sun is at lower angles in the sky.

For example, in the above image of the Koli fishermen, I couldn't use Aperture Priority efficiently because I wanted f1.8 (to separate the men from the bridge) and a more precise shutter speed than what the camera would have determined to balance out the exposure.

A couple things to consider when shooting in Manual when a lot of light is present. Set your ISO to 100. Set your desired aperture. Then, while viewing your scene, use the Shutter Speed wheel to adjust your exposure. What you'll see in the viewfinder or LCD is the picture rapidly going from dark to light or vice versa. So what I ended up with was f1.8, 1/2000 of a second, ISO 100 at 85mm for the above image.

I use the same method when I'm shooting at sunset when my subject is either back-lit (to produce a wonderful silhouette effect) or when facing the sun in order to get proper exposure and skin tones.

Other considerations for Royal Modes

1) Keep an eye on your Auto ISO setting. If it's off, then you won't be getting the most out of your Aperture Priority mode. In fact, it would probably be very detrimental. And although when in Manual the automatic ISO setting can be useful, you won't be able to view the exposure in the way I described above if you leave Auto ISO on: the exposure would just keep adjusting according to your other settings and your screen would look the same (won't go brighter or darker when you adjust the shutter speed).

2) Mode priority: when you go out shooting in general, keep your camera in Aperture Priority at all times until you need Manual override. This way, you won't miss many shots if you forget because Aperture Priority will do a pretty good job in exposing your image no matter how you've programmed your ISO AUTO Min. SS settings.

3) Practice. If you're new to Sony mirrorless cameras, get used to the Royal Modes and shoot with them exclusively. Learn what settings work best for you. Because once you're invested in these cameras and lenses, you'll soon discover that the old ways and old days are gone for good. And once the consumer market moves forward in the not so-distant future, you can bet that there will be an overhaul of the basic architecture on mirrorless systems.

The phasing out of otherwise useful architectures is already happening. Case in point is the focus hold button found on some Sony and third party lenses. I wrote about how this button is now essentially useless and obsolete: What To Do With The Focus Hold Button Now, Sony?

This is precisely why I think it's vitally important to know your subject matter and how you personally prefer to shoot this to make the use of the Royal Modes, as they now stand in 2020. Because everyone shoots differently. But everyone wants great images. Which is why understanding the capabilities of modern settings on Sony mirrorless cameras, and how they differ from the traditional functions of yesteryear, is important in becoming a more capable and professional photographer.

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