Why Aperture Priority is the Most Preferred Shooting Mode by Photographers | Light Stalking

Why Aperture Priority is the Most Preferred Shooting Mode by Photographers

By Karlo de Leon / September 9, 2019

Co-authored by Dahlia Ambrose

Have you been told that you should only shoot in manual mode? If yes, you need to read this article. Every mode on the camera is there for a reason, and photographers can take advantage of these modes and work efficiently by using the right shooting mode for each scenario. In this article, we will look at why aperture priority is the most preferred shooting mode by photographers.

Andre Furtado

Of course, manual mode lets you take full control of the entire shooting process. However, sometimes you need to be quick so that you do not miss a shot and that is where the other modes, especially the Aperture Priority Mode comes in to use. We have discussed here how the various shooting modes compare with Aperture Priority Mode. We've also seen how the most common shooting situations would benefit the photographer if they make use of this mode.

Photographers have their 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. Take the time to understand the use of the top dial of your cameras (you'll see the letters M A S P, or M Av Tv P). These dials all have something to do with controlling the principal settings of your camera. Primarily these refer to shutter speed and aperture combinations. And like any other technical setting, we all have a preferred shooting mode.

Photographers are always looking for the most efficient ways when making images also ensuring that these methods lead to high-quality images. Among the many settings and other techniques that need to be taken care of, exposure is one of the most critical factors. To get the correct exposure every time, you need to choose the shooting mode based on your shooting situation wisely. Moreover, beginners in photography who find manual mode overwhelming can switch to the other modes. That is until they are comfortable with the basic functions and are skilled enough to jump to manual mode.

Among the four settings that a photographer can choose from the mode dial as discussed above, Aperture Priority is the most used by many photographers for several shooting scenarios. It is a reliable and faster way to achieve correct exposure. Perhaps it's also because wide depth of field is such a fascinating technique to explore. Also, depth of field seems to be a more acceptable way to 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.

What Is Aperture Priority?

Aperture priority is a shooting mode in DSLRs, mirrorless and some compact cameras. In Aperture Priority, the photographer manually chooses the desired aperture value, and the camera then picks the required shutter speed and ISO value (if on auto ISO). The shutter speed and ISO are determined based on the metering system to get the correct exposure. Or, the photographer sets the aperture and ISO, and the camera chooses the right shutter speed for proper exposure.

Agence Olloweb

Aperture priority mode is denoted by the letter “A” on most cameras like the Nikon, Fujifilm, Sony, Panasonic, Pentax, Olympus cameras while the Canon cameras denote them with the letters “Av.”

Before we get into why the “A” mode works for many photographers, let us first get things in perspective. All of the four shooting modes require you to manually adjust ISO, white balanceexposure compensationmetering 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 – wider or greater depth of field, shallow depth of field, motion blur and freezing motion.

When Is Aperture Priority King?

Aperture Priority initiates the best exposure, which is not always the case with Shutter Priority which is evident in low light situations. It also offers versatility with camera techniques that are not common in Program mode. And it offers a shooting speed faster than Manual, which is the reason why it is beneficial.

Depth of field is used by many photographers to tell the story in their images. Using a shallow depth of field helps with drawing viewer's attention towards the subject. This is most applicable to portraits, macro, still life, etc., photography whereas a greater depth of field lets the viewers explore all areas of the frame as in the case of landscape, seascape, architecture, etc. photography.

In Aperture Priority, if you want the best exposure with the fastest shutter speed, you need to set your dial to the widest 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 you have the widest aperture. It may seem that having an f/3.5 aperture is limiting, but this limit is the biggest advantage of Aperture Priority over Shutter Priority.

Remember that you have three options to increase exposure – A wider aperture, a more sensitive sensor, or a slow shutter. 

  1. A wider aperture allows more light to fall on the camera's sensor.
  2. A sensitive sensor means a high ISO setting or value, which also means more image noise. 
  3. Slow shutter speed can mean a lot of motion blur, which isn't ideal for general shooting purposes. Therefore, unless you are doing some long exposure photography, a wider aperture is the way to go.

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 faster, the camera limits you because your aperture can't go wider. You will appreciate this limit as we compare it with Shutter Priority.

When Should You Use Aperture Priority Mode?

In situations where you have a scene with changing light, Aperture Priority is helpful. Once you get the settings right, you can keep shooting without having to think about changing any of the values to get the correct exposure. This is especially useful when shooting events, weddings, wildlife, sports, etc.

Comparing Aperture Priority And 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 a 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 would be advantageous for you to discover 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.

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 usually 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 intense. 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 light 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, you can. All you need to do is 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.

Aperture Priority Compared With Manual Mode

Manual is an excellent 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. Continually thinking about changes can result in a delay in shooting. Manual is best when the light or the scene is not changing quickly. It is most useful when you have time to make adjustments to the settings on your camera, especially when you shoot with a tripod.

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 edge 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.

Aperture Priority 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-camera 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 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.

Let's now look through a few scenarios where Aperture Priority mode can be beneficial

When To Use Aperture Priority 

1. When Shooting Landscapes:

With landscapes, we need a greater depth of field so that everything in the scene is in sharp focus. So depending on the lens' sweet spot just set the aperture value to anything between f/7 and f/16, use the lowest ISO possible and either use hyperfocal distance or focus one third into the scene for sharp photographs. With these values set, the camera chooses the best shutter speed based on the light in the landscape you are looking to photograph. Moreover, with your camera on a tripod for landscape photography, you don't need to worry about shutter speed. Unless, of course, you want to avoid distractions due to some elements moving in the frame.

2. When Shooting Portraits:

Aperture priority is best when you are shooting in natural light or when shooting using continuous lights. In this scenario, the camera will be able to choose the right shutter speed for you based on the available light. With portraits, it will be easier because photographers will be looking for shallow depth of field most of the time. This means setting to wide aperture values and shooting using slightly longer lenses like 85mm to 105mm or sometimes longer. When it comes to using artificial lights like strobes or flashes, aperture priority may not help, and in that case, you will need to use manual mode.

3. When Shooting Sports and Wildlife:

When shooting sports and wildlife, you cannot always shoot at very wide apertures. Values between f/2.8 to f/5.6 will work well, ensuring the subject in sharp focus and the background blurred. You will need a nominal shutter speed, so you do not have motion blur ruining the images. The best setting would be to have your ISO on auto or on an acceptable higher limit and to set the shutter speed to be higher than 1/1000 s or 1/2000 s depending on the type of sports or the animal you are shooting. Remember, all these settings are based on each shooting scenarios where the photographer will need to observe, analyze the situation and make the right decisions in choosing the values for shooting.

4. When Shooting Weddings and Events:

Wedding and event photography are some of the scenarios when the photographer needs to be quick with their settings and not miss a moment. Special events are another situation where Aperture Priority comes in to help where the photographer can choose the desired aperture value and continue shooting even when the light changes. Make sure to set the camera to keep the maximum ISO setting to the desired value. Finally, make sure the shutter speed is fast enough, as you'll be taking handheld shots. A rule of thumb for shutter speed is 1 over the focal length of your lens – e.g. a 50 mm lens will have a minimum shutter speed of 1/50 of a second for handheld shots. Note that with 1/(2x focal length) you should be ok.  

5. When Shooting Streets:

When shooting street photos, set the aperture so the camera can make changes to the ISO and shutter speed based on the available light in the scene. Usually, for street portraits, it is better to have aperture values between f/2.8 and f/4, whereas for street photos where you will need to capture the entire scene have aperture values between f/5.6 and f/9. With auto ISO and shutter speed settings, you can always instruct the camera to maintain an ISO range and a shutter speed greater than a particular value.

6. When Shooting Macro:

For macro photography, you will need a greater depth of field to have your subject is in sharp focus. If your subject is moving, you will need to set a fast shutter speed. So set the aperture to the desired value, usually between f/5.6 to f/11 and then set limits to ISO values depending on the shutter speed as you do not need to record motion blur and ruin the shot. 

When To Avoid Aperture Priority Mode

As much as Aperture Priority Mode is excellent for many types of photography, there are scenarios when you want to avoid using Aperture Priority Mode.

  1. Low light situations – shooting in low light conditions can be tricky with Aperture Priority Mode as the shutter speed can slow down, causing blurry images.
  2. For HDR, you will need to take bracketed shots, and for this, it is best to use manual mode.
  3. When shooting panoramastimelapse, and for focus stacking, it is best to use manual mode and completely avoid any other modes of shooting.
  4. Posed portraits outdoors or in-studio can be done in manual mode. Here you will be having plenty of time to control the settings manually, and you have control over the shooting situation. 
  5. If you are taking photos of light trails or night sky photography, avoid Aperture Priority mode. In this scenario, you will need to set your camera manually to get the results you want.
  6. Aperture Priority only allows shutter speeds of up to 30 seconds. Any photography that requires more than 30 seconds of exposure (bulb mode) will need to be done in manual mode.
  7. If you use flash for photography, to maintain a balance between the light from the flash and ambient light, you will need to shoot in manual mode.

So these scenarios require shooting in manual mode. With long exposure landscape photography, aperture priority works fine for exposure time up to 30 seconds. Anything longer than 30 seconds, and you may need to switch to manual mode to use the bulb mode.

How To Shoot In Aperture Priority Mode?

Here are some simple steps you need to follow to shoot in Aperture Priority Mode. 

  • Rotate the mode dial and choose Aperture Priority Mode – It is “Av” for Canon cameras and “A” for most other cameras.
  • Set the desired aperture value depending on the depth of field you are looking to have in the final image.
Adam Birkett
  • If you want to use exposure compensation, then choose the proper exposure compensation values. Also, take care of the metering mode based on the scenario/light conditions you are shooting in.
  • In the shooting menu, set the ISO value making sure you get acceptable shutter speed. So it is best to assess the light situation in the scene and then set the ISO value when shooting. It is advisable to have the lowest ISO possible. 
  • You can also leave ISO on “Auto ISO” as there is an option to set maximum sensitivity and minimum shutter speed which is great. Many cameras also have intelligent auto ISO that keeps an eye on your focal length and makes the shutter speed faster, to avoid blur.
  • Keep an eye on the shutter speed – depending on the above values. When you half-press the shutter release button, your camera will choose a shutter speed for you based on the light situation. You need to check this to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to get the image you want without blurry movements. If not, make changes to aperture and/or ISO ranges to get an acceptable shutter speed. 

Note: In any case, it is not recommended to have a shutter speed slower than 1/100 of a second for still subjects and 1/500 of a second for slow-moving subjects. Depending on the speed with which subjects move, you may need shutter speeds up to 1/2000 of a second or above. For all scenarios, always have a shutter speed faster than 1/(2 x focal length) to be on the safer side and avoid blurry images when hand holding your camera.

  • Have fun shooting in Aperture Priority mode.

What Are The Advantages Of Shooting In Aperture Priority Mode?

  1. Since you have full control over the aperture value, it allows you to have control over the depth of field. Therefore, you have creative control over the look of the final images.
  2. It helps you to shoot faster as you just set the aperture, ISO and let the camera select the shutter speed for you based on the light in the scene. This is faster compared with manual mode.
  3. Aperture Priority is a semi-auto mode but gives manual control over your exposure in that you set the aperture and ISO limits. 
  4. You can record a constant exposure in changing lighting conditions because, in this mode, the camera sets the shutter speed based on changing light. You do not have to do it manually each time. 
  5. With the right metering and exposure compensation settings, you are likely to have 100% of your images correctly exposed (well most of the time).
  6. Instead of checking the camera and dialling back and forth for exposure settings, you have more time to focus on the scene and photograph without ruining the exposure and not missing important moments.
  7. When travelling, switch to Aperture Priority mode and click away without much pressure.

Final Thoughts

Having control over technique is one thing that photographers want. Isn't that why most of us became enthusiasts because we are amazed by background blur and bokeh, light trails from cars, or seawater that looks 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.

Aperture Priority can be a lifesaver, especially in situations where you shoot fast and don't want to risk over or underexposure. But, find a mode that works for you and one that you are comfortable with. Photography is an art, and it should not be stressful and make your life harder. Have fun shooting, and for that, you need to accept the fact that all shooting modes have their advantages and drawbacks.

What shooting mode do you use often and why? Let us know about your experience shooting in Aperture Priority Mode in the comments section below.

Further Resources On Aperture Priority And Shooting Modes:

About the author

Karlo de Leon

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.

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