Camera Settings & Specs Aperture

Aperture Priority Mode – When Should You Use It?

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Written By Nate Torres

Using Aperture Priority mode is like being a conductor leading an orchestra.

Just as a conductor determines the balance and intensity of each instrument, Aperture Priority mode allows you to control the depth of field in your photographs, orchestrating the perfect harmony between the foreground and the background.

Just as the conductor shapes the mood and emotion of a musical piece, Aperture Priority mode empowers you to shape the narrative and atmosphere of your images.

It’s a symphony of creativity, where you take the reins and compose visual masterpieces that resonate with the viewer’s senses, leaving them captivated and moved.

In this article, we’ll be diving into the world of Aperture Priority Mode, exploring its strengths and uncovering the situations where it truly shines.

Whether you’re a seasoned photographer or a budding enthusiast, join me as I unravel the secrets behind this mode and discuss the precise moments when it should be your go-to choice.

Let’s dive in!

What is Aperture Priority Mode?

Aperture Priority mode, also known as Av (Aperture Value) or A (Aperture) mode, is a camera shooting mode that offers a perfect balance between manual control and automation, granting photographers the freedom to control one critical aspect of their photographs — the aperture.

aperture priority mode camera
aperture priority mode on camera

In order to truly understand Aperture Priority Mode, you must know what aperture is.

Aperture refers to the opening in the lens that determines how much light will enter the camera.

Think of the aperture as the gatekeeper that regulates the amount of light that will reach your camera’s image sensor.

Your aperture plays two major roles in your images — it controls the exposure in your images as well as the depth of field in your images.

Controlling Exposure

As we’ve touched on in previous guides, the exposure in your images is essentially how bright or dark your image will be.

Exposure is controlled by three elements that make up the exposure triangleaperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

exposure triangle cheat sheet
the exposure triangle

Controlling Depth of Field

Along with being an element within the exposure triangle, the aperture also controls the depth of field in your images.

Aperture is measured in f-stops and the lower the f-stop number, then the wider the aperture (ex. f/1.8), and the higher the f-stop number, then the narrower the aperture (ex. f/16).

Wider apertures allow you to capture sharp focus on a specific point and are great for portrait photography, headshot photography, or product photography where you are trying to emphasize one subject.

Wide apertures are also what will allow you to capture that bokeh look.

Narrower apertures allow you to capture the whole scene in focus which is great for group photos, street photography, or landscape photography.

aperture photography chart
aperture chart

Now that we know what Aperture Priority Mode is, let’s take a look at when to use it.

When to Use Aperture Priority Mode?

In short, you will want to use Aperture Priority Mode when you want to manually control your aperture while the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed and ISO for you.

Capturing a beautiful photograph consists of you making many correct micro choices.

One choice, however, that plays a big part in whether to use Aperture Priority Mode is based on what genre or niche of photography you are photographing.

With that being said, let’s take a look at example niches that are great for using Aperture Priority Mode.

Portrait Photography

As mentioned earlier, when capturing portraits, it’s all about isolating your subject and creating a pleasing background blur (also known as bokeh).

By using Aperture Priority Mode and selecting a wide aperture (small f-number), such as f/1.8 or f/2.8, you can achieve a shallow depth of field, ensuring your subject stands out sharply against a beautifully blurred background.

This technique directs the viewer’s attention to the main subject, emphasizing their presence and enhancing the overall aesthetic appeal.

Macro Photography

In the world of macro photography, Aperture Priority mode can be a game-changer.

When shooting intricate details of small subjects like flowers, insects, or jewelry, using a narrow aperture (large f-number), such as f/11 or f/16, ensures that a larger portion of the subject remains in focus. Or if you want to capture a specific detail such as the eye on an insect, then using a wide aperture (small f-number), such as f1/.8 is the way to go.

This allows you to capture fine textures, patterns, and nuances, creating visually striking images that showcase the delicate beauty of the subject.

macro photo of bird
Image by Alexandre Rizzon

Environmental Portrait Photography

When you want to capture a subject within their surroundings, such as a musician in their studio or a chef in a bustling kitchen, Aperture Priority mode can help you establish context.

By using a moderately wide aperture (medium f-number), like f/4 or f/5.6, you can strike a balance between sharpness in the subject and a subtle background blur.

This technique provides enough visual information to tell a story while maintaining the focus on the main subject.

Landscape Photography

Using Aperture Priority Mode is great for landscape photography.

When capturing sweeping vistas or vast landscapes, you typically want everything from the foreground to the background to be in sharp focus.

To achieve this, you can select a narrow aperture (large f-number), such as f/11 or f/16, which will maximize the depth of field.

This allows you to create images that showcase the intricate details throughout the entire scene, from the nearest rocks to the distant mountains.

How to Use Aperture Priority Mode?

Using Aperture Priority Mode is fairly simple, you switch the knob on your camera to Aperture Priority Mode, and voilà!

Okay, while that is true, maybe it’s not as simple as that…

Here are the steps you should follow to correctly use Aperture Priority Mode. These are the same exact steps I take into consideration when using this mode.

1. Set Your Camera to Aperture Priority Mode

The first step is to set your camera to Aperture Priority Mode.

In order to do this, turn the mode dial on your camera to select “Av” (Aperture Value) or “A” (Aperture) mode.

Check your camera’s user manual if you’re unsure about the specific dial or menu option for Aperture Priority Mode on your model.

aperture priority mode camera
Aperture Priority Mode on Camera

2. Choose Your Desired Aperture

While using Aperture Priority mode, you have the freedom to select the aperture setting that suits your creative vision.

Use the control dial or buttons on your camera to adjust the aperture value.

As mentioned earlier, a small f-number (e.g., f/1.8) represents a wide aperture, resulting in a shallow depth of field, while a larger f-number (e.g., f/11) signifies a narrow aperture, yielding a greater depth of field.

3. Observe Your Exposure Settings

As you change your aperture value (f-stop), take note of how the camera adjusts the other exposure settings, such as shutter speed and ISO.

Aperture Priority mode maintains proper exposure by automatically adapting these settings to achieve a well-exposed image.

Keeping an eye on these adjustments ensures that your images are properly exposed under different lighting conditions.

4. Monitor the Depth of Field

Aperture Priority mode empowers you to control the depth of field and, consequently, the sharpness and blur in your images.

As you select different aperture settings, visualize the effect on the depth of field through the camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen.

A wider aperture creates a shallow depth of field, isolating the subject and blurring the background, while a narrower aperture increases the depth of field, keeping more of the scene in focus.

5. Consider Your Lighting Conditions

When using Aperture Priority mode, be mindful of the available light.

In low-light situations, widening the aperture (using a small f-number) allows more light to enter the camera, enabling faster shutter speeds and reducing the risk of camera shake or motion blur.

In bright conditions, narrowing the aperture (using a larger f-number) helps to control the amount of light and avoid overexposure.

6. Experiment and Refine

Aperture Priority mode provides a platform for experimentation and creativity.

Try using different aperture settings for various subjects and compositions.

Explore the interplay between depth of field, focal point, and background blur.

Refine your technique by reviewing your images and analyzing how the chosen aperture setting influenced the overall aesthetic.

Now that we know how to use Aperture Priority mode, let’s dive into some tips I recommend to all beginners when they start using Aperture Priority Mode.

4 Tips for Using Aperture Priority for Beginners

Aperture Priority Mode offers lots of creative possibilities and allows beginners to explore depth and focus with ease without having to worry about shutter speed and ISO.

But because of this ease, it’s also important to understand the role Aperture Priority Mode plays in the big picture of photography.

1. Understand Aperture/F-Stop Scale

The first tip I have is to understand the aperture/f-stop scale. Without knowing this, it will be very hard to use Aperture Priority Mode effectively.

Familiarize yourself with the aperture scale, represented by f-numbers like f/1.8, f/4, f/8, etc.

Remember that smaller f-numbers indicate a wider aperture and shallower depth of field, while larger f-numbers represent a narrower aperture and greater depth of field.

This knowledge will enable you to visualize the effect of different aperture settings on your photographs.

aperture photography chart
aperture chart

2. Start Wide

The second tip I have is to start wide and then narrow in with your aperture.

When you’re beginning with Aperture Priority mode, experiment with wider apertures (smaller f-numbers) like f/2.8 or even the lowest your lens allows.

This will give you a chance to experience the beautiful background blur and isolate your subjects from the surroundings. If you are wanting to capture more of the scene in focus, then start working your way up.

3. Be Mindful of Your Shutter Speed

The third tip is to be mindful of your shutter speed.

When you’re shooting in Aperture Priority mode, keep an eye on the shutter speed selected by the camera.

In low-light situations or when using narrow apertures, the camera may select slower shutter speeds to compensate for the reduced light.

This can result in blurred images due to camera shake. Consider using a tripod or increasing the ISO to maintain a faster shutter speed.

4. Learn Manual Mode

The final tip I have is to just learn manual mode as soon as possible.

Aperture Priority Mode is often seen as one of those in-between settings between automatic and manual mode.

If you learn to use manual mode, then you will be able to take advantage of controlling all three elements of the exposure triangle at one time — allowing for complete creative control.

Now let’s take a look at when you should avoid Aperture Priority Mode altogether.

manual mode on a camera
manual mode on a camera

When to Avoid Aperture Priority Mode?

While Aperture Priority Mode is a valuable tool, there are certain situations where it may not be the ideal shooting mode.

1. Fast-Paced Action Photography

The first scenario you may want to avoid using Aperture Priority Mode is with fast-paced action photography.

If you’re capturing fast-moving subjects, such as sports or wildlife, Aperture Priority mode may not be the best choice where the objective will be to match the speed of the fast-moving subject.

In these situations, using Shutter Priority mode (Tv or S mode) or Manual mode allows you to prioritize a faster shutter speed to freeze the action and avoid motion blur.

By manually setting the shutter speed, you can ensure sharpness and capture those split-second moments with precision.

fast-paced action photography motorcycle
Image by Sourav Mishra

2. Low-Light Photography Without Tripod

The second scenario you may want to avoid using Aperture Priority Mode is with low-light photography without a tripod.

In challenging lighting conditions such as a nightclub or at night where you don’t have a tripod or external light source, relying solely on Aperture Priority mode may result in slower shutter speeds.

This can lead to unwanted camera shake and blurred images.

In such scenarios, switching to Manual mode or using a shooting mode specifically designed for low-light situations (such as Night mode or Bulb mode) allows you to have better control over both the aperture and shutter speed.

3. Consistent Background Exposure With Flash Photography

The third scenario you may want to avoid using Aperture Priority Mode is with artificial lighting such as an off-camera flash or studio strobes.

When using artificial lighting, such as off-camera flash or studio strobes, Aperture Priority mode might not provide consistent background exposure.

In such cases, using Manual mode enables you to have precise control over both the aperture and flash power, ensuring a balanced exposure between the subject and the background.

Final Thoughts

Aperture Priority mode proves invaluable for various photography genres, serving as a valuable asset rather than a substitute for manual mode.

It offers a quicker approach to achieving optimal manual settings, even amidst changing conditions, while minimizing the risk of exposure errors.

Naturally, there are instances when Aperture Priority mode may not be the most suitable choice.

Nonetheless, the advantages of Aperture Priority mode remain noteworthy.

With a solid understanding of its capabilities, photographers can yield a higher number of successful shots and achieve superior exposure, all within a significantly reduced timeframe.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do pros use aperture priority?

Yes, many professional photographers use Aperture Priority mode as it offers a balance between creative control over depth of field and the convenience of automatic exposure adjustments.

What is the difference between aperture priority and shutter speed priority?

Aperture Priority mode allows the photographer to set the desired aperture while the camera adjusts the shutter speed for proper exposure, while Shutter Speed Priority mode allows the photographer to set the desired shutter speed while the camera adjusts the aperture for proper exposure.

Does aperture priority affect ISO?

Aperture Priority mode does not directly affect ISO, as ISO is typically set separately, but the camera may adjust the ISO value automatically in order to maintain proper exposure based on the selected aperture and available lighting conditions.