January 22, 2019
Why I Love Aperture Priority
I can hear it now—Aperture Priority? Pros only shoot on manual! Nope, that’s just another thread of misinformation that gets people confused and misled.
First and foremost, there are advantages to one method over another, but all that matters is, did you get the shot?
When it comes to camera settings keep in mind that there is no “right way”. I’m not just saying this to ease your mind and make you feel better about your current method. Instead, I say this to free some of you from the belief that if your hero photographer shares their personalized settings, you are not obligated to copy them. So often when I’m teaching and mention my camera setup, others immediately feel they should be doing the same. It’s just not true. Think of how other photographers use their gear as a reference for your own system. I believe it’s better for you to shoot on program mode until you find a need for greater creative control. No need to complicate your photography by applying settings you don’t fully understand. As your skills increase, so will your ability to use different configurations that will best serve you. At that moment, seek out the skills needed to execute your vision. Once you think you have it all figured out, I would respectfully suggest you always keep an open mind for new techniques.
Learning never exhausts the mind – Leonardo da Vinci
Aperture, Shutter, or Manual Settings
Here are some technical differences between the three. Each camera manufacturer labels their settings differently, so for the sake of this article I’ll be using Nikon’s labels.
My preferred method and idea for absolute control over depth of field.
The camera works to keep the exposure correct while maintaining the aperture you manually designate.
While shooting a wedding where the lighting can change from one shot to the next with often very little time to evaluate each image’s proper exposure, I find aperture priority to be essential. I can grab my 85 1.4 Sigma Art series lens, set the aperture to 2.0 for a shallow look, set the ISO to 400 to keep my shutter speed in a workable range, and get to shooting. The shutter speed will vary as needed while maintaining a proper exposure at the aperture I designated, keeping the “look” that I love about that lens. Aperture Priority is ideal when lighting changes quickly so I that can pay attention to my subjects instead of exposure values.
If you need to maintain a shutter speed to stop motion, Aperture Priority could easily change your shutter speed outside the workable range to properly stop motion.
Perfect for absolute control over motion.
I rarely use Shutter Priority unless it’s a concert or sporting event where I need specific control of motion to capture my subject. In Shutter Priority mode, the camera works to keep the exposure correct while maintaining the shutter speed you manually designated.
For subject matter where the motion captured needs to be specific, Shutter Priority is ideal. For example, capturing a motorcycle as they come into your corner or you’re shooting handheld in low light. Shutter Priority will make sure that the shutter speed stays at the exact setting you choose to manage motion.
Since the camera is working to maintain the shutter speed, the aperture becomes the variable. In this case, you may find the aperture increasing and decreasing the depth of field outside your ideal.
I only use this for macro and some landscape.
Manual is best for any situation where you need absolute creative control over motion, depth of field, and exposure.
Complete control. Manual is excellent when shooting scenes where the lighting confuses the camera’s metering system. Manual is also great for maintaining consistency from frame to frame. Imagine, for example, that you’re doing a product shoot in a studio. You have set up the lighting and swapped out models for products. In this case, Manual will guarantee that each and every frame is the same exposure while Aperture or Shutter Priority will often vary from subject to subject.
Human error. Manual can be slower and allows for user error. While Manual definitely gives you more control and through practice, you can become very proficient at making changes quickly, there is still a considerable margin of error. Manual shoots what you set while Aperture and Shutter Priority will adjust for correct exposure. Imagine being at a wedding and shooting a ceremony in the shade, and then you set your camera manually. Without any warning, the father of the bride comes around the corner with his daughter, and they are in the sun. If you are caught up in the moment, paying attention to what’s going on around you as you should, you might forget to change your camera settings—Aperture and Shutter Priority to the rescue.
So why do I shoot Aperture Priority?
I rely on my camera to do its job so that I can do mine. I want to focus—pun intended—on my subject. I’m very animated while shooting, trying to keep everyone on their toes and having a good time. I don’t want to be overburdened by making too many camera adjustments.
Just to give you an idea, my shooting method starts with me grabbing a lens and setting the aperture for the next round of exposures. Once the aperture is set, I pick an ISO that is close to what I think I need. With my gear, Nikon D5, D850 & Z7, I’m not too concerned about the lowest ISO since I’m confident with any setting below 8000. At this point, I start shooting. With my aperture decided and the ISO providing a range for the camera to pick a shutter speed to maintain a proper exposure, I can shoot and pay more attention to my subject and less to my gear.
Along with aperture priority, I also set my white balance on 5500 Kelvin. All day and in any lighting condition. Because lighting changes so dramatically on a wedding day, I find my post processing much easier to have a fixed color temperature for a series of images that I can quickly correct later rather than auto white balance, giving me invariably different settings or worse, me trying to make the changes and getting distracted from my subjects. Since we’re on the topic of camera settings, I should add that I don’t use back button focus either. I want my thumb free for moving my focus bracket, aperture preview, focus locking, and exposure locking—All functions that I can access at the same time while focusing and shooting.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, do what works for you, but just like the over popularized back button focus, there is no “best” or “right” way. It only matters what works for you. Test, test, test and test some more. It’s all about what works for you to captures those photons.
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Really an excellent article, Troy. I agree with your context and rationale. I also use Aperture priority for all but two situtations: when I’m shooting with lights on a “locked down” set, where I shoot full manual, or motor racing, where I shoot in shutter priority. Great article, my friend.
Thanks Stephen! I appreciate the read and comments.