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A major goal when starting out in photography is to get off Auto mode and onto the semi-automatic Aperture and Shutter Priority modes. Is it daunting at first? It can be, but I promise that wrestling creative control away from your camera and into your hands is one of the first and greatest joys of digital photography.
I teach people that a deeper reason exists for the name priority mode. The obvious one is you’re prioritizing control of shutter speed or aperture and surrendering control of the other. But also, you can teach yourself to base this decision on your shot priority.
This article identifies four major shot priorities: to freeze motion, to imply motion, to create a shallow depth of field, and to create a deep depth of field. The goal is to get you to ask which of these is your priority for your next shot and then to select the appropriate mode and settings to achieve that.
Shutter priority mode is marked with an “S” on Nikon and Sony cameras and “Tv” on Canon mode dials. Like your eyelid, the shutter opens and closes to expose the camera sensor to light. Through selecting this mode, you can choose how long it opens.
With Shutter Priority mode, you’re prioritizing shutter speed as the crucial element for the image you want to take. Your camera will then select a corresponding aperture to create a correct exposure. It is the mode to use when your priority is either freezing motion or implying motion.
Much of the time when shooting, you require sharp images in crisp focus. Shutter speed is the most critical factor affecting image sharpness; however, requiring image sharpness isn’t a fully-fledged shot priority. Here, we’re talking about freezing fast motion.
Select this mode to freeze action in sports fast-moving water in landscapes, and other fast motion. For example, a runner could be frozen with a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, whereas motorsports might require 1/2000th or faster.
Using Shutter Priority mode, implying motion is a beautiful effect that you can easily apply to your images. Everything from slight motion blurs to light trails to dreamy water effects are possible with a variety of moving subjects.
Imagine that you’re shooting handheld street photography and you chance upon a pair of dancing street performers. You decide you want people viewing your images later to be able to get a sense of the action, so choose to imply motion as your shot priority. Because a shutter speed of 1/500th would freeze the performers, you could try 1/250th and work down from there until the desired motion blur is achieved.
Now imagine you’re on the rooftop of a tall building at nighttime and you have a tripod. Because of the added stability a tripod allows, you can open up your shutter for significantly longer. Through selecting the right settings, you can achieve crisp backgrounds, blurred subjects, and light trails that build on top of each other.
Aperture Priority mode is marked with an “A” on Nikon and Sony cameras and “Av” on Canon dials. Like an iris in a human eye, aperture represents the hole that opens to expose the camera sensor to light. Through selecting this mode, you can choose how wide or narrow to open the aperture. The lower the f-number, the wider the hole. Controlling aperture is mainly used to affect what is known as depth of field.
You’ve seen portraits where the subject is in crisp focus but the background is beautifully blurry; this is called a shallow depth of field. Also, you’ve seen fantastic landscapes that are in sharp focus throughout the image from front to back; this is a deep depth of field.
Through selecting Aperture Priority mode, you’re marking aperture as the crucial element for the image you want to take. Your camera will then select a corresponding shutter speed to create a correct exposure. It is the mode to use when your priorities are creating either a deep or shallow depth of field.
As a travel photographer specializing in portraits, creating a shallow depth of field is often my priority. This allows me to have my photo subject (i.e., a person’s face, and more specifically their eyes) in crisp focus, while the background melts away in a dreamlike blur. To achieve this effect, you want to select a low aperture value.
If you’re shooting with a kit lens, the lowest value available to you might be f/3.5. However, with a fixed focal length lens (prime), this will be lower, making this type of lens perfect for portrait photography. Let’s take a look at the two example images below.
By contrast, a deep depth of field enables front to back sharpness throughout an image, making it the shot priority to select for landscape photos. If the lowest aperture values provide the thinnest focal planes and the blurriest backgrounds, then surely the highest aperture values provide the best landscape settings, right? Wrong. Your lens may be capable of f/22 but please don’t select it.
The highest aperture values can create image distortion. I recommend not going above f/16 for landscape photography with a tripod, and not going above f/11 handheld. A solid choice for handheld landscapes is actually f/8 because it provides a mid to deep depth of field while enabling a lower ISO and faster shutter speed for a sharper image.
Remember these four major shot priorities and put them into practice using the Aperture and Shutter priority modes. Don’t forget to share your work and comments below.
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