All those buttons and dials on your camera can get pretty darn confusing. Before you click the shutter button, you have to think about lighting, composition, shutter speed, depth of field, exposure and more.
Many professional photographers will praise the many benefits of using manual mode on your camera. Which gives you complete control over every aspect of the image.
And yes… shooting in manual does give you full control over the exposure.
But it can also get pretty time consuming and complicated!
Especially for those of us who want to get out with our cameras simply for the joy of capturing photos.
Fortunately, there’s a camera setting that allows you to capture great photos, without all the complicated dials.
It’s aperture priority.
Which also happens to be one of the most used camera settings by photographers.
Before we get into the details, let’s first define aperture.
The aperture setting on your camera controls how much light reaches the sensor. A wider aperture allows more light through the lens and into the camera. A narrow aperture allows less light into the camera.
Aperture also allows you to control the depth of field. It’s a fun setting to play around with because it has such a huge impact on the look and feel of your photo.
Now.. back to those camera settings. Why is aperture priority a photographer’s best friend?
When your camera is in aperture priority mode, you choose the aperture and the rest is automatic!
Much less pressure than manual mode.
It’s an easy way to shoot, while still retaining a lot of creative control over your photography.
Plus, it works great for 95% of your photos. Including portraits, weddings, landscapes, and even long-exposure shots.
Anytime I have good light, aperture priority is my go-to setting.
It also allows you to create those beautifully blurred backgrounds that make your portraits look stunning.
Simply set your camera to the largest aperture and you’ll get beautiful bokeh.
Quick note: In photography a larger aperture means a smaller number. So the smaller the number, the larger the aperture. Kind of confusing. But I promise you’ll get used to it.
f/1.8 and f/1.4 are both excellent options for creating a silky bokeh background.
A “small” aperture of f/16 means that almost all of your image is in total focus without the blurred background.
This setting is useful if you’re taking large family photos where you want everyone in focus.
The aperture setting gives you full control over the depth of field. Allowing you to create a shallow depth of field where the subject is in focus and the background is nice and blurred.
This allows you to isolate the subject from its environment. Which is perfect for portraits.
You can also create interesting effects like this:
A large depth of field, on the other hand, (ex. f/16) means that almost all of your image is in focus. Giving you a deeper (larger) depth-of-field.
So in other words, aperture allows you to control how much of your image is in focus.
Aperture priority mode is perfect on sunny days where you’re able to take advantage of natural light. If you want to change the brightness of the image, you can do so with the exposure compensation meter provided on your camera. You can also control the brightness with ISO if you take ISO out of auto mode.
A higher ISO setting will produce a brighter image. However, be careful here as increasing the ISO can also increase the “noise” in your photo.
(If you’re just getting started, put ISO in auto mode and you should be fine. The camera is generally pretty good at choosing the best ISO setting on its own.)
Aperture priority mode also works well for portraits. Whether you’re using off-camera flash or natural light.
With portraits, you’ll want to focus on the eyes. You can experiment with different apertures. But f/8 is an excellent one to start with when shooting portraits.
Aperture priority mode also works well for landscapes. Allowing you to choose how much of the photo is in focus. To see everything in focus, you’ll need a wider aperture. Probably closer to f/16 for landscape photography if you’re wanting to capture the entire scene.
Although you can experiment with other apertures to create different effects. This is especially true if you want to bring something in the foreground into focus.
It’s always recommended to use a tripod when shooting landscapes. As this will give you the sharpest image.
Times When You Should NOT Use Aperture Priority
There are certain situations when aperture priority simply won’t get the best results.
This is true for low light situations and when you’re shooting fast objects.
For sharp images in low light, it’s often best to use shutter speed priority. Another semi-automatic mode.
In low light, you often need a higher shutter speed in order to avoid blurry images. Shutter priority mode gives you full control of the shutter speed, while your camera takes care of everything else.
In summary, if I’ve got plenty of light, aperture priority is my go-to camera setting.
If you’re doing low light photography (or capturing fast moving objects), you’ll want to change over to shutter priority.
And for nighttime landscapes, you may need to go full on manual. The lighting at night can be quite varied and unpredictable. Which requires more control over the camera settings.
But we’ll save that for another day.
Some notes on choosing the best aperture.
One thing to keep in mind is that when you use extreme apertures at either end of the spectrum (largest or smallest), you’re going to lose some sharpness in your photo.
Now, depending on how you’re going to use the image, this might not matter much to you.
But each lens seems to have a “sweet spot”. The aperture where photos appear sharpest. And this differs from lens to lens. So you’ll need to experiment with your own camera and lens to find that sweet spot.
This is typically 2 to 3 stops down from the widest aperture, which is right around f/8 on most lenses.
That’s why many photographers start at f/8 and adjust from there based on what they’re shooting. In fact, f/8 is a good go-to setting for most portraits and street photography.
So play around with your camera to see which settings give you the sharpest image. But also remember, there are no hard and fast rules. The loss in sharpness caused from diffraction is not going to be extreme. In fact, sometimes it’s not even noticeable.
So don’t let this scare you away from experimenting at both ends of the spectrum.
Because that’s the great thing about aperture priority.
It allows you to focus on the joy of photography.
Giving you creative freedom, without a lot of complicated settings.
If you’re stuck in automatic mode, give aperture priority a try.
It’s great for beginners and professionals alike.
Happy Shooting 🙂