Why I Love Aperture Priority

Written by Gill Prince

There is one aspect of photography that fascinates me, and yet am frustrated by in equal measure. And to be fair it’s a much wider issue as well, but that’s another story entirely! So what am I talking about? People with an opinion. Or more specifically, people with an opinion who are convinced they are right, and that no other option is even worth considering.

This is particularly apparent in the photography world. RAW vs jpeg, crop sensor vs full frame, prime lenses vs zoom - and one of the most widely debated, manual vs priority modes. I’m involved in a number of different photography groups on Facebook, including ones aimed at beginners who are looking for help - and on an almost daily basis, the question about ‘how to get off auto’ is asked. 

Within minutes the comments section is flooded with a mix of different viewpoints. Some suggest priority modes are best, but many are adamant that the ‘only way to learn properly’ is to jump straight into manual, and then get out there with your camera and experiment. 

I do get where this somewhat purist approach is coming from. The theory that people should just jump in at the deep end, and then when it all goes horribly wrong, they have to learn how to swim. But what happens if they end up with a selection of images which are far worse than those they achieved on auto? They are just going to get disillusioned and may abandon the project altogether, or simply head back to the safety of what they know.

So what is the objection to using aperture or shutter priority? As far as I can work out, the purists believe that this is in some way ‘cheating’ - as the photographer only chooses one setting, while the camera decides on the other. And hence a new photographer doesn’t learn anything. But the way I see it, they actually learn a lot. More on that later. And most often - except in very low light - they still end up with a usable shot. Which also provides some positive reinforcement during the process of learning.

The one thing I think many people forget when saying that people should learn in, and then keep using, manual - is the wonders of exposure compensation. Which gives you the ability to override the settings that the camera chooses, and so make the shot darker or lighter - to achieve the effect you want. To my mind this means that priority modes are still ‘manual’ - but you have a start point to work from. Something which is especially useful for beginners. 

Going back to the title of this article, my absolute preference when teaching, and shooting for myself, is aperture priority. The reason is that before I even take a shot, I know that my first decision has to be the depth of field I need - in order to create the artistic effect that I’m looking for. Wide aperture to knock the background out of focus, medium aperture for everyday shots where all elements of the scene are in the distance, or narrow aperture for when I want to get as much as possible in focus - from what’s just in front of me, to the farthest thing I can see. 

I need to make this decision for every shot that I take. Whereas shutter speed only comes into play if the subject is moving. And generally, this is less likely to be the case. Even if it is, then I can still control my shutter speed by changing the aperture, and the ISO as well if necessary.

Which brings me to another point. If I’m teaching an ‘off auto’ lesson, it’s essential that the camera we’re working on is in manual ISO. Again I hear people on those type of groups telling a beginner to work in auto ISO, ‘to make sure they are covered if light is low’ - but this makes it far harder for them to learn the relationship between the aperture and shutter speed ‘see saw’. You have to demonstrate that one side directly affects the other, but with auto ISO activated, this just doesn’t work.

But anyway, I digress. So, going back to aperture priority, the reason this works so well is that a beginner - or a more experienced photographer - can simply make artistic decisions about the depth of field they want, then check the exposure of the shot and change it if they don’t like it. Likewise, once they see the shutter speed the camera has chosen, if it’s too slow to hand-hold, they can increase the ISO to bring it back up to where it needs to be. Or make the decision to widen the aperture to let in more light, if they feel the artistic effect of the shot will not be compromised, and getting a sharp and non-grainy result is more important.

Photography is all a balancing act, but with so many variables, it can be easy to panic and lose enthusiasm if you have no idea where to begin. So for me, it seems clear that having a fixed point to start from has to be a better approach - but with total flexibility to change the result if you want to. I’d call it the best of both worlds, especially for those who are still trying to master the complexities of this amazing art form.

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