Everything You Need to Know About Aperture Priority Mode (2024)

One of the most useful camera modes is called aperture priority. To use this mode, all you need to do on most cameras is spin your camera’s PASM dial to the “A” or “Av” setting.

Table of Contents

What Is Aperture Priority?

Aperture priority is a camera mode in which you manually set your aperture, while the camera automatically selects a shutter speed.

That’s all there is to it. So, what makes aperture priority mode so valuable?

First, it gives you full control over the single most important setting in all of photography – aperture. (Manual mode is the only other way to get full control over aperture.) Get aperture right, and everything else follows.

Second, aperture priority mode is fast to use. That’s especially true compared to manual mode, which takes more time to set properly when the light is changing.

In short, if used right, aperture priority mode lets you pick the optimal camera settings – just like in manual mode – but more quickly.

How to Use Aperture Priority Mode Optimally

Aperture priority is not hard to use, so long as you understand aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.

First, enter aperture priority mode by turning your PSAM dial to “A” (or “Av” on Canon cameras). With some Fuji and Leica cameras that don’t have a PSAM dial, you get the same effect by turning the Shutter Speed dial to Auto.

Second, you must select your aperture manually – the f-stop you plan to use. In aperture priority mode, the camera will never change the aperture you select. So, it’s very important to pick the right one for your desired depth of field (and other factors).

Third, select the proper exposure compensation. Be sure not to overexpose any important highlights in your image. Often, this will necessitate -0.3 or -0.7 exposure compensation. (This setting works by altering which shutter speed your camera selects, shifting the exposure in your desired direction.)

Fourth, pick the right ISO value. If your subject isn’t moving, and you’re shooting from a tripod, stick to base ISO. This is ISO 100 on most cameras.

I’ll cover handheld photography in a moment, but hopefully you can see why aperture priority mode is so quick to use. For something like landscape photography, you can pick a good aperture (maybe f/8), a reasonable exposure compensation (say, -0.3 EC), and base ISO – and then you’re done.

No matter how the light changes, your camera is now, essentially, set-it-and-forget-it. Yet your settings are optimal.

Shooting Handheld

For tripod-based photography, aperture priority mode is clearly useful and easy to set. But when you’re shooting handheld or your subject is moving quickly, things are a bit different.

As you know, aperture priority mode requires your camera to select a shutter speed automatically. But in dark conditions, it’s going to select a long shutter speed – say, 2 seconds – which you won’t be able to handhold sharply.

The solution is to increase ISO. As you leave base ISO and jump to ISO 400, 800, 1600, and so on, your camera will use a faster shutter speed to compensate. And you’ll get back into handholding territory.

Although you can increase ISO manually, a quicker way is often to use Auto ISO.

Auto ISO

The genius of Auto ISO is that it has a built-in shutter speed limiter. Rather than worrying about your camera selecting a 2-second shutter speed in aperture priority mode, you can manually limit shutter speed to a safer value. Maybe 1/100 second for regular handholding, or 1/500 if you’re photographing sports.

Everything You Need to Know About Aperture Priority Mode (3)

In fact, you can even limit shutter speed to change as you zoom in and out. (That’s found by changing “Minimum Shutter Speed” to “Auto.”)

Everything You Need to Know About Aperture Priority Mode (4)

By default on most cameras, this lines up with the “1/focal length” rule. With a 24-120mm zoom, the camera would stick to 1/25 second or faster at the wide end, and 1/125 second or faster at the telephoto end. (Many cameras today let you adjust this default behavior to be faster – i.e., 1/50 and 1/250 instead – or slower, if you so choose.)

My final recommendation:

  • If you’re shooting handheld, use aperture priority mode with Auto ISO and Auto Minimum Shutter Speed. If you want to be safe, prioritize Auto Minimum Shutter Speed one click “faster” than default.
  • If you’re shooting sports, use aperture priority mode with Auto ISO. Use a manual minimum shutter speed of 1/500, 1/1000, or whatever you feel will comfortably eliminate motion blur.
  • If you’re shooting from a tripod and capturing something like a landscape, use aperture priority mode without Auto ISO. Your shutter speed may end up being multiple seconds long, but there’s nothing wrong with that if your tripod is stable.

This is only a brief explanation of how useful Auto ISO can be. If you want a good primer on Auto ISO, take a look at our complete guide on the subject.

When to Avoid “A” Mode

I use aperture priority about 95% of the time for my own photography – regardless of the genre I’m shooting and whether I’m using a tripod. It’s just that flexible.

But sometimes, aperture priority mode is not ideal. That’s especially true when you need to use the same camera settings across a series of photos. For example, with panoramas or focus stacking, I almost always use Manual mode.

The same is true in conditions when automatic exposure gives you poor results. For example, with Milky Way photography, cameras rarely meter your scene correctly. Even with exposure compensation, you will often get images that are too dark or inconsistently exposed in aperture priority mode. I always use Manual for taking star photos, or other images in very dark conditions.

Aperture priority mode also restricts you to shutter speeds of 30 seconds (on most cameras) or shorter. If you want to use your camera’s bulb or time mode, you will need to be in Manual.

On top of that, I recommend using manual mode if you do flash photography. Otherwise, you won’t have total control over the balance between flash and ambient light. All of my flash-lit macro photography is done in manual mode, for example.

Lastly, some photographers like using manual mode in combination with Auto ISO for shooting sports and wildlife. That’s not a bad method in low light, but in bright conditions, you’ll be in danger of overexposure (because the camera will hit base ISO and not be able to go any darker). With aperture priority mode, you have all the same benefits without the overexposure problem, since the camera simply uses faster shutter speeds once it hits base ISO.

There are a few other cases in which manual mode could be the better choice, but those are the main situations. When you learn how to use it properly, aperture priority is surprisingly flexible.

Aperture Priority FAQs

Why Should You Use Aperture Priority Mode?

A few reasons. First, aperture priority mode is faster to use than manual mode. Second, it reacts to changing light automatically, so you are less likely to get a bad exposure. Third, it maintains almost all your control over the camera, so you can still select the optimal settings for almost any shot – as if you had done things manually.

How Do You Set Aperture Priority to Your Camera?

On most cameras, setting aperture priority is as simple as turning the PASM dial to the “A” setting (or “Av” on Canon cameras). Some cameras, like the Nikon D850, have a Mode button instead of a PASM dial, with the identical function. On a few cameras with retro designs – mainly Fuji and Leica – you get the same result by rotating the shutter speed dial to Auto, then selecting your aperture manually on the camera lens.

Do Professionals Use Aperture Priority Mode?

All the time! However, professional photographers are not a monolith. Some (like me) are big fans of aperture priority mode, while others prefer to stick with manual. Of the four PASM camera modes, aperture priority and manual are by far the most common for professional photographers to use.

Conclusion

Aperture priority mode is a lifesaver for many types of photography. It’s not a crutch for photographers who don’t understand manual mode; it’s a faster way to set optimal manual settings in changing conditions, with less risk of over- or under-exposure.

Of course, aperture priority mode is not always ideal. In cases like panorama and flash photography, manual is almost certainly the way to go. But overall, the benefits of aperture priority are pretty impressive. If you know your stuff, you’ll end up with more keepers and better exposures – with half the time to get there.

I hope you found this article on aperture priority mode to be useful! If you have any questions or recommendations on using aperture priority mode, please let me know in the comments section below.

Everything You Need to Know About Aperture Priority Mode (2024)

FAQs

Everything You Need to Know About Aperture Priority Mode? ›

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.

What are the best settings for aperture priority? ›

In Aperture Priority, if you want the best exposure with the fastest shutter speed, you need to set your dial to the widest aperture. You can do this even without looking at the settings. Remember, bigger aperture means more light coming in. If you have a kit lens, it's usually at f/3.5 you have the widest aperture.

Should I use aperture priority mode? ›

Aperture Priority is a great option for controlling your depth of field, but—at the same time—letting your camera do much of the other work. If you're new to Aperture Priority Mode, try using it in conditions where the lighting and scene in front of you are stable.

What is the disadvantage of aperture priority mode? ›

Cons: In lower light, aperture priority tends to select slow shutter speeds and therefore produces blurry images. You'll need a tripod and remote release to compensate for this. Alternatively, you can set a high ISO, but as a result will need to manually remove noise.

Do pro photographers use aperture priority? ›

Common Aperture Priority Mode Questions

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

Should I adjust aperture or ISO first? ›

When setting up your shot, you should always set your ISO first. Your ISO will affect what apertures and shutter speeds you're able to use. In low light conditions where you want to use a fast shutter speed, you may need to increase your ISO. This can help to avoid camera shake.

What mode do most photographers shoot in? ›

The two most popular modes used by professional photographers are Manual and Aperture Priority. Remember, professionals were once beginners too. Enjoy your camera experiences, no matter which mode you choose!

Can you use auto ISO in aperture priority? ›

In Aperture Priority, the aperture value is set by the user and the shutter speed value is determined by the camera system. If light levels change and the shutter speed required to achieve the correct exposure is beyond the shutter speed range of the camera, ISO Auto will increase the sensitivity.

What does aperture priority allow you to do? ›

Aperture priority, often abbreviated A or Av (for aperture value) on a camera mode dial, is a mode on some cameras that allows the user to set a specific aperture value (f-number) while the camera selects a shutter speed to match it that will result in proper exposure based on the lighting conditions as measured by the ...

Do professional photographers use auto ISO? ›

Automatic ISO is widely used by both professional and beginner photographers alike. Rather than having to manually adjust your ISO for every photo, your camera does the work.

Should sports photography be aperture or shutter priority? ›

It's best to shoot sports photos in aperture priority mode to give you full control over your aperture. The wider the aperture, the more distinct your subject will become – most sports photographers favour aperture settings at around f/2.8 to f/3.5.

How do you set a perfect aperture? ›

Grab your camera and set your camera mode to “Aperture Priority“. Set your lens aperture on your camera to the lowest possible number the lens will allow, such as f/1.4 if you have a fast lens or f/3.5 on slower lenses. Set your ISO to 200 and make sure that “Auto ISO” is turned off.

What aperture priority for long exposure? ›

Make sure your camera is set to manual mode, or aperture priority mode. Then, set the aperture to the right value for the composition. For example, if you're shooting a long exposure landscape, use an aperture setting between f/8 and f/11.

Do you set aperture first? ›

If freezing the action is the most important element, then select your shutter speed first, and adjust the aperture as needed to to obtain the proper exposure. If depth of field is important, set the aperture to obtain the desired depth of field, and then adjust the shutter speed to obtain the desired exposure.

What is the best aperture rate? ›

To achieve a medium depth of field, you need to use a moderate aperture, such as f/8, f/11, or f/16. You also need to consider the angle and composition of your shot, and use a tripod if necessary to avoid camera shake.

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