Camera basics

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Camera basics: Portrait mode

For this series on camera modes, we picked six common shooting scenarios, some of which require tricky manual adjustments to capture the ideal shot, and took pictures in each scenario: one using the Auto setting, one using the appropriate scene mode, and one on which we manually adjusted the settings. Here's a look at the power of the Portrait Mode:

Usually the first option in your camera's scene mode menu, Portrait mode is built for one of the most common photos you'll take: the head-and-shoulders shot. In most Portrait modes, the camera recognizes the presence of faces in your scene, focuses on them, and adjusts the color in the image to enhance skin tones. In many recent cameras, Auto mode even defaults to Portrait mode settings if it detects a face (or faces) in the shot.

In Portrait mode the camera also tries to narrow the depth of field behind the subject: It keeps the person's face in focus and slightly blurs the background, drawing the viewer's attention to the face and away from distant objects.

Unless you're shooting in broad daylight or a bright indoor setting, Portrait mode usually fires the flash. It does this to bring out detail in the subject's face, but it often reduces the intensity of the flash to avoid overexposing the foreground.

In our three test portraits, the flash was too intense in Auto mode, making the subjects' faces a bit too bright. The high ISO that the camera selected in Auto mode also failed to create much depth in the image. Portrait mode was much better at properly exposing the image and enhancing our subjects' skin tone. The subjects were also nicely separated from the background.

In our manually composed shot, we turned off the flash and tried to harness the power of natural light by using a wide aperture with a slow shutter speed. The result is a portrait that's a little more subtle and natural-looking. Nevertheless, Portrait mode is generally a smart choice for this kind of photo.

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