You've probably heard to be a "real" photographer you have to shoot in Manual mode. Well, I'm here to cry ^&*s**t! to that. We spend hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars on our cameras, why wouldn't we take advantage of the technology available to help us think less about our camera settings and more about the photograph we are creating?
Download Your FREE Cheat Sheets!!
Confidently set your camera in any situation!!
your camera dial explained
If you are just starting your photography journey, let's take a step back for a moment. You've probably heard about shooting in Auto. Otherwise known as "the green box" on your dial. This is no different than shooting with an iPhone or point and shoot. Your camera makes all of the decisions for you. You are not in control. Often, you will get really nice pictures, but not always.
I like to break the camera dials down into quadrants. The first quadrant being Auto. The second being "Semi-Automatic." These are the little icons you see such as the Head, Mountain, Running man, and Flower. These will vary from camera to camera. If you have a semi-professional or professional camera you will not see them at all.
These little icons give your camera a "hint" about what you are shooting. It's like saying "hey camera, I am taking a picture of a person right now so I'd like you to attempt a blurry background." The CAMERA still controls everything. It controls whether your flash pops up (blek!) and all of your settings. You may or may not get the results you are after. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "I put my camera on the little running man for my kids game but the pictures are all blurry." Your camera is not broken, it just needs to be in ideal conditions for it to work properly and give you the results you were expecting.
The third quadrant is where I like to live about 75% of the time (the other 25% being full manual.) These are the semi-manual modes otherwise known as Aperture Priority mode (Av: Canon and A: for most everyone else) and Shutter Priority mode (Tv: Canon and S: for most everyone else.) I rarely use Shutter Priority mode with the exception of a few specific instances. Aperture Priority mode is where the magic can happen (more on this coming up!)
The fourth and final quadrant is Manual Mode. Manual Mode is where you control everything from the f-stop to the focus to the flash. It is something you absolutely need to learn eventually, but as a beginner, you will see quick wins shooting in Aperture Priority mode. Sometimes you need those quick wins to keep you motivated and excited to keep shooting and learning.
what is aperture and aperture priority mode?
In the video above, I made a quick gif to show you the aperture ring inside of your camera's lens. It opens and closes to let in more light (wide open) or shut out the light (closed down.) This opening and closing also controls how blurry your background will be. When you shoot wide open, your background will be more blurry, when you shoot closed down, your background will be more in focus.
I like to think of this as my eyes. Think of opening your eyes as wide as they will go and staring...things will get really blurry right? Now think of the morning, you don't have your contacts in and you need to read the alarm clock. You squint. You make your eyes smaller to get things into focus. This has always helped me remember how aperture works.
Now that you know what aperture is, let's talk about aperture priority. Aperture Priority mode allows you to choose your aperture and the camera pretty much does the rest for you.
Picture this...the video above...the opening of your lens gets bigger. It lets in more light as the hole gets wider. Your camera will then make adjustments to the shutter speed to make sure your picture is not overexposed (too bright.) Conversely, if you make your opening smaller, the camera adjusts to let in MORE light so you don't have a dark picture. So you choose how much blur you want in your background, the camera makes sure the exposure is correct.
To contrast this to Auto and Manual mode, in Auto mode you don't get to choose your Aperture. You get what you get and you don't pitch a fit. In Manual, you get to choose your aperture but you also have to reset your shutter speed so it requires more knowledge and more time. It requires quick thinking on the fly. This can be frustrating when you are just starting to learn how to use your camera. Which is why I love Aperture Priority mode.
Let's talk about when to use it, when to use caution, and when to go full manual.
Are you shopping for a camera? Check out my FREE class to help you decide.
when you should use aperture priority mode
- 1When you have a variable aperture lens
- 2When you have shifting light
- 3When you don't want to have to think about your camera settings constantly
Let's take a look at each of these...
Most entry level lenses (the "kit" lens that comes with your camera) have a variable aperture. What does that mean? That means that if you have an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (these are the numbers on your lens and represents how wide open your lens will go,) at 18mm (your widest angle) your aperture will open to f/3.5 and at 55mm (the furthest in your lens will zoom) your aperture will open to f/5.6.
Why does this matter? It matters because the opening is getting smaller as you zoom in. As it gets smaller it is letting in less light. You need to let in more light somehow to keep the same exposure. Instead of getting super confused by this, your camera will do this for you in Aperture Priority mode. You zoom in to 55mm to get in close and your camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed for you. This is a really great option when you are just starting out.
Let's take a look at shifting light. If you've ever been to a soccer game and it is cloudy you know that the sun comes in and out. This light change will change your exposure. Once again, as you shoot the game and the sun goes behind the clouds, your camera will make the adjustments. It will be less likely you miss the shot because you were fiddling with your camera settings.
Finally, aperture priority mode is just a really great all around shooting mode. As long as you don't have extremes in light, you will generally get a pleasing exposure. I like to shoot wide open to get a blurry background so I set my aperture and let the camera do the rest. It won't pop your flash and you won't end up with camera settings that are all over the place which makes for a nice consistent set of photos.
when you need to use caution using Aperture Priority mode
- 1The sun is setting
- 2Nighttime and low light
- 3Your subject is wearing black or white
I say use caution here because it isn't a total no-no but I've been burned here before!!! When the sun is setting is probably the most common "gotcha."
Let's look at this scenario. You've been at baseball games all day. Your pictures are great so you aren't really paying attention to your camera. The championship game starts about 5 p.m. You keep on shooting. The sun starts setting (less light) so your camera does what it's been programmed to do. It slows the shutter speed to let in more light. You aren't paying attention and you get home and the ENTIRE championship game is blurry. What the )(&^?
This could have been easily fixed if you were paying attention to your shutter speed. If it starts dropping below 1/500 of a second you have to increase your ISO which will keep your shutter speed higher and your photographs crisp. If this is making your brain explode, download my free cheat sheets to take to your next game. This will help you set your camera step by step.
The same concept applies to low light or night photography. You really have to pay attention to the shutter speed. Your camera is always going to do what it's been programmed to do to get a proper exposure. It doesn't give you a warning bell that everything is going to be blurry so you have to really pay attention. My free cheat sheets cover this scenario as well.
The final scenario is not as obvious. If your subject is wearing white (think Brides) your camera could "read the scene" as very bright and actually darken the picture. If your subject is wearing black (think black jersey for sports) your camera could read the scene as dark and brighten it up. Your camera is actually programmed to do some match and calculate the scene to 18% gray. This works all find and dandy until you encounter black and white. It wants to make white gray (have you ever taken a picture of snow and it looked gray instead of bright white?) and it wants to make blacks gray. This is where manual will serve you better or you will likely have to brighten or darken in an editing program. Just be aware of this!!
when you should not use aperture priority (you need full manual mode)
- 1Extremely backlit photographs
- 2Fixed light
Backlighting is really hard. It FLOODS your sensor with light and confuses your camera. You will get extremely inconsistent and likely very dark photos if you use Aperture Priority mode. It is best to use manual so that your camera doesn't change settings every time the light hits the sensor.
I also prefer to use manual in light that doesn't change. The best example I can use is when my daughters used to swim. We would have meets at Georgia Tech at an indoor pool. I would set my camera once and forget it. This led to consistently lit photos. It isn't that you can't use Aperture Priority mode in this situation, I would just recommend you don't. You get better, more consistent results using Manual mode.
aperture priority summary
Use caution when...
not a great choice for...
I know this is a lot of information. I'd love to hear your opinion on Aperture Priority mode. Do you think it is cheating or like me, it's just a great way to focus on the photos. Join our Facebook community and post your pictures there, or follow us on Instagram and use the hashtag #thebiggirlschool to show us your work!
Related Articles: How to Get a Blurry Background
Andrea Ferenchik, Founder
Andrea started The Big Girl School because she loves sharing her passion of photography with other women. As a former trainer at Microsoft and current professional photographer, she has the unique ability to break down technical jargon of the camera into easy to understand language. She loves nothing more than to see her students grow and thrive in their photographic journey.
If you like this tutorial on aperture priority mode, please pin it on Pinterest. The image below is perfect for pinning! Simply click on the "P" below this image and the “Pinterest Save” button will show up. Click that and save this pin to Pinterest.