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How (And When!) to Use Aperture Priority Mode

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Aperture priority mode can help you take eye-catching photos without controlling your settings all the time. It can be a great time-saving tool for both photography beginners and professionals.

But what exactly is aperture priority mode and when should you use it?
Adjusting camera settings on a DSLR camera[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]

What Is Aperture Priority Mode?

You can find aperture priority on your camera mode. It’s usually symbolised by the letters A or Av.

When you switch to this mode, you can control your aperture, ISO, and white balance. Your camera will change the shutter speed every time the light changes. You can’t manually adjust your shutter speed in this mode.

What Is Aperture?

Your aperture determines how blurred or detailed your backgrounds will look. A large aperture, such as f/1.4, will make your background look very soft. It’s also great for shooting in low light. A small aperture, such as f/22, will capture more details in your background.

Aperture is a great way to experiment with deep and shallow depth of field. It comes with many additional benefits that can make your photography stand out.A close up of light shining through blades of grass

The Difference Between Aperture Priority Mode and Manual Mode

Many photographers use manual mode to have full control over their camera settings. It’s something you should familiarise yourself with as you learn more about photography. But it’s not a mode you need to use all the time.

Having full control over your settings can be time-consuming. You need to be aware of exposure compensation, ISO, shutter speed, and so on.

When you switch to aperture priority mode, you let the camera do most of the work for you. All you need to do is select an aperture. You can also manually change your ISO, but this isn’t necessary. Your camera will automatically decide what shutter speed is suitable for a given situation.A photographer adjusting camera settings on a Canon DSLR

Avoid Automatic Mode for More Control

When you use the automatic mode, you let the camera do all of the work for you. No matter where you are, your camera will try to find the best settings for you to take beautiful pictures.

The downside of using automatic mode is that it doesn’t give you any control over your pictures. You can’t control how sharp or blurred your images are.

This is a great way to take decent photos in any lighting situation. But it’s not the best option for photographers who want to have at least some control over their settings.

Aperture is something that many photographers prioritise in their work. Some people want their backgrounds to have a specific amount of blur. Others want to capture as much detail as possible. Aperture priority mode is perfect for you if you fit into this category of photographers.A man shooting photos in a green forest

When Should You Use Aperture Priority Mode?

Using this mode all the time may not be a good idea. If you use it in the right situations, you can significantly improve your photography.

Here are a few instances in which you can make the most of it.

To Achieve a Fixed Depth of Field

A fixed aperture means a fixed depth of field. This means consistent photos, which can be very important in some photoshoots.

Let’s say you’re a portrait photographer who regularly uses an aperture of f/5.6. You want to take as many decent photos as possible on a cloudy day. The lighting is inconsistent, so you have to adjust your settings regularly. This can be a big obstacle.

Instead of doing that, you can switch to aperture priority mode, select your desired aperture, and take as many photos as you like. Your camera will make sure that your shutter speed and ISO are properly adjusted.An autumn leaf on a path

To Get Better at Changing Aperture as a Beginner

As a beginner, you might find manual mode overwhelming. Constantly switching to different shutter speeds, apertures, and ISO values can be stressful.

Aperture priority mode is an upgrade from automatic mode. It can help you get ready for manual mode and introduce you to different aperture settings at the same time.A photographer shooting through green leaves with a Nikon DSLR

When You Want to Experiment With Different Apertures

You might be a beginner photographer who wants to figure out how aperture works. You might also be a professional who wants to get better at adapting to different kinds of apertures.

You can achieve this quickly with aperture priority mode. Instead of worrying about shutter speed or ISO, you can quickly go through each aperture to find your favourite one. You’ll get decent photos as you do this, which is always a plus!Overhead close up of a camera

How to Use Aperture Priority Mode

1. Switch to Aperture Priority Mode

Different cameras have different buttons for aperture priority mode. Look for a symbol that represents this mode. It should say something like A or Av.

On the Canon 5D Mark II, you just need to turn the mode. Your camera should have a similar feature.Close up of DSLR camera settings

2. Choose Between Manual or Automatic ISO

This important step can save you a lot of editing time. If it’s not very bright outdoors, or if you’re shooting indoors, you might want to use a manual ISO.

ISO can help you compensate for a fast shutter speed or a small aperture. Too much ISO can make your pictures look grainy. It’s possible to remove grain in an editing program, but this can take some time if you have hundreds of images.

If you have some extra time on your hands, select an ISO manually. Automatic ISO is great for experimentation, but it might not be your best friend if you have a specific vision in mind.A close up of changing camera settings

3. Change the Value of Your Aperture

Aperture priority mode makes it very easy to change your aperture setting. On the Canon 5D Mark II, all you need to do is turn the little gear right above the ISO button.

You’ll notice that your camera will change the shutter speed as you change your aperture. It will also automatically change the shutter speed when the light changes.A close up of DSLR camera settings

4. Focus on Your Subject and Take a Few Test Photos

You don’t need to overthink this step. Just choose a subject and take a few test photos.

I started out with a relatively large aperture, but it wasn’t large enough for my desired style. To achieve a dreamier look, I changed my aperture to f/1.8.

There’s really no specific rule for this. The aperture you choose depends on your subject and your style.A close up of a DSLR camera shooting a flower with aperture priority mode

5. Experiment With Different Apertures

Even if you like your results, experiment with different apertures. You might find an even better option. If not, at least you’ll figure out what aperture values you’d rather stay away from.

This is especially important for beginner photographers. The more apertures you experiment with, the more variety of pictures you’ll have in your portfolio.A close up of camera aperture

Common Aperture Priority Mode Questions

Do Professional Photographers Use Aperture Priority?

Yes. Many professional portrait and landscape photographers use aperture priority. This is also a great mode for beginner photographers in any genre.

Which Is Better Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority?

Aperture priority keeps your aperture fixed and changes your shutter speed. This is great for those who want to have the same depth of field in their pictures. Shutter priority keeps your shutter speed fixed and changes everything else. This is ideal for action photography.

Close up of a camera lens

Conclusion

Using aperture priority mode can help you take better photos without stressing you out. All you need to do is adjust your aperture and ISO. Your camera will experiment with different shutter speeds for you.

This mode is perfect for beginners, portrait photographers, and landscape photographers. It’s ideal for you if you want to achieve a fixed depth of field without worrying about shutter speeds all the time.

If you’re looking for more beginner guidance, look no further than our Photography for Beginners course! 

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14 comments
  1. I see some good points in this article 🙂 I personally use aperture priority most of the time. In most cases I need to control depth of field and so I set aperture as first control.
    Im using ISO 100 or 200 in good light. When the shutter speed gets too slow, I raise ISO but only to necessary level.
    If I need fast shutter speed, I simply set aperture to acceptable minimum and raise ISO if necessary. This is in my opinion far better then camera changing DOF as it wants. I usually try to avoid fully open lens, most lenses needs to be stopped down 1/2 or 1 EV to avoid really soft results.
    I do not shoot in fully manual mode except night shots. Many folks advice to use manual mode but I see no reason why it is necessary.

    1. (“In most cases I need to control depth of field and so I set aperture as first control”). This is how I would write this article – use Aperature Priority to control DOF. Use Shutter to control motion ( Frozen or Blurred). The reader needs to be an expert on DOF and all it’s uses as well as how to handle motion in all the types of pictures. Once you know what you want the picture to look like, choose the correct Priority Mode to get you going! I personally never let the camera choose my ISO. If you need to control Aperture and Shutter Speed then changing ISO to keep your exposure will be your friend! Go Manual and expect some trial and error!

  2. Josh, Another Great article. Love your site, very informative. I have had my Canon T1i for almost 2 years, and I am still intrigued by what this camera can do.
    Larry

  3. Changing light is really the only time I use aperture priority mode. Otherwise, Aperture priority mode and manual seem to do the same thing just in different ways.
    In aperture priority mode:
    If I frame my shot and I have the good fortune to have my spot meter pointed at a mid tone, then (and only then) I can rely on the camera choice of shutter speed (unless I feel confident that the camera’s matrix metering will give me the right exposure — which I usually don’t). This is the only time for me that Aperture priority is faster than manual as the camera actually picks the correct shutter speed in this case.
    If I am not metering off a midtone then the camera will not pick the correct shutter speed and I have two choices. I can point the camera and a midtone, let the camera choose a shutter speed, hit ael, and recompose.
    Or
    I can use exposure compensation based on the lightness or darkness of the tone I am metering off of. So instead of moving the shutter speed dial, I have to fiddle with the less ergonomic exposure compensation buttons to do the same thing (change shutter speed).
    The latter two procedures aren’t any quicker than pointing the camera at a mid tone, zeroing out the meter and recomposing.
    or
    Framing and changing the meter with the shutter speed dial an amount based on the tone you are taking a meter reading off of.
    Manual mode also makes it easier to check that your highlights aren’t blown out by simply pointing the camera at the highlights and checking to make sure the meter is not more than +2.

  4. @Kris @Dave Hey!
    Whenever I use aperture priority mode my pictures becomes so blurry…Can You give me some advice?

  5. When I first started shooting DSLR, I read a blog by a housewife turned photographer and she put everything out there so plain and simple.  Looking back now, one piece of advice she gave was to stay in aperture priority, because it was so easy.  Most of the pictures she took were outside of her kids.  That’s basically what I started with, but have moved on to more complex lighting situations.  Even with indoor low light situations, I was sticking with Av and setting my EV -1 to -2, ISO 800-1600, then fixing my exposure in post.  After reading this, I am definitely going to try shutter priority indoors to see how it compares. Thanks.

  6. All of this is really just silly. No matter what mode you are in the result is the same. If you want control you need to add the third part of the triangle which is ASA.
    i use a different approach after some fifty years of experience in the darkroom and digital, to wit:
    Pick your output determinant – i.e. Print size
    Set An ASA that will give good results at that print size
    Pick an aperture that gives adequate depth of field but avoids diffraction – again relative to print size
    Look at the shutter speed and adjust either of the other two exposure compromises to acheive a motif
    Visualize the motif and set exposure comp to get the desired motif into zone 5 of the meter.
    Program mode does this for you, but Manual mode is easier, in Manual just read the exp comp off the scale, you don’t need exp comp button.
    Also if you stay in manual mode, each subsequent frame will have a similar lighting effect and you don’t need to readjust anything unless the light changes, or you visualize a scene diferently.
    It is really way to easy

  7. Hi Josh. I’ve followed your blogs for years and have bought several of your products. Your teaching style works well for me. In quickly looking at this blog, of which at least some parts have been presented before, I noticed a few times where f stops and light seemed backwards. Just fyi. Keep teaching.

  8. Nice article, what about shooting sports or action with aperture priority mode? I do a lot of live concerts in low light and weddings.

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