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Why You Should Be Using Aperture Priority Mode

Why You Should Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode

The best camera mode for wildlife photography will, of course, depend on your situation. Most of the time, however, there is one camera mode that I strongly recommend you use – and that is Aperture Priority (AV) mode.

Let’s take a look at why you should be using Aperture Priority mode.

What are semi-automatic modes?

You will often see people passionately advocating Manual mode as the only real choice. The idea that a photo is not done “professionally” or “correctly” without being taken in Manual mode is, honestly, complete rubbish.

Semi-automatic modes – that is Shutter or Aperture Priority modes – are not designed for amateurs or beginners. In fact, they are very powerful tools at your disposal.

Shutter Priority mode works by allowing you to dial in the shutter speed that you require in your shot. The camera will then adjust the aperture automatically to balance the exposure.

Aperture Priority mode works by allowing you to set the aperture, whilst adjusting the shutter speed to balance the exposure.

Why should you use a semi-automatic mode?

It’s not that we can’t use full Manual mode. In fact, all photographers should learn to use Manual mode. It’s an important skill to have, and it helps you to develop a proper understanding of the exposure triangle.

However, photographing wildlife often sees short-lived opportunities. Animals move quickly, and are often gone as soon as they appear. Natural habitats are rarely uniform in light, either. If you’re photographing in a forest, you’ll see dappled light across your scene.

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

As an animal moves through the area, all these dramatic (and even subtle) changes in light will require a different setting to achieve a balanced exposure. Adjusting these setting in Manual mode wastes time and results in missed shots.

By allowing the camera to take control and balance the exposure for you, you’re able to focus on the other complicated tasks – composition and achieving proper focus.

Ultimately, adjusting settings is not a complicated task. It’s just time-consuming – time that can be better spent on other things.

Why shouldn’t you use Shutter Priority mode?

It’s not that you should never use Shutter Priority mode, but it does come with some limitations. Most wildlife is spotted at dawn or dusk, or under the cover of trees. Consequently, many wildlife photography opportunities occur in fairly low light situations.

When shooting with Shutter Priority mode, you will often find yourself setting a fairly fast shutter speed to freeze motion. That makes sense, since your subject is moving quickly.

However, this runs a risk. To balance the exposure, your camera has the aperture to adjust. That aperture can only go so wide, and is therefore limited as to how much light it can take in. If there isn’t enough light around, and the camera has set the aperture to its widest setting, you will get an underexposed photo.

You can, of course, increase the ISO speed. But to know to do this, you must be consistently reviewing your images in the field to ensure they are correctly exposed. Changes in ambient light can be slow, subtle and easily missed.

Auto ISO is possible, but you will lose control of one setting that can drastically alter the quality of your final image. For these reasons, I do not recommend Shutter Priority mode for wildlife photography in the majority of situations.

Why is Aperture Priority mode the best?

In the opposite to why you shouldn’t use Shutter Priority, AV mode does not have a limiting factor when adjusting the shutter speed. Your shutter speed can always get slower, and it is fairly obvious when it is so slow that you will be getting motion blur.

The sound of a slow shutter is obvious, and when you hear it then you know to increase your ISO speed to maintain a fast enough shutter speed.

The beauty of AV mode is that your images will always be correctly exposed; the camera can always let in more light. Manually adjusting the ISO speed, as well as using the exposure compensation dial, allows you to fine-tune the settings that the camera chooses for you.

Aperture Priority mode is also important because the depth of field has a dramatic effect on the look of your images. Often, as wildlife photographers, we will want a nice, soft background. This is possible with a shallow depth of field – created with a low f-number – and it is not helpful for the camera to be changing this value itself. Therefore, AV mode lets you take control of that.

Conversely, you may also want a narrower aperture to give you a slightly large depth of field than when the lens is set wide open. For example, photos of birds in flight will require a larger plane of focus to ensure the entire wingspan is in focus – as well as giving some degree of margin for error.

When should you use Manual mode?

Manual mode still has its place in wildlife photography. Sometimes you’ll want to take full control for a particular scenario; switching mode is allowed!

You can also run Manual mode as a semi-automatic mode of its own. If you need to set the shutter speed and aperture to a particular value, you can use auto ISO to allow the camera to balance the exposure. But remember that you’ll run the risk of a very high ISO sometimes. I prefer to have control of this setting so that my images aren’t unexpectedly noisy.

In conclusion

Whatever mode you use is, of course, up to you. Many professional wildlife photographers use Aperture Priority mode for the above reasons, but there are others that will use Manual mode alongside auto ISO. I have yet to meet a professional using a full Manual mode day-to-day, however.

What mode do you use? Let me know in the comments.

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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