Aperture Priority versus Manual Mode

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One thing I’ve noticed about many new photographers is the enthusiasm they have for really learning how to use their camera as well as possible. In some cases, this requires the use of understanding how to shoot in Manual mode. Learning how to choose your setting so appropriately fit the scene and style of the photograph you are trying to achieve is a great skill to have, but then I see them take it up one more step and get the idea that to be some sort of real photographer then you have to always shoot in manual.

In an online photography forum, I recently chimed in on a discussion about exposure compensation and mentioned that I primarily photograph in Aperture Priority (Av) mode. Then, someone replied to me and asked me if I ever meter my camera. It kind of took me off guard, of course I meter! But I realized that her question was purely innocent, and there was probably little understanding behind what the camera is doing in this modes. But it got me thinking about the differences between shooting in Aperture Priority versus Manual. Assuming someone is shooting in existing light and having to alter their exposure on the fly, was there really much of a difference of how the camera works? I determined that no, there really was no difference, other than the fact that you are just working twice as hard to get the same results when shooing in Manual mode.

Here’s how I came to this conclusion. Let’s say you are photographing a little girl outside. You decide to photograph in Manual mode so you can control the exposure. The girl is moving around, and the light is changing in the different parts of the location you’re at, so you have to follow her around and change your settings, making sure that each time you reset your exposure that they balance properly with the middle of the meter. When you see that something is overexposed or underexposed, you adjust your shutter speed accordingly, but you leave the aperture unchanged (you want to keep it at a nice low setting so that you can blur the background as much as possible). Each time you change your setting, you have to check the meter to make sure your exposure is lined up. And, of course, you forget to change it a few times and completely overexpose or underexpose your scene and ruin a few of your shots. Hey, it happens, right?

viewfinder-meter

This in-camera view shows the meter balanced at zero.
When photographing in Aperture priority, the camera will always try to bring the meter dead-center, just like in this photograph.

Now, let’s say that you decide to switch into Aperture Priority for the same setup. This is a great setting for this scene because you know you want to keep the aperture at a consistent setting to blur the background. Now, all you have to do is focus on composition, focus point, etc., and let the camera make all of the shutter-speed decisions for you. Really, it’s no different than Manual Mode, since the camera is doing exactly the same thing that you were doing by-hand: it’s balancing the exposure with the middle of the meter. Then, when you take a quick peek at one of your shots, you realize that the image is a little underexposed. Because you are in Aperture Priority you can’t set the shutter speed on your own, so instead you set the Exposure Compensation to +1, which will then tell the camera to overexpose each shot by one stop. You also don’t completely ruin any of your images from having the settings way under- or over-exposed, since the camera will always balance the exposure for you inside of Aperture Priority.

Which of these makes more sense to you? I personally find that, for this situation, Manual Mode is just a burden. Yes, you are in complete control, but all you are doing is moving buttons and knobs so that the meter is sitting right in the middle, something the camera can do for you. But when you do it by hand it takes brain-power and attention away from the most important part of the photograph: your subject. So, instead, try to delegate over some of the grunt work to the camera using Aperture Priority and keep your mind and eyes active to find new compositions, catch the right moments and never miss a beat. And then, if you need to correct the exposure (the meter doesn’t always know best) then you can do this with Exposure Compensation.

So why not give Aperture Priority a chance? I still think that it is critical to use Manual Mode in many situations, especially when trying to control the exposure in a set lighting condition (one good example is when using off-camera lights). But for many available light situations I would think that it’s better to work smarter, not harder.

By | 2016-12-18T17:00:58+00:00 October 28th, 2013|19 Comments

About the Author:

My name is Nicole and I'm a photographer, author, & educator living in Portland, Oregon, USA. When I'm not making photos I'm writing books and tutorials for my online store, Learn more about me and my story here.

19 Comments

  1. Alex Burda October 28, 2013 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    To the same conclusions I reached my self. And using semiautomatic Pentax film cameras with built-in aperture priority mode I quickly got used to it. But I also discovered that using a independent meter makes using the manual mode much interesting and easier. And in digital, what counts is to get some good RAWs that you can work with later in post processing.

  2. Adam Yurkunas October 28, 2013 at 11:35 pm - Reply

    Great article Nicole and thank you. I’m still pretty new (almost a year now) at the game but I’ve already had several people tell me that manual is the “only” way to shoot if I want to be a better photographer. I generally just kindly thank them for their “advice” and move on (then roll my eyes as I’m walking away).
    No to explain the process to the people that come at me with “oh, you Photoshopped that”… Hard to believe there’s still so many of those people out there too.

    • Nicole S. Young October 29, 2013 at 6:24 pm - Reply

      I hear ya. I took a few photography classes at a community college with a teacher who made an “exception” for me to shoot with a digital camera (this was in 2009). I don’t think she was happy about it, but she probably realized that digital is the direction things were moving. She was a great instructor and I learned a thing or two, but it’s interesting how the process of photography is still so important to some people. With journalism, I understand, but with art, it shouldn’t matter.

  3. Tiziano Muccitelli October 29, 2013 at 1:21 am - Reply

    Great article …well done!

  4. Antony from Photography Directory October 29, 2013 at 1:25 am - Reply

    Glad that you knew the innocence behind the question which triggered this article. Even I shoot mostly in Av mode, unless I have time and it’s still life or landscapes. We should allow the camera to do some work for us as well :)

    Cheers Nicole!

  5. Mike Spivey October 29, 2013 at 6:24 am - Reply

    Excellent post. You clearly described what I’ve been saying for awhile. Each mode has its uses. Instead of just using manual mode because someone told you pros only use manual, look at the situation and choose accordingly.

    • Nicole S. Young October 29, 2013 at 6:26 pm - Reply

      Exactly. Plus, why spend so much money on an expensive hand-held “computer” when you don’t let it do any work for you? It’s almost like saying we shouldn’t use math formulas in spreadsheets or use software for completing our taxes … real accountants do it by hand! :)

  6. Michael Sutton October 29, 2013 at 7:03 pm - Reply

    Nicole,
    Excellent article, I often see photographers using only manual as well, I used to do it to, but I have used Aperture priority and exposure compensation for a while now, it is an especially good way to take properly exposed photos when looking directly into the sun.

  7. Rick October 29, 2013 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    Nicole,

    I can only agree to this article with a big qualification: it works well when there is ample available light, like outdoors on a bright day. If it’s not a bright sunny day and you don’t have a fast lens (like a f/2.8 you had in that example), all bets are off. My micro four thirds, for example, has a weird algorithm that uses 1/60 as the minimum shutter speed in the A-mode. That, of course, is not fast enough to prevent motion blur or camera shake. What would make more sense in this kind of situation? Probably shutter-priority. When the camera is on shutter-priority, the camera will automatically jack up the ISO (provided that I set the ISO at ato) when even the largest aperture is not enough. In contrast, when the camera is on aperture priority, my camera will lower the shutter speed down to 1/60 without thinking whether that is too low, and only when it has reached 1/60, it will raise the ISO.

    Maybe different cameras will behave more intelligently, but this is a cautionary tale against sticking to the A-mode in all kinds of situations.

    • Nicole S. Young October 29, 2013 at 8:31 pm - Reply

      I definitely don’t disagree with that statement. I used Aperture priority as my example because it’s what I prefer to use, and also because the aperture directly affects the aesthetics of images more than shutter speed does in most shooting situations. (An exception would be when panning, or any type of intentional shutter blur.) This article was mostly the case “against” using manual mode because “that’s what ‘real’ photographers use”, so to speak. :)

      • Sergey November 2, 2013 at 2:07 am - Reply

        I would add my vote for the previous comment. As I mostly shoot in Av mode too, I should always control the shutter speed in background. Otherwise, considering the fact that this little girl is hopefully alive and fast- moving object, In a low-light situation you will get unacceptably blurry images. So, anyway, instead of controlling everything in Manual mode, in Aperture priority mode you need to check the shutter speed in background anyway. Super-megapixel cameras like D800, as well as using of telephoto lenses restrict the possibility of using Av mode even further.

  8. @photogoofer October 29, 2013 at 8:58 pm - Reply

    I find that I shoot in Av, Tv or Manual depending on the situation. I shoot primarily sports and architecture. I shoot events with changing light continuations in Av mode for the reasons you mentioned. I shoot sports primarily in Manual mode if the light is constant. If it’s not, I tend to shoot in Manual plus Auto ISO. I don’t very often use Tv mode unless it’s very low lighting and I want to reduce motion blur.

  9. Steve Graham October 29, 2013 at 9:50 pm - Reply

    I have one year in now. I have spent an enormous amount of time surfing the net looking for anything photography related. Since I knew relatively little, I soaked up every word of wisdom I came across. Problem is, those words are often refuted by others and confusion sets in. I think what I have determined after a year of listening, is to avoid anyone’s advice that is presented as empirical. “Only shoot in RAW” “Don’t Spray n Pray” “Buy xyz gear” “Crop Sensors are for Amateurs, Full Frame is for Pros” “No Pro shoots in Auto” “Never shoot for free” “Adobe CC is evil” “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” “HDR is bad” “Primes are better than zooms” and on and on.

    I needed to expose myself to the industry and build a frame of reference. It seems to be a detriment to continue to imitate what others are doing. As I begin to understand how my equipment works, I begin to find fault with so many of the idioms that are floating around out there. I like Nicole because she is “one of the troops,” so to speak, and approaches things from a problem solving POV, rather than offer cliches. The bottom line is, get to know your gear by using it incessantly and seek answers to the problems that crop up (I can’t seem to get away from the bad puns) rather than spend all your time listening to all the controversial rhetoric that seems to pervade the photographic industry. I admittedly spend way too much time researching instead of actual hands on, so this is a post pretty much aimed at myself. Thought I would think out loud…

    • Nicole S. Young October 29, 2013 at 10:38 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much for the comment, Steve. :) There’s a lot of advice out there to weed through, and I’m happy you find my articles and advice informative! If you want another no-nonsense and very inspirational photographer to follow and read, I would highly suggest David duChemin. He’s a good friend of mine, and an excellent writer and photographer: http://davidduchemin.com/

      BTW, I like the bad puns, lol. :)

  10. Vico October 30, 2013 at 5:31 am - Reply

    Manual is always better. Period. Sometimes you don’t have time for manual that’s another story. But I can get 100% more in Manual. If I use semi (AV or TV) most of the shoots come low or high. And I own a 5d MK2 so it should meter the light well. For that shot after you frame and control the light (in manual) you can shoot several photos and I will came the same. In semi you get a thousand of variations in each shoot, and that’s not good. The semi exist but don’t rely on them. Also you don’t need to shoot in Manual to be a Pro. A Pro is someone you delivers consistent quality photos, is committed to a job and provides the necessary quality gear. All associated with post-processing work (editing, grading, etc.). Most of the times this is achieved by using manual mode.

  11. Linda October 30, 2013 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Good article and food for thought, thanks Nicole! : ) I like your approach and your writing style. Very helpful to those of us slogging along trying to figure it all out. I’m slowly getting better at just doing my photos in a way that pleases me instead of trying to fit some mold of what photography “should” be.

  12. michael cook October 30, 2013 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    Joe Buissink shots in p for professional. If you don’t know who he is Google him. There’s not right or wrong. Find what works for you. I believe Kevin Kubota shoots weddings in AV with auto ISO. Nothing like stepping out of a church on a bright day and forgetting your at ISO 3200. Having a full frame doesn’t make you a pro, shooting on manual doesn’t make you a pro. Understanding light and how to use it to get the results you want, that’s what makes a “pro”.

  13. Graça Sacadura November 2, 2013 at 10:36 am - Reply

    Great article. And,by the way, I also love Du chemin work! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.

  14. Ray Paul November 6, 2013 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    Nicole…I can’t thank u enough for your photographic wisdom.I am an old guy who likes to play around with photography and experiment.Of course lightroom and photoshop are such a mystery to me. Well your tips on both are so helpful,and i thank you so much. I also have your book for OnOne. I love your photographs and all that you do to make the medium simpler for this old guy.Ray

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