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Aperture Priority Mode: The Ultimate Guide

a guide to aperture priority mode (plus tips)

This article was updated in November 2023 with contributions from expert photographers Kunal Malhotra, Jaymes Dempsey, James Maher, Mat Coker, and Andrew S. Gibson.

What is Aperture Priority mode? Should you be using it in your photography? And how can you work with Aperture Priority to capture well-exposed, artistic images?

In this guide, I explain everything you need to know about Aperture Priority, including:

  • When it’s useful (and when it should be avoided)
  • The difference between Aperture Priority and other common camera modes (such as Shutter Priority)
  • How to adjust your camera settings while using Aperture Priority
  • How to handle common Aperture Priority mode scenarios

So if you’re ready to take control of your camera and become a settings master, then let’s dive right in!

What is Aperture Priority mode?

Aperture Priority mode, often represented as “A” or “Av” mode, gives the photographer control over the aperture and the ISO, while the camera selects a corresponding shutter speed.

camera with mode dial

In other words, you get to determine your ideal aperture and ISO based on artistic and image-quality concerns. And then your camera will choose the shutter speed that produces a well-exposed, detailed image.

Aperture Priority is a semi-automatic camera mode. It doesn’t offer full control over camera variables, but it does let you adjust several key settings (i.e., aperture and ISO). It’s designed to provide both flexibility and speed; that way, you can focus on the subject, composition, and artistry while the camera optimizes the exposure.

Aperture Priority mode variables: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO

If you set your camera to Aperture Priority mode, you immediately gain control over the aperture and ISO while your camera takes control of the shutter speed – but what do these different settings offer, and why do they matter?

Together, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are part of the exposure triangle. By adjusting any of the three variables, you consequently adjust the exposure (i.e., brightness) of the resulting image. However, when you use Aperture Priority mode, your camera automatically compensates for aperture and ISO adjustments by changing the shutter speed (with the goal of creating a spot-on exposure).

So if you widen the aperture, your camera will increase the shutter speed to compensate for the brighter exposure. And if you drop the ISO, your camera will decrease the shutter speed to compensate for the darker exposure. Make sense?

Here’s the bottom line: When using Aperture Priority, your camera will always try to maintain a good exposure, even as you adjust the aperture and ISO.

portrait with wide aperture

But you might be wondering: If the aperture and ISO don’t adjust the exposure, then why would I want to change the aperture? Why would I want to change the ISO? What do those two settings offer me?

Aperture and ISO produce three key effects:

  1. By widening or narrowing the aperture, you can adjust the depth of field (that is, the amount of the image that’s in focus). A wide aperture (e.g., f/1.8) creates a very thin plane of focus, so most of the image blurs away. And a narrow aperture (e.g., f/16) creates a very deep plane of focus, so the entire scene remains sharp.
  2. By increasing or decreasing the ISO, you can adjust the level of noise in the image. Noise appears as tiny specks of color and light, and it obscures image detail – so by keeping the ISO low, you can maximize image quality.
  3. By adjusting the aperture or ISO, you can force the camera to change the shutter speed. A fast shutter speed is essential for capturing action scenes (e.g., birds in flight or basketball players on the move), and by widening the aperture and/or raising the ISO, you make the camera boost the shutter speed. A slow shutter speed is essential for capturing beautiful long-exposure effects, and by narrowing the aperture and/or lowering the ISO, you make the camera drop the shutter speed.

So by adjusting settings in Aperture Priority mode, you can improve image quality, add beautiful depth of field effects, and even create some long-exposure artistry.

waterfall photographed with a slow shutter speed aperture priority mode

The fourth variable: exposure compensation

As I emphasized above, Aperture Priority mode tells your camera to set the exposure (by adjusting the shutter speed) while you handle other image variables. And in general, the camera will do a good job and you’ll get nice, detailed exposures.

But camera exposure meters aren’t perfect, and there are times when you should deliberately overexpose or underexpose your images (often when photographing very light scenes and very dark scenes, respectively).

Now, you cannot adjust the exposure by changing the aperture, ISO, or shutter speed. In Aperture Priority mode, the shutter speed setting is locked – and a change in the aperture and ISO settings will be automatically counteracted by a change in the shutter speed.

That’s why cameras offer another setting, called exposure compensation. Exposure compensation is generally represented by plus (+) and minus (-) symbols, and it lets you instruct your camera to increase or decrease the shutter speed for a brighter or darker effect.

In most cases, you won’t need exposure compensation. But if you find yourself wanting to adjust the exposure, don’t be afraid to use it!

Aperture Priority mode vs Shutter Priority mode

Aperture Priority offers control over the aperture and ISO, while your camera takes care of adjusting the shutter speed. It’s a great tool if you need to control the depth of field in your images.

Shutter Priority, on the other hand, lets you adjust the shutter speed and ISO. Your camera then selects a corresponding aperture for a proper exposure. This mode is especially useful if you’re dealing with fast-moving subjects.

Comparing the two, you’ll find that Aperture Priority is generally more popular. Many photographers appreciate the ability to manipulate the appearance of sharpness and blurriness in the background.

But Shutter Priority has its fans too, especially among those photographing sports or other high-speed activities. The mode allows for precise control of motion so you can capture every exciting detail or even introduce intentional blur.

However, when you need to control the overall composition with regard to both depth of field and motion, you might find Aperture Priority more appealing. Shutter Priority can be indispensable in some situations, but Aperture Priority often offers greater creative freedom.

Aperture Priority mode vs Manual mode

Manual mode takes things a step further by offering complete control over every camera setting, including shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. It’s a powerful way to ensure you get the exact exposure results you desire.

This complete control comes at the cost of speed, however. Adjusting all these variables manually means that Manual mode is often slower to use. It’s ideal for scenarios where you can work very deliberately, such as landscapes or studio settings.

Note that, compared to Manual mode, Aperture Priority provides a quick way to adapt to changes in lighting conditions or subject movement. The automatic adjustments your camera makes to the shutter speed can be especially invaluable when time is of the essence.

In scenarios where the light is changing rapidly or subjects are moving from shadow to sunlight and back, Aperture Priority mode offers the speed needed to capture the moment. Manual mode, while unmatched in control, may not be the best choice in these dynamic situations.

In the end, your choice between Aperture Priority and Manual mode will likely depend on the specific demands of the scene and your personal preferences as a photographer. Aperture Priority offers speed and some control, while Manual mode provides the opportunity to fine-tune every aspect of your image. Both modes have unique advantages and applications, so understanding their differences will help you select the right tool for your creative vision.

When should you use Aperture Priority mode?

First of all, Aperture Priority is a great mode to use if you’re a beginner hoping to better understand your camera settings. Because your camera will automatically select the shutter speed, you don’t have to worry about messing up the exposure – but at the same time, you can experiment with different apertures and see how your images change.

Plus, as you gain in skill, you can start to use the aperture to deliberately adjust the shutter speed and use the exposure compensation function to improve image detail.

But Aperture Priority mode is also popular among professionals who have already mastered their camera settings. For one, if you don’t need to think about the shutter speed but you do care about the aperture, Aperture Priority will focus your attention on the settings that matter (and let you forget about the less-important shutter speed setting). If you’re conducting a portrait photoshoot in good light, for instance, Aperture Priority will let you adjust the depth of field without distraction.

man with blurry background

Additionally, Aperture Priority, unlike full Manual mode, helps you react to lighting changes. For instance, if your subject moves from a shaded area to a sunny area or if the sun comes out from behind a cloud, Aperture Priority will automatically adjust the shutter speed to compensate for the sudden burst of light.

people moving from sun to shade aperture priority mode

In certain slower genres of photography, such as landscape photography, this isn’t especially helpful – but if you’re shooting action, reacting quickly to lighting changes is essential, and Aperture Priority can make a huge difference.

Here are a few genres where Aperture Priority is popular:

  • Portrait photography
  • Bird photography
  • Wildlife photography
  • Macro photography
  • Street photography

Of course, there is no single best camera mode for a genre, and you can always find photographers who work differently – but the above list is a great starting point.

When should you avoid using Aperture Priority mode?

There are a lot of common mistakes to make in photography, but possibly the most frequent is to shoot in Aperture Priority mode when it’s not the best choice.

I see this problem most often when people are traveling. They will stick their camera on Aperture Priority for the entire day, forgetting that the light sometimes will not be strong enough to yield a sufficiently fast shutter speed, particularly if their lens aperture does not widen beyond f/4 or f/3.5. The result? They come home and many of their images are blurry – when they didn’t have to be.

The shutter speed is your first line of defense for creating a sharp image. A good rule of thumb is that the shutter speed should be at least one over the focal length of the lens to offset handheld camera shake. I like to add a little extra speed to be safe, so if you are shooting at 50mm on a full-frame camera, I would aim to keep the shutter speed at 1/80s or faster. And with a crop-sensor camera, a 50mm lens might give you an 80mm equivalent, so I would shoot at least at 1/100s of a second.

Especially if you are using a longer focal length, your shutter speed can go below this threshold very, very easily when you’re using Aperture Priority and you aren’t shooting in strong, direct light.

Aperture Priority mode
The Birds and Plaza Hotel. A spontaneous shot using Shutter Priority at 1/500s and ISO 800.  With Aperture Priority, there would’ve been a much stronger chance that I would have used a too-slow shutter speed, especially since it was overcast and late in the day. (Image by James Maher)

Now, you might be saying that you can shoot in Aperture Priority mode (or Manual mode) all of the time – you just have to pay attention to the corresponding shutter speeds so you never have a problem. That’s great, and in that case, please keep shooting in Aperture Priority. I don’t want to stop you from shooting in a way that works well for you. If you know your camera settings well, then yes, you can effectively shoot in any situation with any of these modes.

Aperture Priority Mode: The Ultimate Guide
Image by James Maher

However, I teach a good amount of students, and I would guess that about 80 percent of them come in shooting in Aperture Priority. When I take a look at their photos, I notice that – for a good portion of these students – way too many files turn out blurry or have some sharpness issues.

You see, they’ll pay attention to their aperture but then zoom for a shot and not notice that the shutter speed is suddenly lower than their focal length, or they won’t notice that their shutter speed is too slow to freeze the motion of a subject. I find that switching them over to Shutter Priority for these situations puts the shutter speed at the forefront of their mind. From there, they can pay attention to the corresponding aperture and how they can achieve the deepest possible depth of field.

Particularly for travel photography in cities or areas with people, when I encourage students to try photographing in Shutter Priority at around 1/320s and a higher ISO, they quickly comment on how much sharper their photos become. Give it a try and see if yours improve, too.

How to use Aperture Priority mode: step by step

Working with Aperture Priority mode is simple.

For most cameras, to put your camera on Aperture Priority mode, you need to turn the main mode dial to A (Av for Canon).

things aperture mode is perfect for
This is a Nikon camera. On Canon, you’re looking for Av. (Image by Mat Coker)

When you look at the screen on your camera, you’ll notice a number with an F beside it. This is your aperture value. Use the scroller on your camera to change that number. Experiment and see how high and how low you can make that number go.

things aperture mode is perfect for
When the f-number is smaller (e.g., 1.8, 3.5, or 5.6), the aperture is wider. (Image by Mat Coker)
things aperture mode is perfect for
When the f-number is larger (e.g., 11, 16 or 22) the aperture is narrower. (Image by Mat Coker)

Then select an aperture based on depth of field considerations. In other words, if you want a deep depth of field, choose a narrow aperture, and if you want a shallow depth of field, choose a wide aperture.

Next, set your preferred ISO (generally the lowest setting your camera offers).

Then check your shutter speed. Is it fast enough for your subject? If you’re photographing sports, birds in flight, cars, etc., and you need a faster shutter speed, boost your ISO or widen your aperture.

seagulls in flight

And if you’re photographing moving water, moving clouds, or other moving subjects you wish to blur artistically, consider dropping your ISO or narrowing your aperture to decrease the shutter speed.

Finally, take a test shot and carefully observe the results. If everything looks good – including the exposure – then go ahead and keep shooting.

On the other hand, if your test image looks over- or underexposed, dial in a bit of exposure compensation, and only then begin photographing in earnest.

Handling common Aperture Priority scenarios

In this section, I examine some frequent situations where Aperture Priority mode can be helpful, and I share some settings advice.

Portrait photography

Aperture Priority mode is great for portrait photography because it lets you think about the depth of field while your camera handles the exposure.

Most portrait photos look great with a shallow depth of field effect – where the subject is sharp but the background is beautifully blurry:

portrait with shallow depth of field

Simply select a low ISO (such as ISO 100), then dial in a wide aperture. An f/2.8 aperture is a good place to start, but if your lens offers an f/1.8 or f/1.4 maximum aperture, don’t be afraid to widen the setting further.

Street photography

If you’re photographing on the streets of a busy city with a mix of sun and shade, Aperture Priority mode is your friend.

Choose a relatively narrow aperture, such as f/8, to keep most of the scene in focus. Then raise the ISO until you have a reasonable shutter speed setting in the shade (1/250s is a good minimum speed to shoot for!).

street scene with sun and shade

That way, as you and your subjects move in and out of the shadows, your camera will make sure the exposure remains balanced!

Action photography

If you’re shooting sports players or other fast-moving subjects, simply dial in a relatively wide aperture (such as f/4 or f/5.6).

man running on a path

Pick an ISO that gives you a fast shutter speed (for many action subjects, 1/1000s is a good starting point).

Then, as the sun moves behind clouds, your camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to compensate for the loss of light, and you’ll end up with beautiful images.

Macro photography

Aperture Priority is a great way to capture stunning macro photos; by controlling the aperture, you can create a beautiful shallow depth of field effect!

Get in close and dial in a wide aperture setting. This allows you to focus on intricate details, such as the texture of flower petals or the eye of an insect, and it’ll create a stunning blur in the background that highlights the main subject.

Experimenting with different apertures will let you see how the depth of field changes. Don’t be afraid to test various settings to achieve the effect you desire.

It’s a hands-on process that can provide incredible results. Whether you’re capturing the delicate wings of a butterfly or the intricate patterns of a leaf, Aperture Priority offers the flexibility to make it happen.

Wildlife and bird photography

Wildlife and bird photography require a balance of precision and speed. Aperture Priority mode allows you to select a reasonably wide aperture, but not so wide that your subjects will only be partially in focus.

Choosing the right aperture is the first step. You can then check the selected shutter speed and adjust it as needed by raising or lowering the ISO. This method allows for quick adjustments as your subjects move.

Remember: Wildlife photography often involves unpredictable movements. A bird might suddenly take flight, or an animal might dart from sun to shade.

In these dynamic scenarios, Aperture Priority helps you maintain focus on the subject while still allowing for adjustments to capture the action. This blend of control and adaptability is why many photographers opt for Aperture Priority when out in the wild!

Aperture Priority mode: final words

camera with mode dial aperture priority mode

Aperture Priority is a powerful camera mode, one that’s great for both professionals and beginners.

So try out Aperture Priority. Practice adjusting your settings. I’m betting you’ll like the results!

Will you use Aperture Priority for your photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Aperture Priority mode FAQ

When would you use Aperture Priority mode?

Aperture Priority mode is great if you’re looking to take control of camera exposure settings without diving straight into Manual mode. It’s also great if you want to control the aperture but don’t care about dialing in a specific shutter speed.

What are the disadvantages of Aperture Priority?

Aperture Priority doesn’t allow you to dial in your preferred shutter speed. If you want complete control over your settings, try Manual mode.

Do professional photographers use Aperture Priority?

Yes, definitely! Many professionals use Aperture Priority regularly.

Is Aperture Priority the best mode for street photography?

That depends on your shooting style and preferences. It can certainly work well in scenarios when you’re shooting subjects in variable lighting!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Kunal Malhotra
Kunal Malhotra

is a photography enthusiast whose passion for photography started 6 years back during his college days. Kunal is also a photography blogger, based out of Delhi, India. He loves sharing his knowledge about photography with fellow aspiring photographers by writing regular posts on his blog. Some of his favorite genres of photography are product, street, fitness, and architecture.

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