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The Secret Setting

‘Aperture priority’ is a mode both amateurs and pros can embrace.

by Earl Nottingham

In some snobbish photographic circles, the mark of a truly serious photographer has always been the religious adherence to the practice of using only the manual mode for controlling a camera’s exposure. The use of automatic or programmed camera settings is often scoffed at as a crutch for beginners and rank amateurs.
Photo © Bhanupong Asatamongkolchai | Dreamstime.com
Image © William Fehr | Dreamstime.com

I’m no snob, but even this column has covered several topics over the years concerning manual settings and the relationship between shutter speed, lens opening (aperture) and ISO sensitivity — the three variables controlling the final exposure of a photo known as the “Exposure Triangle.” Indeed, shooting in a totally manual mode is a very professional way of shooting because of the precise exposure control it offers. It can also be good for beginners because it enables new photographers to learn the rudimentary camera controls.

The downside of manual is that it can be very time-consuming since you must adjust the shutter speed and aperture independently, often leading to missed photo opportunities. While manual is great for static subjects like landscapes, it is not a method that lends itself to spontaneity, especially for subjects like wildlife, sports or other fleeting moments that require fast shooting.

However, there is one automatic setting found on most cameras that even the pros embrace. The aperture-priority mode — actually a “semi-manual” mode — is the sweet spot of automatic settings because it offers the most versatility in a variety of shooting situations.

Depending on your camera brand, aperture-priority mode can be marked on control knobs or menus with something like “Av” for Canon or “A” for Nikon. Once you have selected a particular aperture (f-stop), the camera will obtain the correct exposure by picking an appropriate shutter speed as lighting conditions change.

It helps to have a knowledge of how different aperture settings affect the look of a particular scene or subject. For instance, most wildlife and portrait photographers will typically stick with a wider aperture around f/2.8-f/4 (or wider) to shoot during the lower-light “magic hours” of day and to render a soft-focus background. This also helps ensure a faster shutter speed to lessen any camera or subject movement.

Alternately, a landscape photographer will typically use a small aperture such as f/16 or f/22 as a priority to ensure a maximum depth-of-field from the flower just a few inches away from the lens to the mountains in the distance. In this instance, the resulting slower shutter speed is not much of a consideration since the camera is typically on a tripod or other solid surface.

In essence, aperture priority lets you “set it and forget it” — freeing you up for the creative process.

When shooting in any camera mode, it is important to cross-check all aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings displayed in the viewfinder or LCD screen to ensure that the shutter speed selected is fast enough to stop any blur caused by camera movement. Although newer camera bodies and lenses have great built-in stabilization features, movement should always be a concern, especially in low-light situations.

It’s always good to practice with your particular camera and lens setup to learn its abilities and limitations. Thoroughly read through the owner’s manual until all functions become second nature. Soon they will be automatic.

Photo © Radub85 | Dreamstime.com

Please send questions and comments to Earl at earl.nottingham@tpwd.texas.gov. For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at tpwmagazine.com/photography.

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