dSLR tips for beginners: How to use Aperture-priority mode

Turn to the big A (or Av) on your camera's mode dial when you want to control background blur and don't care about much else. Here's some guidance on how to use Aperture-priority.

Canon and Pentax use "Av" to denote Aperture-priority mode, while everyone else uses "A."Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

What it is

As you might expect, you use Aperture-priority mode when you need to control the size of the opening through which light travels to reach the sensor -- usually to affect the depth of field -- but don't care (much) about shutter speed. You set the aperture you want and the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to maintain the correct exposure.

Which raises the question: What is depth of field? It's the perceived area of sharpness between near and far objects. Shallow DOF means there's a very small area of sharpness (i.e., the subject is in focus and the background is relatively blurred). Some cameras now offer a Background Defocus effect to simulate this. Deep DOF implies that near and far objects are both in focus.

Remember that elements on the same focal plane -- in this case the two top dials -- are within the same zone of sharpness. It's only elements in front or behind that will be blurred.Photo by Lori Grunin/CNET

For more information about other camera modes, check out " What are all those camera modes for, anyway?"

Who can use it

Anybody with a mode dial on their camera, physical or virtual, dSLR, interchangeable-lens mirrorless, advanced compact or even a phone with manual controls.

When to use it

When should you care most about aperture?

  • If there's a distracting background or you want to emphasize the subject at the expense of background detail.
  • If you want to make sure multiple elements in the scene are sharp.
  • In controlled lighting situations and when you're shooting still subjects with the camera mounted on a tripod -- like studio or architectural photography -- and shutter speed becomes far less important.

I think the last situation is really the only compelling use of Aperture-priority mode, but your mileage may vary. Note that you should obviously care about aperture when it comes to shooting in low light or bright light, because widening the aperture lets in more light and narrowing it lets in less. However, I find Aperture-priority mode is a less optimal solution than Shutter-priority mode in those circumstances, for reasons I cover in the Drawbacks section.

How it works

You set the aperture and the camera calculates the rest. However, that statement begs the underlying complexity of the relationship between aperture and DOF. Unlike shutter speed, which has a pretty understandable cause and effect in your photos, the effect of the aperture setting as it affects DOF depends on your camera's sensor size, the focal length setting of the lens, and the distance you are from the subject.

The most misunderstood aspect of depth of field is that under many circumstances, distance from your subject matters as much, if not more than, aperture.Photo by Lori Grunin/CNET

Take, for example, the two photos above. Shooting close to Shirley's face blurs out the background nicely, but backing up to get both Shirley and Ramona in the frame results in a far less blurred background -- despite the fact that the first photo has a wider aperture than the second. These were shot with the Canon EOS 7D , which has an APS-C-sized sensor; on a camera with a larger full-frame sensor the blurring would be more pronounced in both photos, while with the smaller sensor of a Micro Four Thirds ILC the background would be sharper in both shots. (You can try different values in a DOF calculator to see the varying relationships, and there are similar calculator apps for mobile devices.)

As an aside, this is why you should always take claims about wider apertures proving shallower DOF in phone cameras and low-end point-and-shoots with a boulder of salt. The sensors are so small that the affect of the aperture is trivial compared with distance from the subject.

The other factor for shooting in Aperture-priority is the hard limit on how high or low a value you can choose, determined by the lens. Those kit lenses that ship with entry-level dSLRs and ILCs tend to have a maximum aperture of f3.5, and that's only at their widest angle of 16mm or 18mm. If you're constantly frustrated by that aperture limit, you may need a better lens.

How to use it

Some cameras use A to designate Aperture priority on the mode dial, while old-fashioned models call it Av (for Aperture Value). You may need to press a lock button to turn the mode dial; if there's no physical dial, usually more common with ILCs and advanced compacts than dSLRs, then you usually pull up the mode settings via a quick-menu or function button. If you're not sure, then you'll have to consult the manual.

How to read the settings: At least this part is easy. On a camera that has a quick view screen it's usually the number next to "F" on the display. ("F" stands for "F-stop" or "F-number", calculated by the lens' focal length divided by the diameter of the aperture.) If there's no "F" it's usually the number next to the shutter speed on the display, and will likely show values between 1.8 and 32. If they're outside that zone, you probably have a really nice lens and already understand this stuff. Smaller numbers mean wider apertures, larger numbers mean narrower ones.

Changing the value: On cameras with two dials, usually one on the front and one on the back, different manufacturers use different conventions for the primary adjustment dial. For instance, Canon uses the front dial to adjust aperture value in this mode while Nikon uses the back dial. Lower-end cameras generally have just one dial and point-and-shoots sometimes use the navigation buttons.

Choosing an aperture: Keep in mind that if you have a zoom lens with a variable aperture range (denoted as say, an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens rather than 24-105mm f4), the widest aperture will decrease as you zoom in to the telephoto end -- e.g., go from 18mm f3.5 to 55mm f5.6 -- and reverse as you zoom out to wide angle. For everything but studio-type work, if you're going to shoot in Aperture-priority mode with an inexpensive kit lens and want the closest you can get to a set-it-and-forget it choice, I vote for f5.6, at least in good light. That will ensure snapshot-quality sharpness of most things you plan to shoot, and will keep the aperture from changing as you zoom. An alternative is to set it f3.5 (or whatever the widest your lens supports) with the understanding that it will change automatically as you zoom, but it will automatically change to be set to the widest aperture possible for a given focal length.

If you want maximum sharpness throughout the scene and there's plenty of light, then f8 or f11 is a good choice. Try to stay away from f16 or higher on inexpensive lenses and small sensors, since sharpness tends to decrease past a certain point as other laws of physics intrude.

If you have a fast lens that supports apertures of about f2.8 or wider, there are some caveats to shooting wide open. First, the wider you go the harder it is to focus accurately; the smaller the zone of sharpness, the more difficult it is to keep the camera fixed on the appropriate point. This is especially true if you're depending upon autofocus. Also, cheap, fast lenses, like a typical 50mm f1.8, tend to produce fringing on the photos at their widest.

You can usually figure out within the first few shots what setting produces the image you want. Just remember:

Increasing the aperture number setting narrows the aperture and broadens the area of sharpness for a given focal length and distance from the subject.

Decreasing the aperture number widens the aperture and shrinks the area of sharpness for a given focal length and distance from the subject.

Most important settings to consider

"A" doesn't stand for "Auto," but you can stick with many of the automatic defaults in Aperture-priority mode. You might want to change these if you're still unhappy with the results, though.

  • Focal length of the lens
    If you're unable to get the exposure you want at, say, 55mm because its widest aperture is f5.6, try recomposing the scene so that you can shoot at 18mm with f3.5. Also keep in mind that if you have an 18-135mm f3.5-5.6, for example, you'll get a wider aperture (closer to f4) at 55mm than on the shorter lens.
  • Shutter speed
    Although you can't usually choose the shutter speed when in Aperture-priority mode, some cameras offer a menu option to set the lowest-selectable shutter speed. While this may constrain your options, it will prevent you from ending up with a bevy of blurry, camera-shaken photos.
  • ISO sensitivity
    As sensor size decreases, out-of-focus areas tend to become increasingly unattractive; increasing ISO sensitivity exacerbates the artifacts in those areas. So if you'll be pixel peeping your photos, you may want to err on the side of narrower aperture/slighly deeper DOF or to shoot at the lowest ISO sensitivity possible. As with Shutter-priority mode, the camera will always choose the lowest available option that matches your chosen aperture when set to Auto ISO. However, if you're going to use it, see if your camera has a menu option to set a prescribed range of values it can choose from. That's especially important on the high end, since most consumer cameras don't do very well above ISO 6400, regardless of what their specifications may indicate.
  • iso-auto-range-set.jpg
    Setting a range for the ISO sensitivity can keep you from suffering artifact-ridden photos.Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET
  • Metering and exposure compensation
    Because Aperture-priority mode is designed to determine the settings for what the camera perceives as a correct exposure, if you want something darker or lighter you'll have to tell the camera. You can do this either by changing the metering mode -- changing the way the camera decides what "correct" means -- or using exposure compensation, which simply increases or decreases the brightness by a specified amount after the camera has made its choice. These settings become important in cases where "correct" is too dark, such as happens with snow scenes or backlit subjects, or too light, when important details of the image may be blown out.
  • Autofocus
    No autofocus system I've used has been able to pick the correct subject to focus on 100 percent of the time; only you know what's important in the frame. Many of the advances in autofocus over the past few years -- most notably face detection -- have been designed to compensate for that fact. So try to use autofocus options that limit the area, like expanded center point autofocus, if it's available, or center-point autofocus.

What are the drawbacks of Aperture-priority mode?

I have to admit: I'm not a big fan of this mode and don't use it much. If I want to control aperture I tend to jump straight to manual mode; I figure that as long as I have to think a lot I might as well go all the way.

In a controlled, well-illuminated environment with little to no movement -- in other words, cases where shutter speed really doesn't matter -- Aperture-priority is a fine choice for controlling depth of field. However, under frequently changing lighting or in dim conditions, you run the risk of the shutter speed dropping lower than that which you're comfortable shooting handheld. Unlike Shutter-priority mode in which the camera will simply underexpose if it can't open the aperture sufficiently, in Aperture-priority it will keep dropping the shutter speed (unless you've set a limit). If you don't pay attention, or frequently review your photos, you may not realize you've been shooting at 1/3 second. Underexposure is somewhat fixable; completely motion- and shake-blurred photos are not.