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Aperture Priority & Shutter Priority VS. Manual Exposure | Which do Pros Use?

By Matthew Saville on December 7th 2017

It is a pretty strong stereotype among experienced photographers to always, always, ALWAYS, shoot in manual exposure, and justifiably so! However, we’ve even heard of crazy measures being taken, such as folks super-gluing their camera mode dial into manual, or putting tape over the other beginner modes, like “running stick figure” mode, or “lady wearing sun-hat” mode, or of course the infamous “green box” mode.

Even in our Photography 101 Workshop we repeatedly encourage new photographers to master using their camera in manual, because that is the best way to learn how exposure works, and how your camera’s light meter helps you decide that exposure.

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So, should you shoot in “M” for the rest of your life? Maybe not! Here is when, and how, we would shoot in either shutter priority, or aperture priority, instead of manual.


Classic Grand Teton Sunrise, Summer 2017
(Timelapse captured in Aperture Priority)

How to use Shutter Priority Mode

It all has to do with moving subjects, and speed. Runners, cars, bikes, or anything that moves, especially airplanes and helicopters.

First, of course, there’s something even more important that forces you to shoot in “S” or “Tv” mode: dynamic light. You could certainly still use manual exposure in any of the scenarios we’re going to talk about, if the light is constant. Shooting in Shutter Priority is only a good idea if you’re in a situation where your exposure might vary by well over 1 stop, rapidly, or back and forth incessantly. (Subjects going in and out of shade, for example)

First, imagine that there are runners at a marathon, or race cars on a track, and they’re passing you at a rapid pace in a dynamic light situation. Ask yourself: how fast is the subject going? What type of stop-motion, or artistic blur, is the goal?

There can also be such a thing as too fast a shutter speed. If you’ve ever taken a picture of a helicopter or a propeller plane with a very fast shutter speed such as 1/8000 sec, you’ll find that the subject appears perfectly “frozen” in mid-air. It would, in fact, be better if there was at least a little blur in the propeller blades, to remind the viewer that this subject is in motion. The trick is to find a slow enough shutter speed that allows rotor blades or propellers to blur a little bit, yet fast enough to avoid the entire craft blurring, of course.

Sony RX10 mk2 – Shutter Priority – 1/60 sec @ f/8
Edited in Capture One Pro 11

The reason that shutter priority is a good idea in any of these situations is because you want to be able to choose whichever perfect shutter speed allows you to create blur when desired, while still maintaining sharpness in certain ways.

Some subjects are extremely fast, and you might get that perfect amount of faint blur at 1/200 sec, and some subjects are a lot slower; you could need 1/50 sec! Eventually, you’ll create a mental memory bank of which shutter speeds work best for things like motorcycles, World War II fighter planes, …or NFL wide receivers, and 100 meter sprinters.

Fun Fact: That famous photo of Olympic-gold-winner Usain Bolt? 1/40 sec, apparently. However considering the even light conditions, photographer Cameron Spencer probably shot the image in Manual.

Indeed, shooting with manual exposure is still entirely possible in many of these situations. It depends on how dynamic the light is, and how good you are at cranking your exposure back and forth.

If you have spare time before your critical moment starts, and you can meter and memorize your exposure for both sun and shade, then it’s often easier to just shoot “normally”, (in M mode) and crank that exposure dial for the one shot you need, then crank it back. In certain critical situations, (a bride walking down the aisle in full sun, and then a groom’s face in full shade) you might want to play it safe and memorize your exposure in manual. However as soon as you find yourself incessantly going back and forth, by a value of 2-3 EV or greater, it might be time to consider shutter (or aperture) priority mode.

Speed Dial: can you dial your shutter back and forth in 60 seconds?
If you have time to prepare, shooting in manual is still a wise choice.

How to use Aperture Priority Mode

You would choose to shoot in Aperture Priority for reasons similar to the reasons you chose Shutter Priority: which setting is the most important? In Aperture Priority, the important setting is usually your depth of field. As wedding and portrait photographers in Southern California, we’re shooting wide open at f/2.8 or f/1.4 most of the time.

Sony RX10 mk2 – aperture priority – 1/3200 @ f/4

Again, this technique is useless if your keeper rate is just as bad as if you had to shoot in manual. However, if you’ve chosen the right metering mode, your keeper rate in Aperture Priority could be 100%.

Say you are at a wedding cocktail hour, or any candid situation with a dramatic range of light from sunlight to shade, or indoors to outdoors, etc. You’re in Aperture Priority, maybe at 2.8 or 1.8. Switch away from Matrix or Evaluative metering, and use center-weighted metering instead. This will allow the camera to de-emphasize any extreme bright or dark areas around the edges of your frame.

Next, take it one step further: turn on auto-ISO! Most cameras these days have intelligent auto-ISO that watches your focal length and increases the shutter speed when necessary to avoid blur.

With these two settings, and maybe +/- 1 EV compensation every now and then, you’ll never totally “ruin” an exposure.

Plus, since you’re worrying less about checking your histogram and dialing your exposure back and forth, your camera can spend more time at your eye, not missing any special moments!

Aperture Priority for Timelapse Photography

If you’re a timelapse photographer, then you probably already use Aperture Priority quite often. Why? Because when creating a timelapse, you want to avoid changing your aperture at all costs, and yet over the course of 30-60 minutes, daylight can vary by many, many EVs.

If the light is changing rapidly, do you want to repeatedly make small changes in Manual? Every single time you touch your camera or tripod, you risk bumping the timelapse!

Grand Teton Sunrise, Summer 2017 (Timelapse frame)

You can use aperture priority quite effectively in this situation, just as long as you’re not trying to auto-expose a moonless starry landscape. (Which no camera other than the Sony A7S and A6000 seem to be able to meter correctly, including other Sonys)

The important detail is to pick the right metering mode, and then dial in any necessary exposure compensation. Often times Matrix metering or Evaluative metering is perfect, with maybe +/- 1 EV of compensation dialed in. On newer Nikon cameras, I’ve also had great results with “highlight spot metering” as well, for when I encounter a scene with small but extremely bright highlights.

Matt’s Pro Tip: Spot Metering in Aperture Priority

Personally, in journalistic wedding / event conditions, I may actually take things one step further, if I’m shooting in crazy situations where there’s tons of light and shadow in each frame: I’ll go from center-weighted metering to spot metering. Yes, I know that sounds absolutely ridiculous to shoot with spot metering in aperture priority AND auto-ISO, but on my Nikon cameras it works amazingly well because the spot meter actually corresponds to the focus point, anywhere around the viewfinder.

So if I put my focus point right over the face I want to capture, the exposures come out great no matter what the light is on their face, or in the background.


One extra benefit of using Auto-ISO, by the way, is that on many of the latest cameras you can program it to manage your shutter speed very intelligently. On my Nikon D750, I can set the Auto-ISO function to choose a minimum shutter speed that is “extra fast”, which for example might be double or even triple my focal length. In other words, it knows when I’m at 70mm and when I’m at 200mm, and it adjusts the shutter speed accordingly. (I use VR, but I’m still shaky-handed!)

Of course, I don’t use this technique all the time. I would rather avoid nasty, harsh light altogether, and shoot in Manual. But, I’ve been shooting weddings and air shows or aviation photography for about 15 years now, and at least a few times each year I find myself heavily relying on these techniques to get through a tough day.

You owe it to yourself to at least practice and master these techniques, whether or not you think you’ll ever need them. You might one day find yourself in a situation where the light, and the pace of events or the speed of your subjects, necessitates aperture or shutter priority mode.

Take care, and happy clicking!

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    Those are valid points for using shutter priority for photographing prop driven aireplanes and helicopters; it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature and make it look like the plane or helicopter is falling out of the sky.

    It also makes sense to use shutter priority for sports games. However, I went counter-intuitive for photographing a nighttime college baseball game. I had three rolls of ISO 3200 film, two of Kodak TMAX, and one of Ilford Delta; Ilford was bookended by Kodak. I was using an 80-205 f4 lens; I decided to shoot aperture priority with the lens wide open and let the shutter speed fall where they may. I got some nice blurred photos of pitches, batting, and running indicating motion. The difference between Kodak TMAX 3200 and Ilford Delta 3200 is remarkable.

    I did a panorama and it made sense for me to shoot manual; I measured for the dark space since ISO and white balance was baked in.

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  2. Jeff Wright

    Good article. Many people that shoot in manual mode do it more as a sort of badge of honor thinking it makes it look like they know what they are doing. Really, if you aren’t altering the exposure from what the camera meter tells you it should be at there isn’t really an advantage to shooting manual mode and you could achieve the exact same results in aperture or shutter priority or even shiftable program modes. If you are using auto ISO in manual mode you aren’t shooting manual, you’re just choosing another way of shooting in auto. If you really want to shoot fully manual, you’d need to pick your own shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and then don’t look at your light meter. Anything else is partial auto so just accept that it’s nice to have the camera doing some of the work and stop worrying which mode you are using. As long as you are getting the results you like it’s fine to use any of them. 

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    • Matthew Saville

      REAL photographers use one of these, Jeff. Only $2,400!

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    • barbara farley

      Any time I’ve tried to use any of the auto modes, something has gone awry.   I love the tip mentioned in the article about the D750 in spot metering mode adjusting the shutter and ISO.  That sounds awesome.  

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Barbara! Here’s the rule of thumb to remember: If nothing is going awry with what you’re currently doing, then stick with it! If something keeps going awry, then maybe go back to whatever worked. ;-)

      In other words, sometimes Av or Tv or auto-ISO is just the wrong choice. Or, its advantages aren’t significant enough to outweigh the disadvantages. So, if Manual exposure is working well for your shooting conditions, then by all means, stick with it! There have been plenty of jobs and personal outings where I left the camera in M mode the entire day. I only switch to A mode or auto-ISO if it is going to *improve* my keeper rate.

      Hope this tip helps! :-)

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  3. Benton Lam

    Matthew Saville Would you mind double checking the section titled “How to use Aperture Priority Mode”, just before the “Blue Angels” photo?

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  4. Kyle Stauffer

    Great to see your articles again Matthew! Being able to direct those new to photography to something like this is extremely handy! When I try to explain, people look at me like I have two heads haha.

    Thanks again, Kyle

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