the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Aperture Priority


The Eureka Moment, 2019


THERE ARE ENTIRE BOOKSTORES CRAMMED WITH TUTORIALS FROM PHOTOGRAPHERS who have developed what, for marketing purposes, is called a “style”. This is a catch-all word for the accumulated experiences, biases, tricks, shortcuts, philosophies or habits that inform one’s work, all of it showing up frequently enough to constitute some kind of artistic signature. It’s a list of “I usuallys” and “I almost alwayses” and ” I nevers”, and those of us who study the output of others can get into a bit of a trap over it.

We’d all love to be able to answer that tantalizing interviewer’s question, “what’s your personal approach?”, as if we could reduce what we do to a set formula. I certainly can’t do that with my own stuff, and I’m a little distrustful of those who figure that they’ve got themselves sussed out to the degree that they can define their style. Of course, just because I don’t think a single trait or phrase can sum up a photographer’s identity, it’s tempting to try to produce such a profile, like trying on a suit that you probably won’t buy just to see how it looks on you. That means that, occasionally, I wonder if (a) I have a discernible style at all, and (b) what its features might be.

I really can’t say that there’s an (a) at all for me, or at least one that I can discern. As for the (b) stuff, there are in fact things that I lean on or come back to from time to time, although they may not always serve what I’m trying to achieve. One very basic thing that I find myself returning to repeatedly is exposure, more specifically, under-exposure. If my work has anything like a consistent look to it, it’s probably in a predisposition to work with as little light as possible. Over the past thirty years, much of this may be attributable to having lived in the American southwest, a place so bleached in sunlight that I was forced long ago to drastically revise my idea of how much light I’d need for a given shot. These lessons were not only palpable but, initially, expensive, since my first disastrous outings out here as a tourist were shot on slide film, which was heinously unforgiving whenever I’d miscalculate an f-stop. We’re talking supernova white on entire rolls of film.

This is not to say that merely getting burned on a few runs of slides, all by itself, turned me toward minimalist exposures, but it sure as hell got my attention. Since I learned photography in the make-or-break era of film, I was already operating under a pretty mindful model of pre-planning strategy (fore-thought?) when it came to photo shoots, so that, once I transitioned into digital, while I was freed from the dollar smackdown associated with blown pictures, I still retained the habit of sweating shots before shooting them. I totally delighted in the fact that errors could be countered and corrected faster with the immediate feedback loop that was a given in digital, but I also still tended to purposely think of what the camera could and could not do, even without being bitten by mistakes. I began gradually to expose for the highlights, rather than worry about the loss of detail in darker patches. Get the parts that can ‘blow out’ right, I tended to believe, and most of the shadows will yield at least something in post-processing. I also experimented extensively with blending bracketed shots (a series of exposures of the same scene, ranging from bright to dark) in HDR or other processes, and that sometimes rescued a lot of dark information. Behind all of this was the belief that the only data you really can’t get back from a shot is the stuff you blew out from over-exposure. Shoot with less light and you’d be safer, generally.

In general I tend to control exposure by an adjustment of shutter speed rather than aperture, and to do everything manually, avoiding semi-automatic exposure modes like Aperture Priority, since, at least for me, they tend to over-expose. I see camera after camera whose auto settings deliver images that are much too bright and non-contrasty for my taste. This is uniformly true in the new generation of film-based instant cameras, many of which do not even allow the user to turn off the flash. Is my choice of exposure range a style, or just a mode of working? Certainly, I don’t perversely under-expose every shot I take, regardless of the conditions, so, to that extent, it’s not really a “signature” thing. Maybe it’s just like any other work habit, like always standing with your legs in a perfect “A” or constantly keeping a light meter at the ready….a starting point, a basis of procedure. I do know that there’s so much going on inside the head of the individual photographer that none of us can universally prescribe for each other. If it works for you, everyone else’s lip music is irrelevant. Bring even 50% of your original concept to your final picture and you’re a hero. Tools and techniques are only as valid as your work makes them.




ANYONE WHO’S SLOGGED THROUGH MORE A FEW OF THESE DISPATCHES knows all too well that I am a passionate preacher for shooting images completely on manual, not because it’s a more “pure” form of photography (and thus deserving of nobility and praise), but because I prefer to exercise as much personal control as possible. This, again, is not a quality judgement, since amazing pictures are made every day with the use of either complete or partial automodes. I just feel that I, personally, learn more by trying more, and manual settings place so much direct pressure on me to innovate and experiment that even my gross failures serve as education.

Sometimes. And other times they’re well, just gross.

The mode known in Nikon as Aperture Priority (“Av” on Canons) is the only semi-auto mode I use with any regularity, and always because I make an educated guess, before going on a shoot, about what conditions will likely prevail. AP allows you to manually dial in your aperture on those occasions when you want a uniform depth of field in everything you’re shooting, with your camera metering light on the fly and providing the shutter speed you need for a correct exposure. AP tend to be a rare bird for me because, in many cases, I am not shooting so fast that I can’t pause at least a few seconds between frames to dial in every exposure factor. However, there are cases when the technology gives you a decided edge.

Landscapes, especially in rapidly variable weather, call upon the shooter to react to conditions that could last, at best, for only seconds at a time. When skies are crystal clear and you have ample time to set up a shot, then, by all means, rely on your own experience shooting on full manual. If, however, you are moving and shooting quickly from dark to medium to extreme light and back again, then you might consider AP as a way to cut your reaction time in half. At this point, full manual may be costing you shots rather than making them better.

Last Embers (2016)

Last Embers (2016), taken on Nikon’s Aperture Priority setting. 1/640 sec., f/6.3, ISO 100, 35mm.

On the day the above image was taken, the town of Sedona, a miraculous array of red-tinged mountains in northern Arizona, was colored variously by a swiftly shifting broken cloud cover. One moment, the crest of a butte might take on a crimson glow, then be swallowed in shadow just moments later, with the gulch next door temporary hyper-lit in the same fashion. The clouds over Sedona were also backed by a decent headwind, shortening the stretches between scene changes even more. Moreover, the sunlight added a ton of contrast to the clouds themselves, making the sky a more attractive compositional component, with typically indistinct shapes rendered more sharply (because contrast is sharpness, right?).

As a result, the combination of light you see in this shot lasted exactly fifteen seconds, so, if I had paused to shoot a couple of trial frames on manual, just to try to nail the lighting, I likely would have missed this moment completely. Again, at this point, assist modes ain’t a compromise; they’re strategy.

The best practice is to anticipate, as much as possible, where you’ll be shooting and what the “game on the ground” is likely to be. Fashion shooters, journalists and other pros swear by Aperture Priority as insurance against lost shots. You may almost certainly find that to be true for some situations yourself . But the name of the game is Get The Picture, so, at the end of the day, the mode that makes you smile is the “right” mode. And don’t let nobody tell you no differnt.



THERE ARE MANY VALUABLE SERVICES OUR CAMERAS WILL RENDER without our consent or participation. Without even considering how many people shoot on full automatic 100% of the time, there are a hundred small calculations that these marvelous devices make to prevent the kind of errors in judgment that used to routinely trip us up, from autofocus and white balance, face detection and contrast control. However, there is a variable percentage of decisions on which we should really take personal action, despite the camera’s best efforts to, in effect, save us from ourselves.

In iffy light situations, for example, several key “semi-auto” modes are truly handy in helping us compensate for grey days or dark corners. One of these is called aperture control, in which you dial in the f-stop you want, based on your preferred depth of field, leaving the camera to set the shutter speed needed to properly expose at that aperture. At first blush, this seems to be a great short cut, and is in fact a neat option for people who are “running and gunning”..shooting lots of frames in a very quick time span. However, what looks like cutting your work in half can also mean cutting the legs off your creativity.

Aperture priority would have worked too hard to make this exposure "balanced", which was the opposite of what I wanted.

Aperture priority would have worked too hard to make this exposure “balanced”, which was the opposite of what I wanted.

In the above situation, I had a severely overcast day in a lushly green Japanese garden. Without shadows for contrast, I would need colors to be as deep as possible to bring off the mood I was going for, so a slightly underexposed look seemed to be in order. Dialing in f/5.6 as a desired D.O.F. in aperture priority was giving me very slow shutter speeds as the camera tried to give me an ideal exposure. This made a handheld shot a little tougher and gave me way too much high color to suggest anything quiet or moody.

Going to full manual, I dialed in a shutter speed that would render the greens nice and deep, around 1/80, and bumped up the ISO a tad as insurance. It was true that I was shooting a lot at the same f-stop, but not so fast that I would have to surrender fine control by shooting in aperture priority for mere convenience’s sake.

I love some of the protections against my own folly offered by today’s devices, but I just can’t go completely driver-less and feel that I am taking enough responsibility for my results. Hey, if I blow it completely, I can still explain a lousy shot in two simple words.

“…stupid camera…”



Walking briskly down a city street, you might not want to stop to fully calculate exposure between every shot. In such cases, Aperture Priority may be a real help.

Walking briskly down a city street with wildly varying light conditions, you might not want to stop to fully calculate manual exposure before every shot. In such cases, Aperture Priority may be good fit. 


I KNOW THAT I APPROACH THE IDEA OF SHOOTING ON MANUAL with what must strike some as evangelistic zeal. We’re talking full-on-John-The-Baptist-mad-prophet mode. I do so because I believe that, the further you can go toward overseeing every single facet of your picture taking, that is, the less you delegate to a machine that can’t think, the better. Generally. Most of the time. Almost always.

Except sometimes.

Aperture Priority, the mode that I most agree with after pure manual, can be very valuable in specific conditions, for very specific reasons. In AP (Av for Canon folks), you dial in the aperture you want for everything you’re about to shoot, depending on what depth-of-field you want as a constant. Then it’s the camera’s job to work around you, adjusting the shutter speed to more or less guarantee a proper exposure. Let me interject here that there are millions of great photographers who nearly live on the AP setting, and, like any other strategy, you have to decide whether it will deliver the goods as you define them.

If you are “running and gunning”, that is, shooting a lot of frames quickly, where your light conditions, shot-to-shot, will be changing a great deal, Aperture Priority might keep you from tearing out your hair by eliminating the extra time you’d spend custom-calculating shutter speed in full manual mode. Fashion, news and sports situations are obviously instances where you need to be fully mindful of your composition, cases in which those extra fragments of “figgerin'” time in between clicks might make you miss an opportunity. And no one will have to tell you when you’re in such a situation.

Conversely, if you are shooting more or less at leisure, with time to strategize in-between shots, or with uniform light conditions from one frame to the next, then full manual may work for you. I have shot in manual for so many years that, in all but the most hectic conditions (cattle stampede or worse), I’m fast enough to get what I want even with calculation time factored in. But it doesn’t matter what works for me, does it, since I won’t be taking your pictures (pause here to thank your lucky stars). If you need one less task to hassle with, and AP gives you that one extra smidge of comfort, mazel tov.

One other thing to note about Aperture Priority: it’s not foolproof. Change your central focal spot to different objects within the same composition (say from a tree to the rock next to the tree) snap several frames, and the exposure could be vastly different on each image. Could that happen when you’re on manual? Certainly. You can, of course, fiddle with exposure compensation on AP, essentially overruling the camera, but, to take the time for all that, you’re really not saving much more time than shooting manual anyway. See what you can live with and go.

This blog is a forum, not the Ten Commandments, so I never want to profess that my way is the only way, whether it’s taking photographs or deciding what toppings should go on pizzas. Although, let’s face it, people who put pineapple on them….that’s just warped, am I right?