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I have a Nikon D3300. It has a full-auto mode, various degrees of semi-auto, and a full-manual mode. It also has a box of what you might call "application-specific" modes, for example "landscape", "portrait", "sport", "macro", etc.

Is there any documentation about exactly what these modes do?

Some of them are obvious. "Sport" mode, for example, presumably prioritises a fast shutter speed. The documentation for "portrait" mode talks in vague terms about blurring the background to make the subject stand out — so, reading between the lines, it presumably prioritises a wide aperture. (But who knows? Maybe it also changes the white-balance or something?)

But what about, say, "landscape" mode? The documentation states that it turns the flash off. But what else does it do? Without knowing specifically what it does, it's difficult to know what it might actually be useful for. ("Landscapes" is somewhat vague. And who knows, maybe it's also suitable for tapestries or something?)

The "effects" menu houses a bunch of options like "oil painting" which are clearly post-processing effects. But what about "hi-key" and "lo-key"? Does that just change the exposure metering? Or does it actually post-process the image to alter the brightness curve or something?

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    All of the scene modes for which your questions dwells the most on are also "Automatic" modes. The Semi-automatic modes are P, S, and A. – Michael C Feb 13 '16 at 16:06
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    In my opinion, if you wonder what these actually do, you are the kind of photographer who is better off not using them. – Carsten S Feb 13 '16 at 16:06
  • The manual describes what each setting does in terms of its effects, but not in terms of specifc camera settings. That may be because the algorithms used to determine settings for scene modes are more complex than just small aperture, no flash; IOW they may be more than simple presets and an accurate description could go on for several pages. Also the target audience for the scene modes is people who don't really want to get involved in the specific parameters. – Caleb Feb 13 '16 at 19:48
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Is there any documentation about exactly what these modes do?

These "application-specific" modes are doing exactly what you would expect :

  • Portrait : big aperture for shallow depth of field, use of the flash for fill-in if the scene is "dark" (desired effect : making the subject "pop out" the picture)
  • Macro : use the shallowest depth of field possible and some help for focusing (same effect as portrait, but more intense)
  • Landscape : small aperture for focused image from foreground to background, no flash (you want to see everything in focus)
  • Sport : high shutter speed to freeze movement, may use continuous AF and flash (action in "pause").

They are supposed to be better than the "auto" mode because they introduce a kind of technical knowledge than "beginners" lack. After those modes, the "next step" in terms of photographic knowledge would probably be use of the "advanced shooting modes" : aperture priority and shutter priority.

If you are a beginner, it's probably a little better to use those "application-specific" modes than the auto mode, but it's only a small step. If you are looking for a bigger step, using the "advanced shooting modes" (also called PSAM) will make you understand the basics of photography, thus making a better photographer of you.

As for the famous manual mode, I think it best used in a studio, in a controlled environment. Many people consider that being a "pro" is using manual mode all the time. This is wrong for a number of reasons...

Here are some interesting links to good questions/answers :

The "effects" menu houses a bunch of options like "oil painting" which are clearly post-processing effects.

Those "effects" are indeed post-processing effects but I'm not familiar with them. The easiest way to know exactly what they are doing would be to test them. I would recommend to not use them and prefer post-processing tools on your computer, such as Lightroom, Darkroom, Photoshop, Gimp... Such effects have a lots of parameters and you probably can't change most (if any) of them on your DSLR. A good example is the conversion to back & white : look at Tips for making black and white conversions in post-processing?.

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    Most cameras also do some adjustment to the color profile or picture style in some or all "scene" modes. Pink skin tones for "Portrait" as well as wider aperture. Rich ,vivid greens and blues for "Landscape" along with the narrower aperture. Warmer ambient lighting and slow shutter sync for "Night Portrait", etc. – Michael C Sep 13 '16 at 21:42
  • Why using "M" mode is bad? I see only the one reason: it takes usually more time. – Andriy Kryvtsun Sep 14 '16 at 14:37
  • I never said that "M" mode should be avoided (What advantages does manual mode have over aperture priority mode?) but many beginners think that all pros are using it for each shoot. It's wrong to think so. – Olivier Sep 14 '16 at 17:24
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Landscape probably stops the lens down a bit more, for greater depth of field? And selects a more vivid color profile (uses the profile named Landscape).

Get the free PDF D3300 "Reference Manual" from http://downloadcenter.nikonimglib.com/en/products/21/D3300.html

It is a much larger, much more complete manual than the smaller User Manual.

The big mode difference is this: The Auto mode is fully automatic everything, like a compact camera. About all the user can do is to aim it and and press the shutter button. Specifically, Auto mode includes auto exposure, Auto ISO, Auto White Balance, and a color profile. Auto everything. The scene modes are the same, also full Auto, but with minor tweaks, like faster shutter speeds for action.

The A and S modes are auto exposure, but user selects specific choices of aperture or shutter speed. P mode sets both automatically. Manual mode sets neither. The difference from Auto is that in A, S, P, or M, the user can set Auto ISO or Auto White Balance, but these can also be turned off in these modes. They cannot be turned off in Auto. Also the color profile (like Vivid) can be selected in A, S, P, M.

Also the internal flash does not automatically pop up in A, S, P, M. Open the flash door if you want flash, leave it closed if you do not.

  • FWIW, I already read the reference manual cover-to-cover. It explains many, amy things that the printed manual does not. But it still doesn't really say much about the custom modes. Oh well... I guess I'll just ignore them. – MathematicalOrchid Feb 15 '16 at 18:29
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Without knowing specifically what it does, it's difficult to know what it might actually be useful for.

It's for landscapes.

("Landscapes" is somewhat vague. And who knows, maybe it's also suitable for tapestries or something?)

The point of those modes is that they are good for a specific purpose. Asking what other situations this mode is also suitable for defeats the purpose.

The questions you are asking hint at a strong desire to have more control over the camera. Use manual mode, program mode, aperture priority, or shutter speed priority instead.

There's no point in becoming knowledgeable about the application specific automatic modes in terms of "I want these particular settings, so I use the landscape mode, because that would create these settings in this scenario", because the bold modes above allow you to dial in the values you are looking for directly.

As another example, imagine somebody using manual mode all the time. (you know, because that's what the pro's are using) But when all you do in manual mode is dialling in the shutter speed to get a "correct" exposure in terms of what the camera metered while leaving the aperture untouched, you are essentially doing aperture priority by hand.

The application specific modes are great if you don't care or don't know about the internal settings that are associated with them. Knowing the settings can be an obstacle if you have no clue about them and rather abstract them into some category like "landscape". But you do care and do know about the settings, which means that the abstraction of "landscape" becomes the obstacle for you.

  • While the advice is reasonable, I believe it does not address the question as asked. OP is specifically asking what camera settings are changed by these modes. – Ross Millikan Feb 13 '16 at 16:11
  • @RossMillikan true, I didn't feel like stuffing all that in a comment. Please flag it as "not an answer". – null Feb 13 '16 at 16:18
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Is there any documentation about exactly what these modes do?

Nope. That's why more advanced photographers who want more control over exposure and processing tend to avoid scene modes and to shoot in RAW. Scene modes generally only affect JPEG images.

While there will be documentation in the manual about what the mode was designed to do and how they envision it being used, they aren't going to give you the specifics on exactly what numbers of which settings are being used. They're basically designed for the convenience of more casual shooters who don't want to learn to think through exposure or do post-processing. Sports, landscape, aquarium, beach, etc. Match the scene to what you want.

But what about, say, "landscape" mode? The documentation states that it turns the flash off. But what else does it do?

Chances are good that it's designed for classic landscape shooting--scenery at a distance. Aperture will be stopped down for sharpness and increased depth of field, white balance will probably be set for daylight or cloudy, processing might increase saturation. ISO will try to be as low as possible for the lowest amount of noise, and probably shutter speeds are kept in the handholding-safe range. But who knows?

... what about "hi-key" and "lo-key"? Does that just change the exposure metering? Or does it actually post-process the image to alter the brightness curve or something?

Chances are good it probably does both. Scene modes can control nearly everything in the camera--exposure settings, processing, metering, autofocus modes, etc. But the only way we can figure out what they might be doing is to read the description of what they're supposed to do and then reason backwards.

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From program mode P basically this:

Portrait: Drops shutter speed to what camera thinks is lowest setting to handhold, usually 1/60 sec for 55mm lens if 100 mm lens used then somthing like 1/125. It sets the lowest apeture lens is capable of at its used focal lenght, for 2.8 lens 2.8. Sets lowest ISO it can that will balance exposure. Shifts colour to favour skin tones (pinks). Lowers contrast. Processes in camera photo with soft/blur filter. Auto flash if camera thinks its necessary.

An exercise shooting somthing using P record settings and then shoot same with scene modes taking note of each settings change and flash activation or not will show you what the camera does for each of the scene modes.

Cheers

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