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Which mode is better? Aperture priority or shutter priority?

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Which mode is better? Aperture priority or shutter priority?

Digital cameras come with a variety of different automatic modes, each with their own distinct purpose. By learning some of these modes, you can ease the transition from automatic photography to manual photography. That’s certainly the case with shutter priority and aperture priority modes. I’ve recently discussed both those modes in my newsletters, but which one is better and why?


You can use aperture priority mode to take pictures like this one

What does each mode do?

Before we can decide which of the two modes is the best, it only makes sense to talk about what the two modes. Each has its own emphasis. Aperture priority mode allows you to specify the aperture to use when taking a picture. The camera does everything else for you. Similarly, shutter priority mode places an emphasis on shutter speed. When using that mode, you pick the shutter speed leaving everything else to the camera.

The question is really the following: Out of each setting, the aperture or the shutter speed, which is more important for you as a photographer to control? Although many will argue that both are important, if I had to pick one, it would be the aperture for a lot of reasons. I’m not saying shutter speed isn’t an important setting to isolate. It’s just not as important as aperture in terms of what it means for the entire photo.

Why aperture priority mode is clearly the winner

Almost all professional photographers who understand manual mode have certain set of steps they go through every time they take picture. Can you guess what the first step is? That’s right, they pick an aperture. The aperture you choose isn’t just some unimportant variable. It’s absolutely central to the photographs you take. All else, in almost all of photography, is secondary.

Why is that? Well, the aperture determines how much of your image is in focus and how much of it is out of focus. Photographers have a term for this. They call it the depth of field. When you have a bigger depth of field, more of the image is in focus. When you have a shorter depth of field, less of it is.

All of this has a huge impact on the photograph. Depending on what you’re shooting, you may or may not want to have a bigger depth of field. Let’s say, for example, that you’re shooting a close-up portrait out on a busy street. If you increase the depth of field, the background comes into focus completely, and it can be distracting. However, if you decrease the depth of field, the background becomes a blur, and the image appears more concentrated and visually appealing.

Most of photography is about figuring this out. You need to develop an eye for certain scenes and the aperture that goes with them. Close-up portraits, like I said above, tend to work well with wide-open small f-number apertures. Large and open landscapes, on the other hand, tend to work well with closed off large f-number apertures. As the aperture closes, and the f-number goes up, the depth of field goes up as well. And when you want to get an entire landscape into the shot, it helps when it is entirely in focus.


The hills are alive with the sound of music. Use large f-number apertures (like F22) for pictures like this one

Some scenes are intermediary. We call this the “anything goes” zone where the aperture doesn’t really matter that much. What types of photos fall into this category? Sunsets, art on walls, pictures of clouds, and basically anything that doesn’t have a lot of depth to it. The sunset is too far away to have depth, so we pick an aperture that’s good enough for the relatively “flat” thing we’re trying to photograph. The same goes with walls or people standing in front of walls. There isn’t much depth to photograph, so depth of field doesn’t really matter that much.

Here’s a handy reference with f-numbers:

  • The portrait and macro zone (F1.4 to F5.6) When you take pictures in this zone, you want the background to appear so blurred that it’s practically out of the shot. This works great with pictures of peoples’ faces, flowers, bugs, and closeups of animals.
  • The “it doesn’t really matter” zone (F8 to F10) Your subject, when shooting in this zone, doesn’t have a lot of depth. Maybe you’re shooting something far away like the sunset, or you’re shooting something flat like the side of a barn. Either way, these intermediary apertures gives you enough depth of field to work with.
  • The landscape zone (F11 to F22) To put it bluntly, you’re shooting the long rolling hills from The Sound Of Music, and you want every blade of grass to appear in crisp and smooth detail. With these apertures, you’re practically guaranteed they will. Just remember to bring a tripod. You’ll probably need a longer exposure.

Contrast with shutter priority mode

Shutter priority mode can also be useful as long as you know when you need it. Just like aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode only gives you control over one setting, and that is the shutter speed. Although shutter speed isn’t as central to a photograph as the aperture, it’s still pretty important. Sometimes it’s more important, especially when you’re shooting sports. That’s because, with the right shutter speed, you can freeze action.

Water is another example where varying the shutter speed can change the look of the image. In the photo to the right, a fast shutter speed was used to freeze the water in place. If a slower shutter speed were used, the water would look to ‘flow’ in the photo.

Here’s the tradeoff. You pick a faster shutter speed so you can freeze the action, but then the camera picks a wider aperture to let more light in. Your athlete appears perfectly frozen with no blurs, but the background is a little out of focus. Contrast this with an image, like the one to the right, in which your athlete is motion blurred, and the background is more in focus. The latter, when shooting sports photography, is clearly the better option. By picking shutter priority mode and choosing a shutter speed of, say, 1/500s, that’s the kind of photo you’re telling the camera to take.

Eventually, as you learn to use both modes, you’ll get a clear grasp of what’s more important in each picture you take. About 90% of the time, you’ll be picking the aperture first, and for the other 10%, the shutter speed will be first.

Once you’ve figured out which is more important for each individual type of shot, you’ll be completely ready for manual mode. After all, the only difference between manual mode and aperture priority or shutter priority modes is one extra variable. When you learn that every image hinges on a single aperture or shutter speed variable, the rest of the manual camera settings fall into place. It’s like solving a math problem.

So for now, get on out there and practice with aperture priority mode. Get a real sense of how each of the different apertures I’ve listed works with each type of scene. As soon as you’ve figured that out, switch over to manual mode, and try to take the same pictures using the apertures you chose earlier. At that point, it’s a simple matter of matching up the shutter speed. You’ll have manual mode figured out in no time!

Got any questions about aperture priority or shutter priority modes? Send me an email or leave a comment below, and I’d be happy to answer.

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (20)

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  1. Noel says:

    Thanks again for this very helpful tips. I’ll try them.

  2. Tony says:

    Hi David
    Your tips are excellent i have learnt a lot expecially using my camera in manual mode i have got a canon 550d and 60d. I do a lot of wedding photography,Thanks a million.
    Kind Regards
    Tony
    S.A

  3. Arun says:

    David, priceless information. Your articles have answered many of my questions. I have learned alot.

    Thank you.

  4. Sadhana says:

    Hello david!!!
    Million thanks for this wonderful tips!!! i learnt a lot. looking forward to your mail :)

  5. Brenda says:

    You are a true inspiration to all us enthusiastic snappers, especially those like me that have a significant camera but no idea how to use it! Think it is about time I got that book……..
    It is a shame more experts with vast experience do not share their knowledge FOR FREE as you have done. Big thanks from all your fans.

  6. SATHYA says:

    Dear Davdid

    I am a beginner, find your articles very useful easy to understand, for amateures like us. Great
    thanksa lot.

  7. NEVILLE says:

    DAVID HAS COVERED THE SUBJECT VERY WELL. THE ONLY DIFFERENCE IS I ONLY USE f11 FOR LANDSCAPES. MY LANDSCAPES ARE CRYSTAL SHARP FORM FRONT TO BACK, AND I REALLY DON’T NEED A HIGHER STOP. FURTHERMORE, f11 WOULD USE A FASTER SPEED, WHICH WOULD COVER ANY MOVEMENT IN THE LANDSCAPE. WIND ALWAYS BLOWS, COWS ALWAYS WALK.

  8. Tom says:

    Great stuff David as usual, always look forward to your emails.

  9. Dianne says:

    I purchased my Samsung NX-10 a few months ago (love this camera). Since reading your articles and buying your books I can honestly say I am getting better photos every day. However, I have learned that the trick is NOT the camera but the knowledge of how to use it. Thanks so much!

  10. adrian scott says:

    learn more fom your column than any camera mag/book out there. Briliant tips

  11. Nafisah says:

    Thanks David for the very informative and wonderful tips. I love it. Will try and find your book here in Malaysia.

  12. medardo b. codilan says:

    Hello David,

    Your tips are very enlightening, it makes me more confident taking photohraphs.

    Thank you and more power!

  13. Ray Jones, (Australia.) says:

    If the Camera Guides confuse you…..

    THEN…..

    don’t waste more time…..

    BUY DAVID’s BOOK.

    You’ll never regret it.

    Ray Jones.

  14. Yahya says:

    Thank you so much for this great article. I am very grateful to you and
    I consider myself lucky to be a subscriber to your free digital photography secrets. This have helped me in solving many photograpy and camera puzzles.
    Yahya

  15. Ben says:

    Worth bearing in mind that apertures like f22 won’t give you the best quality image due to diffraction; you’re better off using a larger aperture and hyperfocal focussing.

    Also, most professional photographers stick to aperture mode most of the time; manual mode is only useful in certain situations and is certainly not the pinnacle of photographic excellence.

  16. Jannie says:

    Hi David,
    Thank you for the wonderful news letter, articles. I am 65 and my health is on the moment not good but we will be better…. lol. Yes, I was in the early 80′s on my best with the old SLR. and my favorite photos are, animal and flowers in the wild. Of course landscape and – and. I enjoy this articles from you very much, the book I will by on a later time.
    Thanks again
    have a good one
    Jannie

  17. Ronald Hurst says:

    I just recently bought a Canon T3i. Is there a manual that is easier to understand then the one that comes with the camera.
    I get confused on how to find the information in the camera to make the sttings you are refering to.
    Of course tha @ mode and TV mode etc are easy but from there I am not comfortable yet.
    Any ideas?
    Thank you
    Ron

  18. Steve Robertson says:

    Thank you for this very fine article. I hope to put this information to use in my photography.

  19. SAJU NINAN says:

    HELLO DAVID,
    WONDERFUL TIPS YOU SEND ON MY MAIL. ITS WORTH A MILION. I LOVE TO GET YOUR NEWSLETTER BECAUSE I LEARN A LOT FROM THESE.
    REGARDS & THANKS A MILLION
    SAJU

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