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There’s a lot to be said for the manual exposure mode on your camera. When you’re starting out, learning how to shoot in manual will help you to learn the relationship between shutter speed and aperture. This ensures that you learn what the camera is doing every time you make an exposure. It also builds the basis for you to take what you learn about exposure and correct for the camera’s inability to cope with extreme exposure situations as well as to make creative choices for your images.
After you’ve learned the ins and outs of manual mode, however, there are a few reasons why you might want to forego your hard-learned manual skills for Aperture Priority mode. This article outlines five of these reasons and details what Aperture Priority mode might offer you and your photography in some situations.
In manual mode, the meter in your camera is taking a reading based on your set ISO (provided you’re not using auto ISO). The chances are likely that you’ve picked a deliberate aperture setting before you even lifted the camera up. To get your exposure, you now have to alter the shutter speed so that the indicator on your camera lines up with what the meter dictates is a correct exposure.
Aperture priority does the exact same thing, except that the camera sets up the shutter speed for you.
In instances where you are trusting your camera’s light meter (let’s be honest, that’s most of the time), this will result in the same exposure every single time whether you are shooting in manual mode or aperture priority mode.
What aperture priority mode does is remove the need for you to set the shutter speed yourself. It frees you to concentrate on things like composition without having to constantly keep an eye on the meter.
In situations where you need to compensate for dark or light subjects, aperture priority mode still gives you full manual control of the exposure through exposure compensation. Are you taking photos of a dark subject like a black dog? Dial in -1 stop of exposure compensation just one time and keep shooting without having to constantly adjust your settings to get to the same result. Are you taking photos of a fluffy white dog? Same again. This time, add +1 stop of exposure compensation and away you go.
The only difference between aperture priority mode and manual mode in these circumstances is that you will be spending more time focusing on the creation of the photos than you will be on the dials on your camera.
To be clear, I am not advocating for not learning how to use manual mode. For the best results, it is important for you to understand how your camera works in relation to exposure. Using manual mode is the best and fastest way to do that. So, please, don’t skip over manual altogether. However, once you have it down, using other modes alongside your knowledge of exposure and how it works will help you and your photos in the long run.
As mentioned, using aperture priority reduces the amount of time you have to spend watching the camera’s meter. Because the camera is now setting the shutter speed for you, the only thing you have to worry about in most situations is exposure compensation. Once you set your camera to aperture priority mode, it takes only one finger (on all modern cameras that I’ve used) to adjust the exposure compensation settings.
Need to underexpose by a stop? Just turn the one (relevant) dial three clicks. Done.
The only other thing you might have to worry about is if you have the need, or want, to change your ISO. But that is going to be more uncommon.
At the risk of repeating myself, but I feel this point really needs to be driven home. Aperture priority mode gives you full manual control over your exposure. It is not automatic, or an auto mode, in any way more than it allows the camera to set the shutter speed based on the meter you are already using. At any time while in aperture priority mode, you will still have full manual input on what exposure the camera is recording. You just have less physical steps to go through before you get there.
One scenario in which aperture priority mode really shines is in changing lighting conditions. For example, if you’re out on a windy and cloudy day, the light levels can constantly shift. In aperture priority mode, your camera changes the shutter speed for correct exposure (already taking into account any exposure compensation that you might have set). Thus, helping you to achieve a consistent look for all of the images in a sequence. This is most useful in terms of shooting a sequence of images to later stitch into a panorama.
If you were shooting this sequence in manual mode, it would require you to be constantly looking at the meter and changing your shutter speed settings as required. This isn’t a big deal, but using aperture priority mode allows you to get the same results without constant fetter over the settings.
This isn’t perfect, and extreme shifts in lighting can have drastic effects on your images and your exposure. You will still have to pay attention to the details to ensure nothing is going wrong. On normal days, however, it will work just fine.
Remember, shutter speed does not affect flash exposure, only ambient exposure. Aperture priority mode will give you the freedom to set your desired aperture and then let the camera do what it needs to match the meter.
Not only will you still have full control over the exposure compensation for the ambient, but you will also have full control over exposure compensation with the flash unit.
Again, this allows you to get the exposure where you want it one time, and then you are free to concentrate on the actual photos.
Aperture priority can be a fantastic tool for any photographer. At the end of the day, it does the exact same thing that manual mode does. It just takes away some physical steps that you have to go through in manual mode to set the exposure.
That said, like just about everything else in photography, it is not perfect, and it won’t always be a solution.
If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: shooting only in manual mode does not make you a better photographer. Aperture priority and shutter priority modes do the exact same thing, just in a different way. Use whichever works for the situation you’re in.
Do you use Aperture or Shutter Priority? Share with us your thoughts in the comments below.