I get asked a lot by photographers not ready to make the switch to manual mode, but wanting more control than when using auto mode or program mode – what’s better aperture priority vs shutter priority?
In a popularity contest aperture priority would win, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better than shutter priority, or the right shooting mode to use.
Like with so much in photography, everything depends on:
- What you’re photographing
- The outcome you want to achieve
So let’s dig deeper into the aperture priority vs shutter priority question…
How does aperture priority work?
Aperture controls the width of the opening that allows light into the lens and onto the sensor.
The wider the aperture (f1.4 – f4) the more light is allowed in and the narrower the depth of field will be.
A narrow depth of field results in a blurry background and foreground. A narrow aperture (f8 – f22) results in a wide depth of field for front to back sharpness.
When you use aperture priority, you’re telling your camera that the aperture setting is the most important one to you, so that’s the one you want to control. So, you set the aperture (f-stop) and the camera will set the appropriate shutter speed for a correct exposure.
In aperture priority mode you can set the ISO yourself, or use Auto ISO. Before you use Auto ISO though, be sure you know its limitations.
Camera settings for both shots: aperture – F4, shutter speed – 1/1600. In the image on the left I focused on the Rolls Royce mascot so that everything else was out of focus. In the photo on the right I focused on the bride and groom so that the mascot was out of focus.
When should you use aperture priority?
The role of aperture is to control the amount of light entering the lens. A wide aperture means a lot of light can enter and vice versa for a narrow aperture.
Portrait photographers seek to separate their subject from the background with a blurry background, so aperture priority mode is ideally suited to portrait photographers. It gives you creative control of the depth of field of a photo and allows you concentrate on other aspects of the photo.
Aperture priority is especially handy when photographing families as there’s a lot going on when you have several people in the frame, especially if small children are involved. Just for an adrenalin kick, add a couple of dogs to the mix and you’ll have a whole world of busy to deal with!
Camera settings: aperture – F4, shutter speed – 1/1000
Why wedding photographers use aperture priority
Speaking of a lot going on…weddings!
Aperture priority is very much favoured by wedding photographers who don’t shoot in manual mode. At times weddings move at a very fast pace, so aperture priority is perfect for taking care of depth of field while the photographer concentrates on focus and composition.
Even manual mode wedding photographers use aperture priority at times. There’s no rule that says you have to stick to using the same shooting mode throughout a shoot or wedding.
A perfect example of needing a little help when photographing a wedding is the confetti toss. As a wedding photographer, you have to:
- wrangle guests into position quickly and efficiently, without making them feel bossed about
- you need to ensure everyone has confetti and is ready to throw it
- and you need to cue the bride and groom to walk through the middle of the two rows of guests
- and have the guests throw their confetti as the best time
- …all while walking backwards, focusing and composing!
Even for the easier confetti toss, which is to have the guests gather in a C shape behind the couple (facing the camera) and toss the confetti all at the same time, setting your camera to aperture priority means there’s one less thing for you to think about.
Camera settings: aperture – f7.1, shutter speed – 1/200.
Aside from weddings, when should you use aperture priority?
But not all photographers are wedding photographers, so when is a good time to use aperture priority if you’re photographing your family, or clients?
Any time that there isn’t a lot of movement, especially fast movement, in shot.
Just remember to keep an eye on the shutter speed and make changes if necessary. If the camera sets a shutter speed that’s too slow for the circumstances, you’ll end up with a blurry photo.
Why are my photos blurry in aperture priority mode?
If you focused on the right place, and your photos are still blurry, there are two causes:
- Movement blur
- Camera shake
The first thought that springs to mind if you’re shooting in aperture priority and your photos are blurry, is that your shutter speed is too low. The camera doesn’t know what you’re photographing and if there’s movement in the shot, you might need a higher shutter speed than the camera selects to prevent movement blur.
Alternatively, the camera doesn’t know if you’ve mounted it on a tripod or not and the shutter speed might be too low to handhold without camera shake.
Further reading: Focus tips to capture moving objects in photography
How do I change shutter speed in aperture priority mode?
You don’t actively change the shutter speed in aperture priority mode. However, as you adjust the aperture, the shutter speed changes automatically.
- If you need a faster shutter speed in aperture priority, use a wider aperture to let in more light so that the shutter can stay open for less time without overexposing the photo.
- For a slower shutter speed, use a narrower aperture to let in less light so that the shutter can stay open for longer without overexposing your image.
If you don’t want to adjust the aperture, but you need a faster shutter speed, increase the ISO. Or decrease the ISO for a slower shutter speed without changing aperture.
How does shutter priority work?
The shutter controls how long light is allowed into the lens. To freeze movement you need the shutter to be open for a short amount of time. How short depends on how fast the subject is moving.
To capture movement as a blur, simply use a slower shutter speed so that the shutter is open while the subject is moving.
When using shutter priority, you select the shutter speed you want to use and the camera selects the appropriate aperture for a correct exposure. Like with aperture priority, in shutter priority mode you can set your ISO yourself, or use Auto ISO.
What is shutter priority mode used for?
When there’s motion in an image and you either want to freeze it or capture it as a blur, shutter speed is your priority. Likewise, if the light is very low, and you need to do a long exposure.
Sports photographers favour shutter priority, to ensure that they freeze movement.
Just because you’re in shutter priority, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to think about the exposure settings. When using shutter priority, you need to be aware of your aperture, especially if the light is low or you don’t have a fast lens.
Your aperture cannot go beyond a certain point, depending on the lens you’re using. So, if your camera sets a shutter speed that needs your aperture to be wider than the maximum aperture of your lens, you’ll have an underexposed image. The only way around this is to increase your ISO instead.
Camera settings: aperture – F4.5, shutter speed – 1/800
Examples of when to use shutter priority mode
- Sports events
- Freezing moving water
- Capturing moving water as a silky blur
- Capturing blurred lights of fairground rides
Which is better aperture priority vs shutter priority?
It depends entirely on your needs and what you’re photographing. As a rule of thumb:
- If depth of field is more important and you don’t need to worry too much about subject movement, use aperture priority.
- If you need to ensure that you either freeze movement or capture it as a blur, use shutter priority.
Do professional photographers use aperture priority?
Some use aperture priority all the time, others use it occasionally. Some use shutter priority all the time. However, some professional photographers stick to manual mode only. It all depends on what you’re photographing.
If photographing with off camera flash, manual mode is essential. So when this is the case, professional photographers wouldn’t use either aperture priority or shutter priority.
Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash
Last word on aperture priority vs shutter priority
The best position you can be in as a photographer is the informed one. If you know how to use manual mode, aperture priority mode and shutter priority mode plus when each is best, you’ll have ultimate control over your camera and the creative process.
So, while manual mode is not essential all the time, do yourself a favour and learn manual mode, as well as aperture priority and shutter priority modes so that your creativity is not limited by your knowledge.
It’s not a matter of aperture priority vs shutter priority. Learn both and use both when needed. Plus manual mode. Definitely learn that too.
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