Why Aperture Priority is the Most Preferred Shooting Mode by Photographers

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Photographers have their own shooting preferences. Some like using flash, some don’t. Some love to play around with depth of field, while others want motion blur and freeze motion effects more. If you've taken time to understand the use of M A S P, or M Av Tv P on the top dial on your DSLR or bridge camera, then you know that it has something to do with controlling the principal settings of your camera, primarily shutter speed and aperture combinations. And like any other technical setting, we all have a preferred shooting mode.

Among the four settings, Aperture Priority seems to be the most used by photographers. Perhaps it’s because wide depth of field is such a fascinating technique to explore. But also because depth of field seems to be a more acceptable way to generally balance exposure than a slow shutter or higher ISO. This mode is more than just about prioritizing depth of field over shutter speed. Aperture Priority gives you the advantage of shooting speed, control over technique, and the best exposure all at the same time.

Before we get into why the A mode works for many, let us first get things in perspective. All of the four shooting modes require you to manually adjust ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, metering mode, and some others. Therefore our focus is simply on two major things, getting the right exposure combination matched with your preferred technique. There are four basic camera techniques – wide of depth of field, shallow depth of field, motion blur, and freeze motion.

071018-A-6145T-002 by Expert Infantry, on Flickr

When Is Aperture Priority King?
Aperture priority initiates the best exposure which is not always true with Shutter Priority which is evident in low luminance situations. It also offers versatility with camera techniques that is not common in Program mode. And it offers a shooting speed faster than Manual.

In Aperture priority, if you want the best exposure with the fastest shutter speed, you simply need to set your dial to the maximum aperture. You can do this even without looking at the settings. Remember bigger aperture means more light coming in. If you have a kit lens, it’s usually at f/3.5 at the widest angle. It may seem that having an f/3.5 aperture is limiting, but this limit is actually the biggest advantage of Aperture Priority over Shutter Priority.

Remember that you have three options to increase exposure – a large aperture, a slow shutter, or a more sensitive sensor. A sensitive sensor means a high ISO, setting which also means more image noise. A slow shutter can mean a lot of motion blur which isn't usually preferred for general shooting purposes. Therefore, a larger aperture is used more often.

With Aperture Priority, when you reach the maximum aperture limit, the camera will stop at that setting. It is like the camera  saying, “this is the best I can do, this is as far as I can go”. Even if the shutter speed can still go further faster, the camera limits you to go further because your aperture can't go wider. You will further appreciate this limit as we compare it with Shutter Priority.

VIVRE AU VIETNAM : LE REPAS DU CHAUDRONNIER by louis.foecy.fr, on Flickr

Compared with Shutter Priority
With shutter priority, you are not always guaranteed the best possible exposure. Imagine shooting indoors during the day where light is limited. Let’s say that you can have an aperture-shutter combination of f/4 and 1/30th of a second to get the right exposure. You also have a lens with maximum aperture of f/4. What happens if your preferred shutter speed technique requires you to have 1/125th of a second?

If you know how to calculate exposure values, the difference between 1/30 and 1/125 is two stops. Therefore at 1/125, you need to have your aperture set to f/2 to have the equivalent exposure. The problem is that your maximum aperture is at f/4 because of your lens limitation.

(If you're not yet familiar with exposure value combinations, it will be advantageous for you to learn it.)

When you change your shutter speed to 1/125, your camera will allow that change. But because of the aperture limitation, your aperture size remains at f/4. Since you moved your shutter by two stops, something else has to change to compensate for the difference.

If you have your ISO set to Auto, then it will compensate by increasing the ISO by 2 stops. But you don’t want that most of the time do you? Most often, you don't want ISO on auto. With ISO being constant, your camera forces your exposure value to change. The result is that your image will be 2 stops underexposed.

Street Magazin by Thomas Leuthard, on Flickr

Unfortunately, your shutter speed won't stop when you reach your aperture limit. It will only stop at the minimum and maximum shutter speeds allowable by your camera. Therefore exposure is affected when you try to go beyond the aperture limit. But you won't normally notice it until you reach it. This then gives you more work to do and more settings to change.

Shutter priority works best when the light is strong. On a bright sunny day, you can go with 1/500 at f/11 with no problems. Therefore you don't have to worry about reaching the aperture limit. When the luminance is low you have to consider the possibility of hitting beyond the maximum aperture.

Because of this, Aperture Priority has the advantage of speed. If you want a wider depth of field or if you want to do some motion blur with aperture priority, just move your aperture dial towards a smaller aperture while checking the aperture or shutter speed values, respectively. You don't necessarily have to change modes.

Trams d'Hanoi (Vietnam) by Alain GAVILLET, on Flickr

Compared with Manual
Manual is an awesome mode because you have precise control of your camera settings. However, having everything in full manual also means you need to think and adjust everything – exposure, camera technique, shutter and aperture settings, metering among others. This can result in a little delay in shooting.

With Aperture Priority, you only need to focus on a couple of things. First, since the shutter speed automatically matches with the aperture combination, you are already assured of getting the right exposure combination based on the metering system of the camera. Therefore you only need to mind your meter controls and preference in technique.

Manual has the advantage of precision settings and is also perfect for flash photography while Aperture Priority has the advantage of speed. There is an instance however where Manual may have the advantage in speed over either Aperture, Shutter, or Program mode. It is when light is too unbalanced, and metering becomes a little off. The manual shooter in this case, with the right knowledge of exposure values, will only have to compensate by adjusting shutter speed or aperture values to adjust exposure. The semi-auto shooter will have to change exposure compensation, metering mode, or both to do so.

IMAG2184 by Johnson d, on Flickr

Compared with Program Mode
Program mode is the closest thing to Auto except that it gives you control over several settings including ISO, White Balance, and your on-cam flash. It also allows some control of aperture and shutter speed by giving you suggested combinations of these two prime exposure settings. This makes Program mode the best setting for capturing moments where you don’t have very much time to think. If you can live with simply being able to capture moments with the correct exposure regardless of technique then this mode is for you. Read this article about Program mode to appreciate it better.

But having control over technique is one thing that photographers want. Isn't it that most of us became enthusiasts because we were amazed with background blur and bokeh, light trails from cars, or sea water that looked like clouds? That is why Aperture Priority has leverage over Program mode in that regard, since you still have better control over camera techniques, whether it's depth of field or motion.

Further resources on Aperture Priority and Shooting modes

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Karlo de Leon is a travel and lifestyle photographer. He has a knack for understanding how and why things work, taking particular interest in lighting, composition, and visual storytelling. Connect with him on Twitter where he shares his insights, ideas, and concepts on photography, travel, and life in general.

20 thoughts on “Why Aperture Priority is the Most Preferred Shooting Mode by Photographers

  1. Felix Sanchez

    Amazing article. Having a few years of experience I totally recognize the fascination of shooting in aperture mode. From the very first time a got a DSLR in my hands (Canon 550D, May 2010) and until now at least 80% of my photos are shot using this mode.

    During the years, I’ve understood, that shooting wide open isn’t always the best solution, but I very often still find myself considering how to use the aperture mode rather than considering what mode is actually the best for the photo I intend to do.

  2. Jeffrey

    Nice article. I want to expand on one other way of “sharing” control with your camera. In the article you note that all four modes require you to set ISO manually. While technically true, many cameras offer a useful way around this, by setting ISO to auto. My D800 even allows me to set the max ISO (to limit noise to my standards of acceptability) and/or the minimum shutter speed. I can then set the exposure mode to M, lock in a desired aperture or shutter speed, and then control the other setting on the fly–allowing the camera to match ISO to my other settings. You can also use A or S mode, but giving the camera control over two variables can become unpredictable.

    I do not use auto ISO frequently, but when in rapidly changing light with moving subjects, it has proven invaluable.

  3. Karlo de Leon Post author

    Thanks Felix, Dorvaldude and Jeffrey.

    @Jeffrey – I did mention Auto ISO while comparing it with S/T mode but its good you mentioned it. Its a really bad idea though to set ISO to Auto under low light circumstances unless you’re certain it doesn’t go beyond the acceptable noise level. I guess its really just shooter’s preference. Thanks for the share.

  4. shankar Prasad Roy

    Because aperture setting is limited by the lens you use whereas shutter speed is a function of the camera body. There are many shutter speeds compared to few aperture settings. Because there are few options in f stops, therefore you are on safe side by setting aperture and let the camera set the shutter speed.

  5. Brien Sz

    I enjoy the A mode, however I am not an exposure compensation guy and so prefer M. I’ve learned to work quickly with it. I understand the A mode being the prime choice. At the clubs I speak at, the A/Av mode is the top choice among shooters – especially wildlife.

  6. JaVa

    Dear Karlo-
    I tend to use the Shutter Priority mode more than Aperture when hand-holding my camera mainly to prevent the camera from going below (for me) the 1/30th sec SS. This forces me to keep and “eye” on the exposure bar within the view finder when in the heat of the battle (fast-changing light scenarios) and prevent going below that mark and getting camera blur. My fave is actually Manual, by far, in all situations to control exposure for creative results. Tho I like your Aperture explanation, which is also valid, I feel that getting the preferred image result is what should really dictate one’s druthers when using a DSLR. If one has a pro cam such as a D3S or Mark III, etc., then even Auto ISO is not too much of an issue as these cams can easily use higher ISO’s w/o too much worry of that dreaded noise (grain) in the image.
    Better to get the image first, than miss it completely while fooling with the exp. setting, I say! Just don’t overdo “any” of these exp. techniques and one will be fine. f\8 and be there!

  7. Josephine

    great article. I use to only shoot in program mode. Then went straight to manual. Still haven’t mastered it completely. I think I will switch to Aperture Priority for awhile and see if my shots improve.

  8. PaulObo

    I have read several articles on landscape photography. In one book (understanding exposure) the author states that he always uses f18, focuses 1/3 of the way into the scene, recomposes and shoots. When I look at photos I see everything from f4 – f18. Is there a right and wrong??

  9. Lagash

    Im sorry but AV is not the best way to learn photography at all.
    Is just keep trusting the camera to do the work.
    It gets you lazy, not to think almost at all.
    Av is going to fail in every too dark or too bright situation, just because how the camera meter works. Not knowing this is gonna cost you in the field.
    A trained photographer can adjust fstops and shutter on the fly, and get exposition nailed even in changing light situations. Is just matter of thinking and recognizing how many stops of lights are between one area to another.
    You have to spend time and think about your photography to make it better.
    People with cameras preffer Av to manual, photographers dont.
    Im sorry, dont want to sound like a hater or *sshole, is just your opinion is wrong to me.

    1. Karlo de Leon Post author

      Hey Lagash,

      I understand where you are coming from and I have to agree with you that it is best to learn with manual mode. But I was not talking about learning photography. I am talking about the advantage of using AV over other other modes. Manual has its advantages too as well as shutter priority. In an actual shooting situation, these two are handy.

      There is a reason why all Aperture priority and Shutter priority is still available in professional grade cameras, and that’s because it still serves its purpose, otherwise, it should be in there. If I encounter a situation where I’m required to shoot a scene within 10 seconds, I’d rely on Av rather than Manual because it helps me get the shot faster but still using technical sense.. I use Manual extensively too when I have time to shoot.

      It is actually a misunderstanding that Manual mode is superior to Av. Truth is, its just a mode, you still need to know how to work the metering modes and other functions.

  10. MattB

    I’m also a fan of Av mode and on Pentax cameras there’s one more mode that I find very handy that I haven’t seen elsewhere, TAv mode. It gives you manual shutter and aperture but automates ISO. Really great if you have DOF and shutter speed requirements to stick to AND changing light conditions. I love it for sports!

  11. nev

    Lagash wasn’t talking about learning photography, so you were misrepresenting him. Manual is the mode used by photographers who (a) know exactly what they’re doing and (b) want total control. It doesn’t take any longer – if you already know in your hands what the triangle should be for any situation.

  12. TimW

    Near the beginning of the article, the author states with respect to M,A,S,P modes:

    “All of the four shooting modes require you to manually adjust ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, metering mode, and some others.”

    Yet later in the article, when talking about Shutter Priority Mode, the author states:

    “If you have your ISO set to Auto, then it will compensate by increasing the ISO by 2 stops.”

    Am I missing something here?

  13. Karlo de Leon Post author

    Hey TimW, Great question. With the different shooting modes, you have a choice to set the ISO manually or auto, the same way you can set focusing to either manual of auto. When you’re in Auto, ISO is automatically on Auto.

  14. Corina

    Great comprehensive article. Easy to understand. I really enjoyed it. Good job. I’m a novice photographer and I’m reading everything I can to learn more.

    1. Raden Adams

      I mostly shoot birds and other various types of wildlife with a telephoto lens and usually into the forest and under a dark, shaded canopy but with very uneven light because I still have to find where the light can also come through enough for me to even shoot. I would love to shoot in AV because of the use of exposure compensation but its rare that I can because of not having control of the shutter speed and it will drop down below acceptable levels especially when hand holding my gear in low light. I haven’t figured out how you can use AV in this situation. I have used AV in other situations and it is faster to adjust if you are driving around or in a hurry to get a shot and usually with a shorter lens. I got used to shooting in full manual while learning and I much prefer having control over every setting, especially in difficult scenes and situations that are challenging but once you understand your gear, full manual really isn’t difficult at all. Am I missing something? Good read though.

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