Selecting Camera Mode: Manual, Aperture Priority & Shutter Priority

Use the mode that helps you capture the image you want

Are the settings on your camera really so hard to understand? Of course not, but it can seem that way at the start, especially if they are not explained to you in simple terms you can understand.

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For some photography snobs, shooting in manual mode is a badge of honor, shunning any other mode as something akin to cheating. I do shoot in manual mode, but I use Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority as my preferred modes of choice.

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Typically represented by a capital A (or sometimes Av, short for Aperture Value) on the camera mode dial, aperture priority allows the photographer to dial in this specific exposure setting—the ƒ-stop—and asks the camera to calculate the correct corresponding shutter speed in the instant before the shutter is released. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s back up just a moment for a better understanding of how aperture priority mode works.

Related: 10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

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A camera has three primary exposure modifiers: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The aperture (also called ƒ-stop) is the size of the opening in the lens which modifies the amount of light that’s let into the camera.

The shutter speed modifies the duration that light is let into the camera.

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And the ISO (or film speed, back in the old days) represents how sensitive to light the sensor will be. A higher ISO is more sensitive to light (and produces more noise) while a lower ISO is less light sensitive but produces a cleaner signal and better image quality. These days, though, sensor technology is so good that even high ISOs still look great.

Related: Photography: The Geometry of Nature

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It’s by adjusting these three settings in combination that proper exposure is established. If you allow in less light with a smaller aperture, you’ll need to balance it with more light from a longer shutter speed. Add to one, take away from the other. Simple, right?

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Well, sometimes it’s not so simple, particularly in situations in which the light is changing. This could be when I’m photographing in full sun then moments later in shade. These changing situations make automatic exposure modes more convenient than continuously recalculating the correct manual exposure.

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But rather than turning over all the control to the camera, modes such as Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority allow the photographer to retain manual control over one specific setting. In this case, it’s Aperture Priority, where the photographer sets the ƒ-stop and the camera calculates the correct shutter speed to accompany it.

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Aperture Priority mode is particularly helpful in situations where the photographer wants to set a specific depth of field and have that setting take priority over the shutter speed.

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Aperture Priority is my mode of choice with landscape photography. To create a sharp image area through greater depth of field the photographer can dial in a tiny aperture such as ƒ/22, and in Aperture Priority the camera will determine which shutter speed will produce the correct exposure. Be warned, though, that in this case, a tripod may be necessary if low light requires a long shutter speed that’s too long to handhold.

Related: Travel Photography Tips You Don’t Usually Hear

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Now that we understand the way Aperture Priority mode works, we’ll look at its counterpart on the automatic exposure spectrum: Shutter Priority exposure mode.

Often represented by an S or Sv on the camera mode dial, Shutter Priority mode sees the photographer dialing in a manual shutter speed and leaving the selection of the appropriate aperture to the camera’s brain.

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As with any automatic exposure mode, Shutter Priority is particularly helpful in changing light situations, though it’s useful in any situation in which it’s the shutter speed you primarily want to control.

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For instance, when I’m shooting birds I want at least 1/500th, I can set the shutter speed in Shutter Priority and let the camera pick the correct aperture to accompany it.

Related: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

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Be aware though if your shutter speed is too fast for the available light you may end up with underexposed images. This can be corrected by dialing in a higher ISO.

Worth Pondering…

Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.

—Peter Adams

10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

From just-starting-out to novice to experienced, there’s something we can all learn to improve our photos

Photography is a beautiful journey, filled with adventure, and an occasional killer photo. Regardless of where you are on that journey—just starting or embarking on a professional career—these 20 quick little tips will help you and your images stay in focus.

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1. No matter how pro you get, it’s still a passion play

Don’t lose the spark that got you into photography. Your passion for creating beautiful images of things that interest you is the underlying motivating force behind every shot you take. When that spark goes out, it also leaves your images. So, treat your inspiration and creativity as the most vital skill you have. Honor it, cultivate it, and nurture it.

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2. Lighting is everything

You can always get to know light better. Whether it’s landscape photography or birds, lighting is the most important part of photography. Try different ways of capturing light.

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3. Establish your own composition rules

Whether it’s an adherence to the rule of thirds, a love of circles, filling the frame, dramatic lines, or repeating patterns, your choices in how you frame a shot defines your photography.

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4. Shoot like a pro, think like a student

As good as your photos get, there’s always room to learn and improve. When you keep a student mentality, it keeps you curious and focused.

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5. Zen and the art of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

Here’s what you need to know about the big three: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Each is designed to give more light with a payoff. Understand what each element takes away as it increases light:

  • A larger aperture gives more light but takes away the length of your depth of field (blurrier backgrounds)
  • Slower shutter speeds give more light but make your images blurry with camera motion or subject movement
  • Higher ISO offer more light but adds noise to your image

When shooting in manual, know what the controls take away as well as what they give you.

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6. Leading your viewer

As lines recede in space, they converge. We know it as perspective. Photographers use leading lines to engage the viewer by drawing their attention into and through an image and to create a dynamic feel. Experiment with the height of your camera, how you position it to look down a road or meandering stream, and where the lines all lead. Kneeling down can dramatically change the way a photo will feel. Likewise, looking down from a high point will alter the perspective. And don’t forget to turn around. A stellar shot may be behind you.

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7. Move closer

As the legendary photographer, Robert Capa used to say, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” To get the composition you need, sometimes you need to get close—really close. Moving in close to foreground subjects adds incredible depth to a photo. In most cases, you’ll want to shoot at a small aperture to maximize the depth of field in the resulting image.

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8. Always have your camera with you

Put your camera in an unassuming backpack or another option, and keep it near at hand—just in case. You can’t take a photo if you don’t have your camera handy.

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9. There won’t be a next time

I’m sure I’m not the only one who says “That’s a great scene, but I’m just too tired, or I’m in a hurry. I’ll return later when there’s improved quality of light or come back another day.” There’s rarely a next time—and if there is, conditions have changed.

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10. Learn by adjusting

In the beginning, you go out and shoot, and some images look good and some don’t. Then you adjust and get a higher percentage of good images. As you move on from there, never stop those little adjustments. That one step closer to the subject, a slightly steadier hand, experimenting with leading lines—these little things will improve your photography one small adjustment at a time.

Want more on photography? Right this way!

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Worth Pondering…

Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.

—Alfred Eisenstaedt