Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual Mode – which should I be using?

Living near a big city like Vancouver, I get to spy a lot of amateur photography tourists on my travels. So many of them now have the “big” camera – otherwise known as the DSLR. The body/lens combo is more popular now for even the most infrequent photographer. They have become much cheaper and more mainstream than ever before. The thing that drives me nuts though? A good 85% of those cameras I see are switched to ‘auto’. And I can’t help but wonder WHY. Why would you spend out on a camera that can do SO MUCH, and yet keep it on auto and wonder why your photographs aren’t quite hitting the mark? I’m going to hit you with a beast of a technical post today folks. Because I want you to start figuring out how to use your beautiful cameras! Don’t leave it stuck on auto!

What is aperture priority?

Here it comes, the first technical phrase of this post. Aperture priority. 

First off, what is aperture? Well, you know when you take a photograph and one part of the image is sharp and in focus and everything in front of, or behind, it is all blurry? That’s not a filter. That is something called depth of field and it is controlled by the aperture your camera is shooting at.

In very simple terms, the aperture is otherwise known as the f-stop. It relates to how big or small the aperture of your shutter opens to when you take a photograph. The smaller the number, the larger the hole and the shallower the depth of field, meaning lots more blur. The larger the number, the smaller the hole and the wider the depth of field, so more parts of the image are in focus.

There’s a good chance reading that made you go cross-eyed. So allow me to demonstrate with two images.






















The first image was shot at f/1.8 (so – a small number, big hole, shallower depth of field). You’ll see only a small part of my hamster mascot is in focus and the notebook and window behind him are blurred. 

The second image was shot at f/16 (big number, small hole, broader depth of field). Now all my mascot is in focus and, while the window and notebook are still blurred, they are much more defined than the previous example.

Still with me? Good!

The thing to remember with aperture is that shooting “wide open” (the smaller number – sorry, there’s no simple way to explain why it’s all arse about face!) means more light is being let through the shutter and on to the sensor. This means if you shoot with a narrower aperture (the bigger number!), less light is being let in. So, images will be darker unless you make other adjustments with your camera.

Here’s where using Aperture Priority comes in. If you select Aperture Priority, you are being given control over what aperture to shoot at. So you get to decide if you want lots of your image in focus or you want that super blurry feel. The beauty of your DSLR is that it will then make decisions based on what aperture you choose (like shutter speed and ISO) to ensure your image is well exposed.

Why not have a play now and see what you think?

What is shutter priority?

Ok, so let’s now have a look at shutter priority. This is a little simpler to explain and understand.

Simply put, shutter priority deals with shutter speed. In other words, the amount of time your shutter is open for. 

Speed is written in seconds or fractions of a second. So, 1/125 is one one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth of a second, 1/1000 would be one one-thousandth of a second and so on. This may show on your camera as 125 or 1000 (dropping the initial 1/). One second would show as 1”. 

As you might imagine, the larger the number after 1/, the faster the shutter speed. So 1/1000 is much faster than 1/125. Shutter speeds range on cameras anywhere from around 1/8000 (fastest) right through to 30” (slowest). 

Choosing your shutter speed all depends on what you want to do. For example, if you’re photographing a sports event and you want to freeze the action, you need to be shooting at faster shutter speeds. However, if you’re photographing a flowing river and you want to show the motion of the water, you’ll need to shoot at much slower shutter speeds (and use a tripod!).

So, by selecting shutter priority, you will be in control of the shutter speed you want to shoot at. This means your camera will work out what the best aperture and ISO will be to keep your image well exposed. 

Have a play with shutter priority and see if you can notice any differences.

What is manual mode?

Very simply put, manual mode is exactly what it says. You’re switching your camera into manual so that you can take control of every aspect of your image. From choosing the aperture through to choosing the shutter speed and the ISO to get the image you want.

There are several schools of thought on this one folks. I’m going to share a little story in a moment that I hope will clear things up for you. But you may hear, on many a photography forum, that using something like aperture priority or shutter priority is for losers. That if you don’t learn manual mode, you’re not a real photographer. That you can’t call yourself a photographer if you don’t switch to manual. 

Now, while I advocate stepping away from auto mode – because you might as well buy a point-and-shoot if you’re going to stay in it and save yourself a few pennies – I also don’t believe it has to be an “all or nothing” approach, either. 

When I got started with photography, I began with aperture priority. Those creamy bokeh blurs are the thing I loved most about photography (that hasn’t changed!) and so using aperture priority felt right to me. You know what? I didn’t move away from that for almost 15 years!

I shot weddings in aperture priority. I photographed plenty of paying clients using it. And here’s the thing. I fretted about it until a photographer I loved and admired asked me one very simple question. Five words. ‘Are you getting the shot?’ And when I said that I was, she replied, ‘Well, that’s all that matters then.’ 

You know what? She was right.

I did make the switch to manual about a year after that conversation because I was feeling the limitations of allowing my camera to make choices for me. But my point here is that you don’t have to go straight to manual if you’re not happy or comfortable to. And you can still be a fantastic photographer and not shoot in manual. 

So there. 

So, the best advice I can give you for choosing which mode to shoot in, as you’re starting, is this. Play with them all. Learn how each one works and then figure out which one you like best and which one gets the best results for you. 

And just because you’ve chosen one way, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it! I occasionally flip back into Aperture Priority when my brain won’t work and I can’t figure out what settings I need. There’s no shame in that. It’s about getting the shot and if anyone judges you for how you do that, well fuck ‘em. They’re not worth knowing anyway.