Which Camera Mode is “Best” – Manual, Aperture or Shutter?

One of the pieces of advice I got early on from other photographers was, “Learn to shoot in manual mode. It’s the only way to go.”

The reasons for their opinions varied, but it kinda stuck with me and I thought that I needed to eventually shoot only in manual.

Times Square in New York City. Shot in Aperture Mode. Photo: Kim Olson

Times Square in New York City. Shot in Aperture Mode. Photo: Kim Olson

As the years went on and I became more proficient with my camera and its settings, I thought eventually I’d make the switch into shooting manual all the time. But I didn’t. I still preferred aperture mode, though I had this nagging feeling that perhaps I wasn’t progressing enough because I’d never switched to manual mode.

Maybe this sounds like you or maybe you just think I was being silly. But for some reason, it was almost like I was waiting for permission to not shoot in manual so I could instead stay shooting in aperture mode.

It took me a while to realize manual mode is not the pinnacle of photography modes, and it’s not what everyone should be striving to shoot in.

The fact is, it doesn’t much matter which mode you shoot in so long as you get the shot you’re creatively seeking. The mode you choose should be based more on the types of subjects you like to shoot – still life, portraiture, travel – and how you like to shoot – on the go, in a studio – than most any other factor.

While not perfect, generalizations can be good because they give you a place to start. So, let’s talk about each camera mode and some general tips on when to use each. And as you become more familiar with each mode, it’ll be up to you to see which suits you best.

Manual – When to Use this Mode

In case you couldn’t tell by now, I’m personally not a huge fan of manual mode. Most of the shooting I do is spontaneous, and manual mode doesn’t work very well with this type of photography.

Because you have to determine both the shutter speed and aperture for every shot, sometimes manual mode can simply take too much time. Even for the most experienced photographer, it’s not all that easy to quickly fire off a well-exposed image if you only have a split second to adjust your settings.

So what is manual good for? One time is when you want full creative control.

For this image I was playing around with the shutter and aperture to achieve a creamy, dreamlike image of NYC’s yellow cabs. Manual mode gave me the flexibility I wanted. It’s not a technically perfect image, but I still like it.

Dreamy New York City Cabs shot in Manual. Photo: Kim Olson

Dreamy New York City Cabs shot in Manual. Photo: Kim Olson

Manual mode is also good if the light won’t be changing much from shot to shot, so you can set and forget your settings (for the most part).

Studio shots are a great example. Once you have your lighting set up, you won’t need to adjust your settings until you change your lights. Indoor portraiture using window light could also be a good candidate so long as the clouds aren’t creating massive shifts in light.

Shooting outdoor images can also work if the light is pretty unchanging.

For the shot below, I decided to try out manual mode because I was essentially trying to reshoot the same exact image over and over again until I had the dog in the position I liked best. Because I didn’t move much, the dog was jumping from basically the same spot and the light was pretty constant, manual mode made sense. Aperture mode was actually messing with me more because it didn’t give me a consistent exposure (shooting all-black and all-white subjects can confuse the camera).

Dog Jumping into a Lake using Manual Mode. Photo: Kim Olson

Dog Jumping into a Lake using Manual Mode. Photo: Kim Olson

Aperture Priority – When to Use this Mode

Because the number one thing I like to control most is the depth of field, I shoot in aperture 90% of the time.

I typically like to shoot nearly wide open for most of my subjects, throwing the background out of focus. But if I want a landscape shot with everything in focus to infinity, then I can quickly stop it down. And if I find the image slightly under- or overexposed, then I simply adjust the exposure compensation. It’s what works for me.

If you do a lot of portraiture where you want your viewer’s eyes to gravitate towards faces, then aperture is ideal. You can shoot wide open and throw the background out of focus so it doesn’t distract from your subject.

Aperture-priority Mode Image of a Bride at her Wedding. Photo: Kim Olson

Aperture-priority Mode Image of a Bride at her Wedding. Photo: Kim Olson

It’s also great for detail shots like food and flowers.

I like it because I’m on the go a lot, and in aperture mode, I can select the appropriate aperture to achieve the depth of field I’d like as I walk around and then be able to quickly point at any subject I happen to be passing, press the shutter without too much fiddling and be assured my exposure will be pretty solid.

Shutter Priority – When to Use this Mode

For controlling action or ambient light, shutter priority works well.

The reason why I think people tend to use shutter priority for controlling light and motion is because intuitively, it’s easier to understand how either a fast or slow shutter helps control the outcome of the image.

Say you’re shooting subjects that are fast-moving like runners or cars. If you opt for shutter-priority mode and use a fast shutter speed (or shorter length of time), you’ll be more likely to freeze the subject in action.

Conversely, the longer you leave the shutter open, the more blur or motion you’ll see in the end result.

Runner in Motion in New York City

Shutter-Priority Image of a Runner in Motion in New York City. Photo: Kim Olson

Similarly, being in shutter priority gives you more control over the amount of background or ambient light. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more the background – or ambient – light will be allowed in which gives more depth to the image.

This bride & groom chose an unbelievably gorgeous spot on the ocean, so I wanted to capture both the sunset along with their reactions to the speeches. I used a slow enough shutter speed so that the flash didn’t overpower the image and the sunset’s colors would still be visible.

Bride & Groom at Sunset in Mexico, shot in Shutter priority. Photo: Kim Olson

Bride & Groom at Sunset in Mexico, shot in Shutter priority. Photo: Kim Olson

To Sum Up

What I hope you take away from this is that it really doesn’t matter which mode you shoot in. You can, more or less, achieve the exact same results in aperture, shutter or manual modes. So don’t feel compelled to shoot in one mode over another just because you think you should. Make it easier on yourself and shoot in the mode you prefer.

That being said, you should of course experiment and try out the other modes. You may find you like them better for different scenarios.

Since I prefer aperture mode, I tend to find ways to stay in that mode and just make it work. This action shot was taken in aperture mode and I could still freeze the action just as I’d hoped.

Dog fetching a frisbee shot in aperture-priority mode. Photo: Kim Olson

Dog fetching a Frisbee shot in aperture-priority mode. Photo: Kim Olson

Weekly Challenge

This next week, give yourself permission to enjoy shooting in your favorite mode. Have fun with it.

But also take a look at the subject(s) you like to shoot most and ask yourself if perhaps you could try out a different mode you don’t normally use and see how you like it.

If you typically like aperture mode, just for fun you can go out and shoot in shutter-priority mode and make some images of passing cars, runners or whatever suits your fancy. It’s definitely a good idea to go outside of what you’re comfortable with and experiment. You may find you like it more than you realize (or maybe you won’t. :)

The biggest thing to remember is that you’re allowed to do whatever you want because most modes will likely give you what you want so long as you know what it is you want.

Share Your Favorite Image

After you’ve had some time to do the challenge, be sure to hop back over here and share a link to your favorite image below so we can all check it out!

How did you find the challenge? What mode(s) do you prefer shooting in?

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