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Photographing Interiors and Products Part 5: DSLR Shooting Modes

This is part 5 of my Photographing Interiors and Products series. This series is designed to help you get your DSLR camera off automatic mode and start taking beautiful photos! Part 5 covers the DSLR shooting mode to use when photographing interiors and products. This post contains affiliate links, which helps me provide great free content for you all! You can read more about that here. Thank you!

Photographing Interiors and Products Part 5:

DSLR Shooting Modes

We’ve talked about exposure basics and aperture, shutter speed and ISOessential gear, and composition. Are you still with me? Good. Because we’re finally getting in to working with your actual DSLR 😉 Let’s talk about the DSLR shooting mode to use when photographing interiors and products.

graphic about photographing products and interiors part 5 DSLR shooting modes

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Scene Modes and Automatic

On your camera’s dial, there are lots of different modes ranging from fully automatic to fully manual. My camera also has special “scene modes” (you might have heard these called “icon modes” or something similar on your camera or in the past) that have preset settings. The common ones are portrait, sport, and landscape. The Nikon D7100 actually has 16 scene modes, and do you want to know how many I use? Zero.

I’m going to make this simple: I never shoot on automatic, and I never shoot on any of the scene modes. I don’t want my camera deciding what settings to use for me, and that’s what these modes do.

Imagine you were taking a photo of a cat and a baby (I’ve done this, like, a million times.) And you select portrait mode. This tells your camera to use a shallow depth-of-field (low f-stop) to get that nice blurred background. However, in this case, it focuses on the baby and blurs the cat. Gah, I wanted both because both are amazing!

baby and a cat on the bed
Amazing cat but blurry cat. Amazing and clear baby.

As always, I want to take control of my camera’s settings. That’s definitely not to say that you won’t have fun experimenting with the different scene/icon modes on your camera…you just don’t want to rely on them exclusively if you want complete control. And why drop all that cash on a piece of equipment like a DSLR unless you want to really get the most out of it? Alright, off of the soap box.

Priority and Manual Modes

There are three “semi-manual” modes on your DSLR—those are call the “priority” modes: program, shutter priority, and aperture priority.

  • Program Mode: I do not use Program Mode, which allows you to set the white balance and ISO while setting the aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed for you. This could be beneficial in low-light settings, and a Google search will give you about a zillion other reasons why you might want to use Program Mode, but I don’t use it, so I’m not going to talk about it. 🙂 It all just comes back to what I want control over, and just having control over the white balance and ISO isn’t enough for me.
  • Shutter Priority Mode: I also do not use Shutter Priority Mode, which lets you pick the shutter speed and ISO while deciding on the aperture for you. As we discussed last week, focus is an incredibly important part of photography composition, so I want to have control of my aperture (how much is in focus!). I’m imagine that Shutter Priority Mode could be fantastic for shooting something like a fast-moving kids soccer game, though.
  • Aperture Priority Mode is where you want to start. It’s like a training wheels version of manual, in my opinion. Many photographers even use Aperture Priority Mode over Manual Mode. In Aperture Priority Mode, I choose the aperture and ISO; then my camera selects the appropriate shutter speed for optimal exposure. Aperture Priority Mode still gives you a lot of freedom and control over your images by helping you learn more about how focus, composition, and depth-of-field contribute to beautiful images. It’s also great in situations where I don’t have complete control, like shooting people or moving objects.

But for situations where I have complete control, like interior shots, project shots, step-by-step tutorial shots, landscape shots, product shots, shots of my cats, and flat lays, I shoot in Manual Mode. Really, I shoot in Manual Mode 95% of the time because it’s fun and I could do it in my sleep now.

How I Shoot in Manual Mode: Start to Finish

When I shoot in Manual Mode, I typically set my f-stop (aperture) first based on what I’m shooting and how much I want to be in focus. Remember, high f-stop = more in focus, low f-stop = less in focus. Next I look at the exposure meter in the camera’s viewfinder. This shows me how over or under exposed the image will be with my current settings. Take a few over and underexposed shots to experiment. (Check your camera’s manual or Google “where is my camera’s light meter <your camera make and model here>” for where the exposure/light meter is. I live and die by the light meter. LIVE AND DIE.)

Here’s how it looks on the Nikon D7100‘s rear LCD screen, but I always reference the one in the viewfinder when I’m shooting. (It’s in the bottom center when you look through the viewfinder eyepiece and looks the same. As the photo is overexposed, you’ll see ticks increase to the right on the light meter. As it goes to the left, that means it’s underexposed.

DSLR camera back
Photo C/O Nikon

I then make adjustments to shutter speed and ISO settings and watch what the meter does. If I want a certain f-stop and ISO that will require a much slower shutter speed, I’ll use a tripod and remote to prevent blur. Another reason I like Manual Mode is that I typically like lighter, brighter photos. Sometimes the “proper exposure” my Nikon D7100 selects isn’t bright enough for my preferences. In Manual Mode, I tell it what I want based on a bit of trial and error. I shoot a lot of options and decide what I like best in post-processing.

Let’s walk through one photo from start to finish 

Say I want to shoot my mom’s fireplace Christmas mantle. First I shot it in automatic with the flash.

dark fireplace

Then I shot it in Aperture Priority Mode. I selected an f-stop (aperture) of f/16 and an ISO of 200. I used the four-way buttons to set my focus point to the brick on the fireplace. This is important to note because my camera is now reading the light for this area.

To get enough light, my camera uses a shutter speed of 1/10 seconds. Since the shutter speed is too slow to trust my hands, I grab my tripod and get the photo. Much better! But I needed to crank my ISO to 2000 to get this shot since there wasn’t much light. It’s also a tad dark. I could edit it, but I prefer to get it as close to right as possible when I shoot and then edit.

white painted brick fireplace

I decide to move to manual mode to lower my ISO to 640, decrease my shutter speed to 3 seconds, and keep my aperture the same. Ah, yes. This is the one I’ll keep. And I’ll usually take a few more at different exposures for good measure.

painted white brick fireplace
Final shot I settled on.

The light in this area was actually pretty favorable when I took these photos, so the differences between aperture priority and manual modes are subtle. Here’s a side-by-side comparison.

before and after showing the difference between aperture Priority Mode and Manual Mode
Left: Aperture Priority Mode. Right: Manual Mode

Here are a few other comparisons using mom’s Christmas decor—and in areas with more challenging lighting situations. This little table was shot toward a window, which can be a bit of a pickle.

Christmas display on a table
dark photo of a christmas display
Aperture priority. Super dark.
pretty Christmas display

And one of the more challenging things to shoot, a Christmas tree with its lights on in a dim room next to a bright window. Again, flash, aperture priority, and manual:

Lit up Christmas tree in a living room
Boo flash.
Lit up Christmas tree in a living room
Aperture priority mode not really cutting the mustard.
Lit up Christmas tree in a living room
Beautiful! Would have looked even better if I’d tidied the room, but the point was to illustrate the light 🙂

Next up…

Photographing Interiors and Products Part 6:

Essential Tips for Photographing Interiors

Next we’re going to get into the meat of shooting interiors and talk about the best practices. Are you excited to really get to work now?!

Check out the previous posts in this series:

1: Exposure Basics and Aperture

2: Shutter Speed and ISO

3: Essential Photography Tools

4: Focus, Composition, and Cropping

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