Why You Should Be Using Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture Priority

It is a common misconception that anything except manual mode is “cheating”. I find many people feel that being in total control of all the settings makes a picture much more worthy of praise. However, I’m going to argue why wildlife photographers should be shooting in aperture priority mode. Before I begin, I must state that I am talking in generalities, as there are always exceptions to any situation.

Aperture priority mode allows you to fix the aperture to whatever size you wish, and let the camera adjust the shutter speed to correctly expose the image. With wildlife photography, your subject is rarely still for very long. Shooting in manual mode would require you to take a test shot and adjust the settings for any error in your exposure. But what happens if the animal runs off while you are fiddling about with the camera wheels? You miss the shot.

Why You Should Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode
Animals will run through areas of different lighting conditions. Aperture priority mode helps to manage this.

Furthermore, lighting is rarely flat and even across the entire scene. An animal running through a woodland will pass through dark and light patches, and in full manual mode you won’t be able to adjust the settings quickly enough to get every shot correctly exposed. This is where aperture priority comes to the rescue. It will adjust the settings for you whilst you are reeling off a burst of images, ensuring that you achieve properly exposed photos.

The stigma of this mode being “cheating” or “point and shoot” is just wrong. It is not a technical challenge to adjust the shutter speed in manual mode, so why waste time with it? It’s not because we’re not capable of doing it, but because time is better spent composing and thinking about how to take an impacting image.

I don’t know any professional wildlife photographers that don’t use aperture priority mode most of the time. It’s seen as normal, and shouldn’t be ignored just because of stigmas. You should understand how to shoot in full manual, of course, but that doesn’t mean you need to do it all the time. Equally, in some situations you will find manual mode more practical than aperture priority.

With aperture priority, the camera will sometimes slightly over or underexpose your image. If this happens, use exposure compensation to adjust the exposure. When you require a faster shutter speed, all you need to do is increase your ISO speed. This way you still have complete control over the camera’s settings, and adjusting the ISO to achieve the desired speeds will become second nature.

As you can see, it is still a very “manual” mode, but one that results in far fewer incorrectly exposed images. I used to shoot full manual myself for exactly the same reasons as I am addressing here, but a few years ago a professional photographer showed me the light and I’ve not looked back since. Even if you’re not convinced, just try it out and I guarantee you’ll wish you’d switched sooner!

What next?: “Back Button Focus: A Game Changer


Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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