When we review camcorders, we usually mention the range of Auto-Exposure (AE) modes available with a particular model - sometimes also called Scene modes. But although the names given to these modes are descriptive enough to tell you when you might consider using them, knowing precisely what they do is another story. So this week we thought it was high time we explained what the most common AE modes actually do.
The Common AE Modes
Although professionals prefer to configure their camcorders manually, which we will touch upon later in this article, consumer models don't always provide all the possible manual settings. This is where AE modes come in, offering a kind of halfway house between fully automatic and fully manual. Instead of leaving things entirely up to the camcorder, an AE mode weights the settings for specific conditions, which will hopefully improve the end results.
Sports is one of the AE modes you're most likely to use on a regular basis, especially if your camcorder has no manual control over shutter speeds. As the title suggests, it's aimed at shooting fast-moving objects, such as at sports events. It reduces blur by setting the shutter as high as possible, then adjusts the exposure level accordingly. This makes it essentially an automated version of shutter priority mode found on digital still cameras. However, you can't use a particularly high shutter speed in low light, so in these conditions Sports mode probably won't achieve particularly different results to fully automatic settings.
The way Portrait mode works is a little more complicated. A side effect of using a faster shutter speed is that a wider aperture will be required as well, to allow the same amount of light in during the shorter time the shutter is open. In turn, a side effect of a wider aperture is a shorter depth of field, so only objects at a certain distance are in focus, not those closer or further away. This is desirable for portraits, as it concentrates attention on the subject by softening the background. So Portrait mode increases shutter speed and opens the aperture to create this short depth of field. It may also throw in some electronic softening, to improve skin tones.
However, to use Portrait mode effectively, you will need to ensure your subject is in fact what the camcorder has focused upon. So either place the person in the centre of the frame or use manual focusing - assuming your camcorder lets you operate this at the same time as its AE modes.