Understanding Aperture Priority Mode

Are you desperate to get out of Auto mode but don’t know where to start?

Aperture Priority is the next step for a lot of beginner photographers. But keep reading, because at the end of this article, I’ll show you why that’s a terrible approach.

You may look at your camera’s mode dial and wonder what all those letters mean- and then how they translate to actually using your camera. What is S for? Or M? I’m going to start at the beginning of the alphabet today and tell you all about A (Av on some camera models) also known as aperture priority mode.

Aperture Priority mode is usually designated with an A or Av

Aperture Priority mode allows you to set your aperture, ISO (in simple terms, a setting that will lighten or darken a photo), and white balance, it then controls your shutter speed to hit that perfect exposure.

You can’t manually adjust your shutter speed in this mode, but if you’re using a tripod, or your shot isn’t reliant on your shutter speed, then aperture priority could be ideal.

If you’re not sure what aperture actually is, or how it affects your images…it’s how much light your camera lens lets in.

The easiest way to think about it is to think about your eyes- when you move between a dark and a light environment your pupil opens and contracts in relation to let the right amount of light in. Your aperture needs to be set to maintain correct exposure, the lower the f stop the wider the lens, so the more light. The higher the number, the smaller the hole in the lens, so less light. 

Adjusting your aperture also has an effect on your focal length and depth of field. Which basically means how much of your image is in focus. If you think about those portraits with a blurred background they have a very shallow depth of field- only the subject is in focus and everything in front and behind is blurred.

This is done by using a low f-stop, or a wider aperture, like f/4 or wider.

In comparison, if you were shooting a huge group picture or a landscape shot, naturally you would want more of the image, from the front to the back, to be acceptably sharp. In these circumstances, you would adjust to a higher f stop, or narrower aperture, typically in the f/8 to f/11 range.

Don’t worry if you’re scratching your head already, I’m going to give you a simple step-by-step guide on how to make Aperture Priority mode work for you and the pros and cons of using it. 

The Positives

You’re in control of that beautiful, blurred, background. Manually setting your aperture means you are in complete control of your focal length so can easily switch behind a portrait with a soft, blurred, bokeh or a sharp, crisp, group shot with everyone in focus. So aperture priority is better than full auto mode.

You can often ignore the settings. If you’re new to photography and working out how aperture works (and the effect it has on your images) then aperture priority mode gives you the freedom to experiment without worrying about your shutter speed as well. This makes it an acceptable mode for everyday snapshots and the like.

It can keep you consistent in certain conditions. Say you’re trying to shoot an outdoor portrait session in patchy cloud conditions, you know you want your aperture on f/4.0 to get that soft background, but the clouds keep moving and the light keeps changing. Aperture priority will make your life so much easier by adjusting your shutter speed for you to maintain the correct exposure.

A wide aperture will blur your background and keep the attention on your subject.

The Negatives

Motion blur. Your camera is smart, but not smart enough to know what you’re shooting. When using Aperture Priority mode your camera will adjust the shutter speed to nail the correct exposure, this may well be too slow for moving subjects though, resulting in blurred pictures.

Camera shake. Similar to motion blur, camera shake will result in blurred, less than sharp images. If your lighting conditions aren’t great your camera may well drop that shutter speed all the way down to let in as much light as possible. Perfect for exposure, but not so good for a strong focus.

Dropping that speed too low means that even the slight tremble of your hand will create blur in what could otherwise be a great picture. You can compensate by raising your ISO manually, or by lowering your f-stop, both of which will help your camera take in more light, thus raising the shutter speed. 

It’s just as slow as manual mode. Sure, you can set your aperture and then use exposure compensation to dial in the right exposure. But at that point, you’re really just operating your camera manually with an extra variable in there.

It can lead to wildly inconsistent exposures. Your camera is choosing the variable (shutter speed) based on the metering done by the camera. Depending on what metering mode you’re using, small changes in the composition of your image can result in drastic changes to the shutter speed.

This inconsistency turns into a nightmare later on when you are trying to process many images at once and they are all slightly different.

How To Use Aperture Priority Mode

So, you’ve read all about it and want to give it a go. But how do you use Aperture Priority Mode? Here are some simple steps to nail sharp, clear, perfectly exposed images and get you on your way.

1. Switch to Aperture Priority Mode

Turn the settings dial on your camera from Auto to A (Av on some models), this puts your camera into Aperture Priority Mode.

2. Set your aperture.

Have a good look at what you’re trying to shoot, do you need the whole frame in focus? Or are you zoning in on a particular subject? 

Adjust your f stop to suit your image; if you’re shooting a wide, landscape or need most of the frame in focus then you need to opt for a larger number like f/9 or above. If you’re shooting a portrait or a single subject, and dream of that beautifully blurred, bokeh background then you want to go low, around f/2.8 or f/4 (depending on how low your lens can go). Just be aware that your ISO and shutter speed will react to whatever f stop you choose so keep an eye on them.

3. Adjust the ISO.

This number will depend on the amount of light around you. If you’re shooting outdoors on a bright sunny day then you want to set this low, around 100. If you’re indoors, or in a darker setting, then the number will be higher (around 800 or so), just be aware that the higher the number, the more ‘noise’ in your image. 

If working out the correct ISO and aperture setting is too much to learn all at once, you can set the ISO to auto and let your camera do the work for you.

4. Check, then double-check, what number your camera has set your shutter speed to.

You don’t want it to drop below 1/100 or you’re risking out of focus, blurred images. Don’t panic- if it’s been set too low you can either drop your f stop to a lower number or manually adjust your ISO to a higher number to let in more light. Your camera will adjust the shutter speed accordingly and you’ll be on track to the perfect picture.

5. Take your picture!

Frame your shot, focus, and shoot. Keep an eye on the back of the camera to check your images are exactly as you want and tweak your settings if you need to. Most importantly, have fun and experiment. You’ll nail it in no time.

Should You Learn With Aperture Priority Mode?

Aperture priority mode is a terrible way to learn how to use a camera.

To begin with, the camera is making decisions that you may not even notice as you take the photos. So you aren’t really learning anything (except maybe how often the camera metering is terribly wrong).

As I mentioned earlier, you aren’t gaining much in terms of speed or ease of use in aperture priority mode either. In manual mode, you can set the aperture and ISO and then adjust shutter speed as needed…not much different than aperture priority mode…except the camera isn’t changing it without you even realizing it.

It is extremely rare that you’ll be shooting in light conditions that change (1) fast enough and (2) drastically enough to warrant giving the camera control of your exposure.

Even in a situation with the sun going in and out from behind clouds, the best approach is to find a setting in the middle and be sure to shoot in RAW. Then you can easily balance out those exposures later on in Lightroom or your RAW editor of choice.

Unfortunately, so many people online that claim to be photography teachers push this Aperture Priority method as a magic solution to getting the right exposure. When in reality, they are just making things more difficult for their students and slowing down their progress.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is aperture priority mode the best?

Aperture priority mode is not the best way to control your camera. In fact, it’s a terrible way to learn photography and often leads to mediocre results, at best. You have to use the exposure compensation to fine-tune the exposure of the photo with shutter speed, so its no faster than manual mode, but without learning how to take control of the camera yourself.

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