Most camcorder models made today sport an automatic exposure (AE) feature. The manufacturers build in this feature in an effort to make it easy for the camera operator to point and shoot in the half-dozen most common conditions. The result, however, provides yet another example of how the road to bewilderment is paved with good intentions.

You control AE, typically, with a wheel located on the camcorder body. This wheel shows several icons which are meant to symbolize various shooting conditions. Trouble is, the icons communicate about as well as hieroglyphics to most people. What, pray tell, does a silhouette of a mountain and a cloud tell us about its associated exposure? What follows, therefore is an attempt to answer the cry for an AE icon interpreter. Go ahead, tear out this page and throw it into your camera bag.

When you boil it all down, each of the AE selections sets two conditions: the shutter speed and the size of the aperture. The relationship of these determines the camera’s light sensitivity, motion sensitivity and depth of field.

Icons vary from one camcorder to the next, but once you grasp the principles at work, you will ascertain which of your camera’s icons is connected with which of the common settings.

Auto or standard auto-exposure mode Meant for most evenly-lit situations, this mode lets the camera set shutter speed and aperture for best exposure and deepest depth of field for the light intensity in the frame as a whole.

For evenly lit scenes. Moderate shutter speed, moderate to small aperture opening.

Sports mode For capturing fast-moving objects with a minimum of blur. This mode sets the shutter speed very fast. Since each frame will therefore get a very short exposure, it must also open the aperture wide enough for a good exposure. Beware: the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. Used outdoors on bright days, however, this setting will keep most subjects in focus.

Reduces blur. Very fast shutter speed, wide aperture.

Picnic mode The purpose of this setting is simply to maximize the depth of field, i.e., to keep both foreground and background objects in sharp focus. This setting “stops down” or shrinks the size of the aperture and sets the shutter speed only so fast as will allow for good exposure. Again, this will work well only for bright scenes; else the shutter must slow so much that the depth of field will shrink.

Keeps subject and background both in focus. Moderate shutter speed, narrow aperture.

Photo mode In a sense, this gives the effect opposite that of “picnic mode.” It reduces the depth of field, throwing the background out of focus. Good for reducing the impact of a distracting background. Photo mode opens the aperture relatively wide and increases the shutter speed so as not to overexpose.

Keeps subject in focus and background out of focus. Fast shutter speed, wide aperture.

Spot light mode For situations where the subject is well lit, but the background is dark. In standard auto-exposure mode the camera would expose for the average light intensity for the whole frame. It would risk overexposing the subject in order to catch some of the background detail. In spot light mode, the camera narrows the aperture in order to properly expose the subject at the risk of underexposing the background. Not a bad thing when the background is unimportant.

Exposes bright subject on dark background. Moderate shutter speed, narrow aperture.

Sunny mode, also called backlight mode This setting compensates for situations in which the background is brighter than the subject. In standard auto-exposure, the camera would close down the aperture to prevent the overexposure of the background. In so doing, however, it would underexpose the subject. Sunny mode opens the aperture wide enough to get a good exposure of the dark subject, intentionally overexposing the background.

Exposes dark subject on bright background. Moderate shutter speed, wide aperture.

Happy shooting, in whatever mode you work.

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.

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