Why I Shoot Aperture Priority Mode 95% Of The Time

Shooting camera phones from 2005-2011, I had no idea what aperture was, let alone how to change it.

I just pointed, pressed the shutter button, and let the camera make all the technical decisions.

But I did know from early on that some photos seemed to have backgrounds more blurred and out of focus than others, and that these were inevitably the photographs I liked most. 

Nikon Coolpix, December 2011

In late 2011 I bought my first “proper” camera after considerable research, a Nikon Coolpix P300.

Initially, I relied on Program (P) mode, and concentrated on composition and focus, much like shooting with camera phones, but again found I liked those blurred background shots best – especially when the subject was close.

So I started reading, and experimenting, and learned that I could use Aperture Priority (Av, or just A) mode on the Coolpix, set it to the lowest number, 1.8, and it would give me the end photograph I liked. 

Getting into SLRs perhaps a year later, that initial understanding and experimentation became far more fleshed out, as I could see through the viewfinder how the scene changed as I rotated the aperture ring.

I went on to learn how aperture was connected with film sensitivity or ISO, and shutter speed, commonly called the exposure triangle.

I also learned a little more terminology, for example the f stop numbers used to label aperture (f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4 etc), and that the look I had been honing was one with a shallow depth of field.

Depth of field (DOF) in the simplest terms means how much of the photograph is in reasonably sharp focus.

Many street photographs for example are at a smaller aperture, giving a deeper depth of field, so most, if not all of the image from the very foreground to the very background is in reasonable focus.

A smaller aperture (here it was f/8) means a larger depth of field and most of the photograph is in reasonable focus

Most of my close images of flowers and leaves have a fairly large aperture to give a shallow depth of field.

Everything in front of and behind the main subject quickly falls out of focus, causing the eye to concentrate on that predominant object.

The quality of that blurred part is often called the bokeh.

I’m sure like me you’ve come across lenses being sold said to be “bokeh monsters” and “bokeh kings”!

A much larger aperture (f/2.4, which is the maximum for this 35/2.4 lens) and close focus means the image starts to blur even a few cm either side of the main point of focus

An understanding of the exposure triangle and the f stop aperture scale is helpful, but far from essential, to get the depth of field you prefer in your images.

Even if you’ve never used Aperture Priority mode previously, all you really need is a camera with the option (typically marked A on the mode dial), and a little time and willingness to play. 

Just start with a simple experiment like putting your camera on a wall or the floor, focusing on an object perhaps half a metre away, then taking a picture at every aperture setting from the widest (ie the lowest number, perhaps f/1.7 or f/1.4, depending on the lens) to the smallest (ie the largest number, perhaps f/11 or f/16, again depending on lens).

Comparing that set of images will give you a great insight into aperture and how you can tweak it to change the look (and I believe, the feel, and the emotional impact) of the final image.

Even if you mostly shoot film, grab or borrow a DSLR or another digital camera with Aperture Priority mode, and experiment to see how this works.

The same lessons and principles apply back with your film photography.

Using Program mode(s) is perfectly fine, and something I still do too.

But taking that step away from such automation, and using Aperture Priority mode to give yourself that extra creative control, is something I’ve found incredible rewarding, and perhaps the single most important step of learning in my whole photography adventure.

And because I rarely shoot moving objects, shutter speed is largely irrelevant to me (I don’t need a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action and avoid motion blur), putting the emphasis further on choosing the aperture for each shot.

How about you? Do you favour using Aperture Priority? If you’ve always used Program modes, is this a step you’d be curious about trying?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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10 thoughts on “Why I Shoot Aperture Priority Mode 95% Of The Time”

  1. A note on automatic modes: if you look at the settings the camera picks you will soon come to the conclusion that whoever programmed the AI was not a photographer. :p

    1. I think this varies depending on the camera.

      I’ve had some that seem to optimise for shutter speed, and never let it get too low, I expect to reduce the chance of camera shake.

      Other compacts seem to default to wide open virtually all of the time (my Canon IXUS 870IS comes to mind), which suits me very well as I would choose that anyway until the shutter speed maxed out.

      I imagine here that Canon had enough confidence in their lens wide open to deliver, and for me this is the best type of Program mode, especially in a compact where the small sensor is going to give you greater depth of field anyway.

      The Samsung NV10 I wrote about the other week seemed to have only two apertures – wide open at f/2.8 and f/7.1. It went for f/2.8 until the shutter speed maxed out, then switched to f/7.1 and set the shutter speed accordingly.

      Again this suits me well and gives the most shallow DOF possible with the camera. I guess its simplifies the aperture mechanism too, and perhaps more can be invested in the lens or something else that has more impact on the quality of the final image.

      With SLRs, in my experience, Program modes tend to always go for a middle ground, something like f/5.6 and 1/250s, and stick as close to this as possible.

      I expect this is aimed at the beginner, to give the greatest probability that there’s enough depth of field to cover any slight focusing errors, plus a fast enough shutter speed to hide any camera shake or motion in the scene.

      1. I think you’re right; they’re trying to compensate for beginners’ mistakes. But if we do not make such mistakes, do we ever learn?
        From what I’ve seen I would nearly always pick different setting from what the camera chooses. I also wonder if they take any input from the focal length, as zooming to tele range would call for higher shutter speed to reduce blur as well.
        Anyway no one is paying me to reverse-engineer the algorithms used so I’m not going to. 😀

      2. Hmm, interesting about different focal lengths. Think I’ll try program mode with a zoom and see if it changes settings as I change focal length…

  2. Some cameras had dual Program modes (Ph, Pl). One emphasizing higher shutter/lower aperture and the other favoring lower shutter speed, higher aperture.

    Personally, I find myself choosing modes based on what I’m shooting. For landscapes, I usually shoot Program mode as the matrix metering on my digital cameras is quite good, and I can always “fix” the RAW files if I don’t quite find them to my liking.

    For portraits or nature/wildlife shots, I prefer AP mode to get the subject separation I desire. The Olympus 45mm f1.8 gives me some of the best bokeh I’ve every seen on a MFT camera.

    On film, I find myself gravitating toward slower shutter speeds when using a SP camera (AE-1, Autoreflex T3n, etc.) to get the DOF I want, so I’d say I have a definite preference for Aperture Priority.

    1. Interesting, I thought for landscapes you’d want to manually choose a fairly small aperture to maximise depth of field.

      I had an AE-1 when I was still fairly new to SLRs, and I could never really get on with shutter priority, because for my typical subjects, the shutter speed is virtually irrelevant, but aperture has a huge impact on the final image.

      I was always reverse engineering it to get the aperture I wanted. (I had a Konica Autoreflex TC which was similar, both Canon and Konica seemed to favour shutter priority with their 70s SLRs…)

      Then I discovered Canon made the AV-1 which was pretty much identical except aperture priority, and that felt much more logical to use!

      1. It really depends on my composition. Often I like to place emphasis on a particular element or object in the landscape. I find that Program does a good job of it when I use the focus/recompose method. If I’m shooting a sunset or mountain scene, I’ll override the aperture chosen by the camera.

  3. When I first encountered a camera with selectable exposure modes I recognized the function as exactly what I had been doing all along with my all-mechanical film cameras. My hand held exposure meter indicates a usable range of range of shutter speeds and corresponding apertures for the scene being metered. Which combination to use?

    The first requirement is to identify the minimum shutter speed fast enough to deal with camera shake and/or movement of the subject, using S priority in auto-exposure parlance. But this often leaves a range of usable shutter/aperture combinations. At this point I mentally switch to the equivalent of A priority and choose an aperture that produces the degree of out-of-focus I want in the background of the scene. (I strongly dislike out-of-focus parts of the scene in the foreground.)

    1. Doug, thank for your thoughts. This is probably still how I think – start with ideal aperture but if corresponding shutter speed is to slow to hand hold, increase aperture until shutter speed is fast enough. There’s always that payoff decision between too shallow a DOF and blurred pictures from camera shake to make!

      When I was shooting film and had got used to Av cameras, I bought an old Zenit, mostly for the Helios lens attached.

      It had a selenium meter with a simple needle that moved on the top plate, then you rotated a dial to line up its needle with the first needle, and it gave you the recommended aperture and shutter speed. Cleverly though, the way it was designed, by simply looking round the dial, it gave all the other possible aperture/shutter combinations that would give the same exposure, so you still had your own creative input, and could make a decision based on either the aperture or shutter speed you desired.

      This was in fact far more flexible (and taught me more about the relationship between aperture and shutter speed) than the Program mode on a more modern camera which will give you the right exposure, but no input into the chosen aperture or shutter speed.

      Otherwise the camera was heavy, clunky and awkward, but I do remember it fondly for that intelligently designed metering system!

      This article has some good pictures of the exposure dial/needle, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.


      1. That’s an interesting metering system for a camera. Match needle selenium light meters that show the alternative aperture/shutter speed combinations were pretty common. My sadly now deceased Gossen Pilot worked that way.

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