An Introduction to Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Modes

An Introduction to Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Modes

This is the first in a series of four articles about exposure by Andrew S Gibson – author of Understanding Exposure: Perfect Exposure on your EOS camera.

The mode dial on the EOS 60D, showing all the camera’s exposure modes

A feature of modern digital SLRs is that most models have several fully automatic exposure modes (the exceptions are some semi-professional and professional models).

If you’re completely new to photography then this is where you’ll start. Fully automatic modes are designed for you to start using an SLR camera without any technical knowledge whatsoever. Just put it in full auto, and let the camera take care of the rest. It will calculate the three settings that make up an exposure – aperture, shutter speed and ISO – for you.

If you’ve moved up from a compact camera, then this is probably the way that you’re used to working anyway, as most compacts don’t let you set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings individually.

The SLR difference

There are two main reasons for buying an SLR camera. One is to use interchangeable lenses. The other is to give you full control over the camera settings.

Over the last few years, a new class of mirrorless cameras also gives you the same advantages.

By learning to set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO yourself, and understanding the effect that each of these has on your photos, you are getting involved in the creative side of photography.

This is exciting because this process is how you start making photos, not just taking them.

More automatic exposure modes

As well as fully automatic, your camera probably has some more specific fully automatic modes, such as landscape, portrait or sports. These are also fairly straightforward and mean that the camera will try and select settings that suit those subjects, rather than use the generic, one size fits all, settings of fully automatic.

For example, if you choose landscape mode, the camera will set a small aperture as that increases the depth-of-field. The assumption here is that you want everything in the frame to be in focus.

Alternatively, if you choose sports mode, the camera will set a fast shutter speed, working on the basis that you want to freeze the action.

This sounds useful, but I think that these fully automatic modes do more harm than good. They clutter up the mode dial, offer too many choices and can be quite confusing.

But that’s not all. Each of these modes is very restrictive. For example, on my EOS cameras, I can’t adjust the ISO in any of the fully automatic modes. I can’t apply exposure compensation if the camera is getting the exposure wrong. I can’t change the Picture Style, or even decide whether or not to use the built-in flash. The camera makes all these decisions for me, and I don’t get a say. As a creative photographer I don’t like that (no-one likes getting told what to do, right?)

Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority & Manual modes

So how do you address this? The easiest, and best way, is to stick to using the following exposure modes: program auto exposure, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual.

This is the sort of photo you can take with program mode. The precise aperture and shutter speed aren’t important.

Program Auto Exposure mode

Program AE is a useful mode. It’s just like using your camera in fully automatic except that it gives you the ability to override the camera’s decisions. Additionally, most cameras have an ‘exposure shift’ function that lets you change the exposure settings the camera selected if you don’t like them.

For example, if your camera has set f8 at 1/250 second (at ISO 200) and you want a larger aperture, you can use exposure shift to change the settings to f4 at 1/1000 second. The exposure is the same but the effect is different.

I don’t use program much myself, but it’s very useful and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Manual mode

I use manual mode quite a lot – it’s so useful that I’m going to write a separate article about it. Look out for that in the coming weeks.

Aperture priority

In aperture priority mode, you select the aperture and your camera sets the shutter speed according to the ISO. You can control the shutter speed indirectly by changing the ISO.

I use aperture priority for the following subjects:

I used an aperture of f22 to ensure that every part of this photo was in focus, from the rocks in the foreground to the cliffs in the distance.


Depth-of-field is very important in landscape photography. Usually you will want the entire contents of the frame to be in focus, and the best way to do this is to set a small aperture (such as f16), a low ISO (for high image quality). If this results in a shutter speed that is too low to hand-hold the camera without camera shake, I either raise the ISO (to get a faster shutter speed) or use a tripod.

There are a couple of reasons why you would want to use aperture priority instead of landscape mode:

  1. You can apply exposure compensation if the camera gets the exposure wrong.
  2. You can use the hyperfocal distance focusing technique to maximise depth-of-field. This involves switching your lens to manual focus mode and focusing on the point in the landscape that maximises depth-of-field. There’s a good article about this technique here.
  3. You can use a wide aperture to create landscapes with very narrow depth-of-field. Sound bizarre? There are photographers creating interesting work with this technique. Aleksandr Matveev is one of them, and you can see a good example here.

I used an aperture of f2 and focused on my subject’s eyes to create a portrait with a blurred background.

I also use aperture priority for taking portraits. This is a favourite technique of mine with prime lenses (which have a wider maximum aperture than zooms). I set an aperture somewhere between f1.8 and f2.8, focus on my subject’s eyes and let the rest of the portrait fall out of focus. The advantage of using aperture priority is that I can look at the results on the camera’s LCD screen, and adjust the aperture accordingly if there is too much, or too little, depth-of-field.

I took this close-up photo of a flower with an 85mm lens. I set a shutter speed of 1/250 second to ensure that the image would be sharp. I often raise the shutter speed when shooting close-ups as any movement caused by camera shake as magnified.

Shutter priority

In shutter priority mode, you select the shutter speed and your camera sets the aperture according to the ISO. You can control the aperture indirectly by changing the ISO.

I use shutter priority a lot when I’m hand-holding the camera. It lets me set a shutter speed fast enough to prevent camera shake, and I if I need more depth-of-field I simply increase the ISO.

Shutter priority also comes in useful when you want to blur motion. I set the camera on a tripod and took some photos at 1/6 second in Jing’An Temple, Shanghai to illustrate this technique. One girl stayed still during the exposure, and the other moved, creating an interesting effect.

Another example where I use shutter priority is when I deliberately move the camera during an exposure to create a sense of movement and blur. The photo below is an example of this technique. Chris Friel is a photographer who uses this technique very well.

Creative Exercises

Now it’s time for some creative exercises and to put these tips into practise:

Aperture priority

Choose a lens, put your camera into aperture priority mode and set the widest aperture on the lens. Take some photos at this setting. The subject can be anything you like, but portraits and close-ups are a good place to start. What happens to the background as you get closer to your subject? What happens if you move your subject away from the background?

I used a shutter speed of 1/2 second to blur the water in this photo of a waterfall.

Shutter priority

Now try a similar exercise in shutter priority mode. Again, it depends on your subject, but there’s two ways to go.

One is to set a fast shutter speed and use it to freeze action. Check out Olivia Bell’s 100 Jump Photographs series – this is an easy idea to replicate yourself.

The other is to use a slow shutter speed to turn anything that’s moving into a blur. I like to do this with long exposure photos of the waterfalls, such as the one above. You need to put the camera on a tripod to take photos like this without camera shake.

You can try these techniques out over a period of time. The aim is to get used to using the aperture and shutter priority modes on your camera, and taking creative control by selecting the aperture or shutter speed setting yourself.

NEXT: go to Lesson #2 Why your camera meter gets exposure wrong!


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • Greg Mitch May 30, 2012 08:57 am

    naftoli: I agree with you... Thxs!

  • Naftoli May 30, 2012 04:05 am

    Greg Mitch its kinda backward to use shutter priority and then to raise ur iso if u want more dof, u can just as easily use aperture priority and instead raise ur Shutter Speed by raising ur iso, or turn on auto iso with a min. shutter speed. c my prev comment

  • Greg Mitch May 30, 2012 12:10 am

    Eeps: That makes perfect sense. Thanks!

  • Eeps May 29, 2012 07:17 pm

    @greg mitch; It follows the principle of the triangle of light, aperture opening-shutter speed-ISO. Adjustments in one or another will affect exposure unless the others will be adjusted accordingly. If you are in Shutter Priority and your exposure and shutter speed are set, if you want more depth of field, the act of increasing ISO will make the scene brighter. In order to compensate for this, the camera will narrow the aperture to let less light in. This act of narrowing the aperture will increase depth of field. That's how increasing ISO increases depth of field when in Shutter Priority mode (Tv in EOS systems).

  • Naftoli May 22, 2012 02:58 am

    i doubt that richard, is ur camera and flash set to manual?

  • Richard Buck May 21, 2012 11:29 pm

    I have no problem with my 5D with available light, however using my 580EX strobe, I have noting but trouble. Either there is something wrong with the camera, or it's just the nature of the beast (digital) I can take several shots of the same subject with the same settings and get different results. It seems the sensor will adjust to the nearest part of the subject, then the exposure drops off, and then I have to do extra work with PH Cs3 to get a reasonable photo, and sometimes even that doesn't work.

    HELP !!!!!

    R.E. BUck

  • Paul May 19, 2012 01:39 am

    Nice article with good sound advice, nice portrait shot of the girl!

  • naftoli May 18, 2012 09:13 am

    one more thing id like to add, even when i want to blur motion i may still will usually use aperture prioroty to slow down the shutter, unless i know exactly what specific speed i need to blur a specific amount

  • Naftoli May 18, 2012 09:09 am

    im sorry but this article is a bit inacurate, to put it simply aperature prioroty is for when u want the camera to always expose correctly and when u want to freeze motion(which is most of the time) shutter prioroty is for the rare occasion when u want to blur motion to a specific amount, shutter prioroty is not for freezing motion, if ur afraid ur shutter may be to slow on aperature prioroty then turn on auto iso with a min. shutterpeed u specify

  • Dina May 18, 2012 04:32 am

    Thanks really enjoyed the article
    Can't wait to read the rest

  • Greg Mitch May 18, 2012 01:42 am

    I was surprised to read "I use shutter priority a lot when I’m hand-holding the camera. It lets me set a shutter speed fast enough to prevent camera shake, and I if I need more depth-of-field I simply increase the ISO." I never realized that increasing ISO will increase Depth of Field, is that true?

  • Jessica H. May 18, 2012 01:41 am

    I've been reading DPS for awhile now and I just have to say that I LOVE this site. You guys are so helpful. I have learned tons from reading your, what seems like, endless tips & tutorials. Thanks again!

  • Slowolf May 16, 2012 02:40 am

    Right on. All automatic settings create a photo the way someone else wants the scene to look. No computer can know what YOU want to portray in composition or emphasis. Course if you dont know either then the computer is ok. :)

  • Aleksandr Matveev May 15, 2012 05:18 am

    Thanks, Andrew! :)

  • Mei Teng May 14, 2012 03:48 pm

    TV mode is great to experiment with. I enjoy shooting long exposures.

  • Gabriel Rodriguez May 14, 2012 03:45 am

    One of the best articles I've read on exposure, and it helped me understand it a bit better. I just got into DSLR photography and it can be frustrating not to understand the implication of making the tiniest adjustment or shooting in this modes. Thanks Andrew.

  • NoNo May 13, 2012 08:23 pm

    "doesn’t mean that the two main reasons are *not* to be able to use the *vast* amount of lenses that Nikon/Canon offer to their DSLRs. "

    Forgot that little *not* part.

  • NoNo May 13, 2012 08:22 pm

    Just because there are cameras that do the same thing, that isn't a DSLR, doesn't mean that the two main reasons are to be able to use the *vast* amount of lenses that Nikon/Canon offer to their DSLRs. Or do you know about any 600mm lenses for the M4/3 cameras?

    When it comes to the settings, it is, even though it is getting better... waaaay more easier to use and switch around the settings in a pro DSLR compared to the cheaper M4/3 and the mirrorless cameras.

    So why he get to write a book... because he did and a publisher liked it. You write one. I'm sure you'll be able to get it published. Just don't be so negative in it...

  • Paulo Lourenco May 13, 2012 03:02 pm

    Thank you very much for this article. That's what I was looking for about these camera settings.

  • Ricardo Galvao May 13, 2012 08:10 am

    I do not buy a bok from a guy that said this thing:
    "There are two main reasons for buying an SLR camera: One is to use interchangeable lenses. The other is to give you full control over the camera settings."

    All M4/3 cameras and some mirrorless have those things....(minus Nikon Mirrorles)

    Why people like him write a book???

  • pajh May 13, 2012 06:00 am

    Good clear lesson, very useful, thanks. Looking forward to the others in the series.

  • steve slater May 13, 2012 04:20 am

    I tend to use aperture priority for landscapes and shutter point for movement. At least I use these as a starting point and then make a note of the settings the camera has chosen. I then take a test shot and tweak it until I get the result I am looking for.
    This way you can use the camera as an exposure meter.
    If I am taking wildlife I tend to use aperture priority and then adjust ISO until I get a fast enough shutter speed. It is a bit quicker when you do not have so much time to get the settings right.

  • Robin May 13, 2012 02:50 am

    Hey, where this picture was taken?. from whats page?

  • Rick May 13, 2012 02:32 am

    Unfortunately, clarity takes a nose dive on most lenses at f/22. The example you posted here is no exception. Depending on the rest of your EXIF data, you should be able to get good depth of field (and much improved sharpness/clarity) at f/16 if you take the time to optimize your focal point.

  • Alexx May 13, 2012 02:15 am

    Av and Tv are nice and all, and you can use them when your in a hurry, but I tend (and you should too) to use M 100% of the time.

    No computer in a camera can analiyse the scene as well as a person can.

  • Elie May 13, 2012 02:06 am

    Thanks a lot for that.
    I really appreciate all the knowledge shared through this website.
    I've been following rather closely being new to photography, and I can barely wait for each new publication.