Aperture Priority Mode: When and How to Use It (And When to Avoid)

Are you looking to get out of the automatic mode? Do you wish to take dreamy bokeh or tack-sharp photos? Then you are in the right place! In this article, we explain aperture priority mode and how to use it creatively.

What Is Aperture Priority Mode?

Aperture Priority mode is a semi-automatic shooting mode in cameras. It allows the user to select aperture (f-stop) while the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to get the correct exposure. In Canon cameras, it is labeled as Av (Aperture value) or in Nikon as A (Aperture).

Since part of the exposure triangle, aperture, in this case, is manually controlled by the photographer, Aperture Priority mode is called a semi-automatic (or semi-manual) mode.

Aperture Priority mode is a well-kept secret of many professional photographers. Read below to see why!

What Is Aperture?

The aperture is an opening (hole) in your lens which controls the amount of light that passes through the lens and hits the camera sensor to create a photograph.

Aperture is also sometimes called the f-stop. Don’t worry, both words mean the same thing.

The aperture is the actual name for the lens opening. We use the f-stop as the number needed to command the opening and closing of the lens opening. The numbers you see on your lenses, like f1.4, f2.8, f11, f22 for example, are the numbers that tell the lenses how much to open or close.

The hole that we speak about is actually a set of blades that work together to determine the amount of light to let in.

A photo showing the aperture opening (hole) of a lens
aperture is the smallest hole in the middle as visible from this photo

The smaller the f-stop number, the larger the hole. The higher the number, the smaller the hole. This may be confusing at first, but you’ll get used to it.

  • Smaller number (for example f/2.8) = big opening = more light. 
  • Higher number (for example f/11) = small opening = less light. 

For more info, please read our guide to Aperture. As a photographer, it is important to have an understanding of aperture since it is part of the exposure triangle.

Quick Exposure Triangle Refresher

There are three elements that determine the exposure of your photos. They are referred to as the “exposure triangle”:

  • ISO = Camera sensor’s sensitivity to light
  • Aperture = opening of the lens which lets light into the sensor
  • Shutter Speed = how long the aperture stays opens

The three work in conjunction to help you achieve perfectly exposed photos or to let you get as creative as you need.

Advantages of Aperture Priority Mode

1. It Allows You to Control Depth of Field

The aperture, or f-stop, determines the depth of field of your images. The smaller the f-stop number, the shallower the depth of field. Those photos that you see with the great bokeh backgrounds or blurry foregrounds/backgrounds are achieved with a shallow depth of field (small f-stop number).

On the other hand, if you want your background and foreground to be in focus, you can select a higher f-stop (such as f/11) to achieve a deeper Depth of Field. This is very useful for things like landscape photography.

  • Small f-stop number = large aperture = shallow depth of field = blurry foreground/background
  • High f-stop number = small aperture = deeper depth of field = less blurry foreground/background
A photo showing two coffee mugs in focus. the background and foreground is blurred by using a smaller f-stop
Blurry background and foreground achieved by using a smaller f-stop

2. Creative Freedom

Having full control of the depth of field when doing photography is one of the many ways to be creative. This allows you to separate your subject from the background or the foreground. Of course, when selecting a wide aperture (small f-stop) you need to know how to tell the camera where to focus in order to get that great blurry background shot. If you don’t, the camera will try to guess where you want the focus to be and it may not turn out the way you envisioned it.

a photo showing a small jar on focus while rest of the elements are blurry
Having control of the depth of field gives you creative freedom to focus on what is important

3. Allows for a Quick Response

This is one of the most exciting reasons to use Aperture Priority mode. If you are in a normal light environment, meaning that it’s not nighttime or inside a very dark location, you don’t need to fuss over the shutter speed. Choose the appropriate ISO for the setting, like 100 if you are outside on a sunny day for example, and let your DSLR choose the shutter speed. The shutter speed will not impact your photo unless the conditions are too dark and the shutter speed becomes too slow.

The fewer settings you have to fuss over, the more time to capture those great shots!

How to Select Aperture Priority Mode?

most DSLR cameras have a shooting mode dial which allows you to switch between different shooting modes. Here is how to select Aperture Priority mode in Canon and Nikon cameras. For your exact model, please refer to the camera manual.

How to Select Aperture Priority Mode in Canon Cameras

a photo showing the aperture priority mode (Av button) of a Canon camera
On Canon cameras, turn your mode dial to “Av” at the top of the camera to select Aperture Priority mode.

On Canon models, Aperture Priority mode is identified as Av on the mode dial. Av is short for Aperture Value.

How to Select Aperture Priority Mode in Nikon Cameras

a photo showing the Nikon aperture priority mode (A button)
On Nikon cameras, turn your mode dial to “A” at the top of the camera

Nikon identifies Aperture Priority mode as “A” on the mode dial.

How to Use the Aperture Priority Mode:

  1. Once in Aperture Priority mode, set the aperture (f-stop) by turning the camera’s main dial.
  2. Select your ISO (or set it to AUTO)
  3. Press the shutter halfway and focus on your subject.
  4. The proper shutter speed will automatically be selected by the camera.
  5. Take your shot

When to Use Aperture Priority Mode?

1. Portrait Photography

When doing portrait photography you want the focus to be on your subject and you will probably want to separate them from the background. This means having complete control of the aperture. If the person is not moving around too much, then Aperture Priority mode is perfect because you can keep your attention on the focus and composition and let the camera decide what shutter speed to use.

A portrait photo taken using aperture priority mode where background is blurry
Aperture Priority mode allows you to blur distractive background elements from your portraits

2. Daytime/Good Available Light

When shooting outdoors during daylight, you will almost always have sufficient light. So you do not have to worry about slow shutter speed. Choose the Aperture Priority mode here unless you are shooting fast moving subjects (for which you need to worry about shutter speed)

a photo of a ferris wheel taken at day time
Consider Aperture Priority mode when shooting with ample light.

3. Travel Photography

When you are traveling you want to come back with pretty great shots, right? If you have to spend a lot of time fussing over the settings of your camera instead of looking at your surroundings, you may miss out on a lot of amazing shots. Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and let the camera automatically select a shutter speed.

a traveler taking a photo with a DSLR camera
Using Aperture Priority mode allows me to focus on my subjects rather than fiddle with the exposure triangle in my head.

4. Landscape Photography

In landscape photography, you want to be in full control of your aperture to get the desired Depth of Field. Most of the time you want to select a mid to high f-stop number to increase your DoF. The only exception is long exposure landscape photography. Because the camera usually limits the shutter speed to 30 seconds max in all shooting modes — except in the BULB mode.

A landscape photograph of a mountain range with wild flowers where both foreground and background elements are in sharp focus
Aperture Priority mode allows you to control your Depth of Field which is essential for Landscape Photography [Aperture ƒ/11.0, Shutter Speed 1/6s, ISO

5. Street Photography

For street photography, you need to be spontaneous and observant of your surroundings. Most street photographers set their cameras to Aperture Priority mode and even pre-set the aperture and ISO value. This way, they have a good idea about the DoF and their shutter speed under given lighting conditions. You can then focus on capturing the decisive moment.

a street photograph where an old lady is reading book

6. When You Want to Control Depth of Field (DoF)

Aperture Priority mode is a well-kept secret of many professionals. This is because it allows them to control Depth of Field without having to calculate the shutter speed needed to get the correct exposure. With just turn of a dial, you can decide to either blur everything but your subject, or keep everything in tack sharp focus.

Tip: If the camera selects a slow shutter speed (in low light conditions) you may want to use a tripod to avoid camera shake.

When to Avoid Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture Priority mode is the go-to mode for many photographers when in a wide range of shooting situations. But Aperture Priority mode is sometimes not recommended for certain situations and types of photography.

1. Low Light Conditions

In low light situations, your main concern is the shutter speed, especially if you are hand holding your camera. In such situations, it is better to switch to Shutter Priority mode and set the appropriate shutter speed to avoid camera shake (1/60 seconds or faster).

Pro tip: Enable Image Stabilization or use a Tripod in such situations to avoid blurry images. You can also increase your ISO. However, stay within the ISO performance of your camera model to avoid extensive noise/grains in your images.

2. Long Exposure Photography/Panning/Motion Blur

Long exposure photography requires that you open the shutter for long periods of time. Shutter Priority or Bulb mode is better equipped when you want full control of your shutter speed.

a long exposure shot where a waitress is barely visible due to low shutter speed used
Sometimes you want to control shutter speed to show motion blur. In such cases, shutter priority mode is the way to go.

Aperture Priority Mode Tips & Tricks

1. Be Aware of the Shutter Speed

In Aperture Priority mode you must keep an eye on the automatically chosen shutter speed to make sure it is fast enough to avoid camera shake. You don’t want to go anywhere below 1/60 second when hand holding your camera.

If you notice camera shake (blurry photos) you can use a tripod to avoid that.

Pro Tip: A good rule of thumb to use is to always have a shutter speed faster than 1/focal-length. i.e. if you are shooting at 100mm focal length, make sure your shutter speed is faster than 1/100 seconds.

2. Try Automatic ISO

If you are in a normal setting with enough available light, you shouldn’t have to fuss over the ISO. Let the camera choose the ISO as it does the shutter speed by setting ISO to Auto.

However, keep an eye on the ISO value as you shoot. ISO performance (amount of noise) depends on your camera model. It is good to be aware of how much you can push your ISO for your particular camera model.

Pro Tip: Most cameras let you select a range for the Auto ISO. So if you know your camera can take decent photos up to 6400 ISO, you can set 6400 as the upper limit for auto ISO.

3. Use Exposure Compensation

In semi-automatic modes such as the Aperture Priority mode, the camera decides what the correct exposure should be. If you do not agree with camera’s ‘correct’ exposure level, you can use the exposure compensation to either increase or decrease your exposure.

Pro Tip: You can quickly access the exposure compensation using the +/- button located at the back of your camera.

Is Manual Mode Better Than Aperture Priority Mode?

Shooting in manual mode is not always ideal because, depending on your experience, it takes time to fiddle with the exposure triangle to get the correct exposure.

When your camera gives you the opportunity to keep creative control of your photos while giving you the freedom to shoot more rapidly, why not take advantage of that! That is why most photographers use semi-automatic modes such as aperture or shutter priority modes 95% of the time.

Of course, having knowledge of the exposure triangle is important. In order to be a better photographer, We strongly encourage you to learn how the ISOshutter speed, and aperture work together.

If you are shooting in fully automatic mode at the moment, you should definitely switch to Aperture Priority mode now. Doing so will allow you to get a better understanding of the exposure triangle as well.

Over to You

Learning to use Aperture Priority will allow you to spend more time observing your surroundings and composing the best shots you can. If pros are using this semi-automatic mode 90% of the time, you know it can’t be bad at all!

Share your Aperture Priority photographs with us. You can either post pictures directly in the comments below or start a photography blog today and share your results with the wonderful photo community we have here at PhotoBlog.

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About the author

Sandra Roussy

Sandra is a published author and professional photographer presently living in the South of Mexico. She writes about photography, design, architecture, travel, food, lifestyles, and events. She also offers unique photo tours through some of the most interesting places in Mexico.

​Can be seen in Fodor's Travel, Bite Magazine, Digital Photography School, and the NY Times best selling book Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It.

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