Liz Nyland of Guilty Kitchen goes over one of the most basic food photography skills - understanding your camera's exposure modes.  It's time to leave auto behind!

Food Photography Basics: Understanding Camera Modes | Food Bloggers of Canada

For more help with photography check out our entire Food Photography Archive.

When Ethan, Melissa and Mardi asked me to write an article on beginners photography, I was confused....and flattered. Why me? My photos aren't the best. I often get rejected from food porn sites such as Foodgawker and Tastespotting. In fact 9 times out of 10 I have to resubmit two or more times. So why would anyone want my advice?

So I went back to the beginning of my blog and I did a little research on myself and I reflected on where I've come from, how far I've made it in two years. It's been a long journey. Here are some of my very first photos from my blog:

Bowl of blueberries, bowl of eggs    Blackberry Tart    Taco Assembly

I had a new camera (a Nikon D60), a stock lens (18-55mm), and no idea what I was doing. I loved food and I wanted to photograph it, so I jumped right in.

Then I realized my photos didn't look the way I imagined them to in my head. They didn't have any oomph, they didn't reflect any feeling of emotion and they just didn't cut it.

So I sat down and I read my manual, front to back. I Googled countless websites for help in any number of topics, lighting, camera settings, camera basics, setting up props, how to make the food look good, etc. And I absorbed information. I engaged in the communities on Flickr and asked the stupid questions.

I put a little money into it bit by bit. I bought props at the Salvation Army and other thrift stores, I collected friends and family's throw away kitchen linens, I bought paper and white card stock to use as reflectors from dollar stores.

Leave Auto Exposure Mode Behind

I went from the full Auto setting to manual in a matter of months. And my photos stared looking more like this:

Butternut Squash RisottoPoppyseed Lemon Cupcake


Understanding Camera Exposure Modes

I'll be honest with you. There is no shortcut to great photos. Learning to use your camera, be it a point and shoot or a digital SLR is not going to be easy. You have to read your manual first.

Every camera is different and each has their own intricacies. A good first step is getting out of the habit of using the auto programmed modes, which are usually labelled as little pictures of mountains, running people and the very basic Auto mode.

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Learning to use the semi-manual options or "exposure modes", most often labelled P, S and A on Nikons, Sonys and Olympus cameras and P, TV and AV on Canons and Pentaxes. P stands for programmed auto, S (TV) stands for shutter priority and A (AV) stands for aperture priority. Let's explain these first.

Lime Margarita

Programmed Auto Mode

In P mode, the camera adjusts the shutter and aperture for optimal exposure but the user can choose different combinations of the two to achieve the same exposure. Confused yet? Basically the difference between Auto and P modes are this: in Auto, the camera chooses everything (flash, white balance, ISO, etc.), in P mode you can control whether the flash fires, how high the ISO value and also the white balance (we'll get into these next).

Shutter Priority Mode

In S (TV) mode (Shutter Priority) the user can choose the shutter speed to achieve certain effects in low light or capturing fast moving sporting events and the camera chooses the rest of the settings.

Aperture Priority Mode

In A (AV) mode (aperture priority) the user chooses the aperture of the lens and the camera choose the rest. What is aperture? Aperture is the size of the opening inside the lens, basically the entry point for light. The wider the opening, the more light is let in. Also aperture creates that fuzzy background look (or bokeh).

And then, there is my favourite: M (full manual mode). We will discuss using Manual mode in a future post, but for now, get out there, read your manuals and start using those semi-manual modes

More Reading

This article was written and photographed by Elizabeth Nyland, author of the food blog Guilty Kitchen.  She is a photographer, chef, fitness lover, wife and mom to two young children.  Liz lives just outside of Victoria, BC. Twitter: @GuiltyKitchen





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Bravo Liz.This is a perfect article for those looking to improve their photography skills and lack the basics. This is a great starting point for those who want to understand how to make a picture and how light works in a picture. Getting off of auto is the first way to “learn” and your camera mode tuturial will certainly help. I wish I had something like this to read when I started.


I’m going to be following this with the utmost of interest. I just bought a Nikon P500 with 36x wide angle zoom. I figured it was the best camera for me without going into the DSLR’s. Some old dogs don’t learn new tricks too easily. LOL In particular I’m interested in learning more about the use of the aperture and shutter features and have taken to reading the manual as well as other photography sites. Unfortunately, the manual for the P500 does not come in hard copy (unless I chose to print it out from the CD provided) and can be a pain when a quick reference is needed. I guess you could say I’m a visual person in that I tend to learn quicker when I’m shown as opposed to reading. As far as learning more about taking better quality pictures, I like to see comparative shots with the better quality image having the features of the shot listed, i.e. exposure, shutter speed etc. I’ve used the A mode on the camera and set the aperture both higher and lower yet I can’t seem to get a shot with the main subject in clear focus and the background fading. Looking forward to your next entry!,

Rob Hambly

Try zooming in more Paula…. The more zoom the better the depth (background fade)… Keep the Aperture on the lowest setting 9smallest number) possible. A combination of wide aperture small number) and zooming creates good depth

Cookin' Canuck

Great post, Elizabeth! I agree that it’s best to practice in one of the exposure modes to start (AV typically seems to be the best for food). However, I will say that my little photo world changed when I learned to shoot on Manual. I love the control and understanding it gives me. Can’t wait to see your post on Manual!


Great post.

I have just had a career change and am planing on devoting as much time as I can into learning about my camera.

I took photography in junior high so have the basics but it has been a long time.

I look forward to getting back onto photography and making some great pictures!


Wow what an improvement in your photos. I’m saving up for a “real” camera (I’ve just got a point and shoot at the moment) so this advice is perfect for a beginner like me

Aimee White

So helpful, thank you!

I’ve been learning by trial and error over the past several months and have seen great improvements, but I know I’m not using my camera to the best of its ability. Like Paula, I’m a visual learner, so without someone to show me some of these things, it’s all a little difficult to compute. You, however, have done a great job of breaking it all down for us. I’m going to dive into Manual mode and see what I can come up with; feeling inspired!

Thanks again! Look forward to future posts!


I’m so happy I stumbled on to these posts. I’ve been blogging for a while now, but just started taking photos – really out of necessity. One can’t really have a food blog without photos of food! Your first pics remind me of my own. I’m in that process now of reading everything I can find. Learning. There is so much to learn. Thanks for the post. I’m looking forward to reading the rest!!

Markus Mueller

I’ve just started a food blog and have quickly realized just how important learning to use your camera is. It really isn’t as easy as it looks! These posts on food photography have really given me some great ideas and tips though and I cant wait to try some of them! So far it’s been a lot of trial and error!

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