Is Aperture Priority Better Than Full Manual for Landscape Photography?

Cameras have several different shooting modes. The two most common for landscape photography is aperture priority and manual. Which one is the better choice?

In my latest video, I discuss this topic and spoiler, neither is better but both have their pros in different conditions. Besides the conditions, the design of your camera can also influence, which one is the easiest mode to use. I use aperture priority in about 80-90% of my photography. It is very easy only having to set your aperture and you are ready to shoot. The camera automatically finds the desired shutter speed based on your exposure compensation setting. The ISO is usually always at base ISO, so I do not have to set it when I turn on the camera.

Optimal Exposure

If you have followed my videos for long, you know I usually shoot in aperture priority in forest scenes. Generally, aperture priority works great for scenes where the light does not change between exposing for the scene and photographing the scene – this is the case for most scenes. It is beneficial to use both the histogram and zebra stripes to make sure you do not over or underexpose, however, being in aperture priority with the exposure compensation set to 0, this is easy to avoid unless you are photographing in very high contrast scenes. In such a case, you will probably need to bracket. In flat scenes with a lot of fog (as in the above video and below photo) and snow, you usually want to turn your exposure compensation to +1 as to not get a flat gray scene but capture the whites of the fog and snow.

This also means if you are walking around and constantly change your scene or the light changes over the period you are photographing, you do not have to change the shutter speed when you turn on the camera. The camera is ready to shoot once it has metered the scene. In some cases, you might have to change the exposure compensation (effectively the shutter speed) a bit to preserve some highlights, but usually, it is not the case.

Adjusting

Aperture priority is also great if you need to adjust to certain conditions fast. If you want to capture some birds flying into the scene, it is much faster to just adjust the ISO and let the camera automatically find the appropriate shutter speed, instead of having to both adjust the ISO and shutter speed. The birds have probably left the scene before you have the correct exposure. That is what I did in the below photo. I noticed the birds flying towards my scene and changed the ISO to 1600 from 100, which gave me a shutter speed of 1/640 to make sure the birds came out nice and sharp.

Scenes With Water

I typically use manual mode, when I need to make sure the shutter speed does not change between exposing for a scene and actually photographing. This could happen in scenes with waves and there are actually several reasons for shooting in manual.

First, I want to make sure the shutter speed stays the same to keep a specific look to the streaks of water you can capture when the waves break. If the shutter speed changes just a stop of light, you can end up with only half of the desired effect – half as long streaks. In the photo below, I needed a very specific shutter speed (1/3 second) to get the desired "explosive" effect from the waves crashing into the rocks.

Secondly, in case you are in a position where water splashes up onto the front element of your scene, I start by finding the optimal settings, focus, and composition and change the camera to continuous shooting, dry off the front element, and keep covering the lens with the cloth. Once I am ready to get the shot, I start photographing by keeping the shutter down and then I remove the cloth. The first few photos without the cloth ought to be clean of water spray or droplets.

Had I been doing this in aperture priority the camera would have metered for the darkness created by the cloth. Once I remove the cloth, the camera would have to re-meter for the light in the scene with the result of the first few photos being overexposed. This is the technique I used in the below photo.

There are many other reasons to use both aperture priority and manual. Be sure to check out the video above and let me hear, which one mode you prefer and why.

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12 Comments

Tor-Ivar Næss's picture

Manual mode is for nerds 😅 joke aside, I think Aperture mode works fine, but just like manual mode it needs an understanding to use it to get desired exposures.

Stuart Carver's picture

I swap between the two regularly, aperture mode as a starter then move to manual if I want a longer exposure.

Matt Williams's picture

When I used a Nikon D700 on a tripod, sometimes I would just manually lower the shutter speed until the auto-ISO went down to base ISO because there was no simple way to toggle auto ISO on/off without diving into the menu. Lazy, but ultimately the same result.

All of that is to say, there is no right way to use a camera, especially when it comes to arguments over exposure modes. Put your camera in Aperture priority, use the exposure compensation (which is what I do 95% of the time), you're effectively doing manual exposure anyway.

Watch your histogram, shoot how you want.

Mike Shwarts's picture

Neither is better. Two ways at arriving at the same exposure if you use exposure compensation in aperture priority.

Brett BARCLAY's picture

P for Professional is always my go to.

Chris Rogers's picture

The only way my dude. XD

Kai Hornung's picture

I had explained to me as
A = awesome mode
M = magnificent mode

So, whatever I decide, it always turns out great. And the best of all is: the dials don’t stop at 10. You can crank it up to 22 or even several thousand. That’s much better than guitar amps. That’s why I love cameras much more.

Next up for me is
P = power mode
I heard it will make my images super powerful!

🤪

TJ Weisenberger II's picture

I have been shooting manual since I started. Only in the last couple years have I started exploring shooting Aperture and shutter priority. I am not really a fan. The other day I shot a waterfall with shutter priority. I wasn't happy with 3 out of 4 exposures. Mad at myself for being lazy.

Eduardo Bernardes's picture

The author genuinely seems like a very good photographer, but I feel like the title of the article and some of the points mentioned are a bit off.
"Is Aperture Priority Better Than Full Manual for Landscape Photography?" No. You're going to pick the perfect time of the year, drive/hike to the perfect location for that shot, wait for the right time of day...and then let your camera pick the shutter speed? really?
"Aperture priority is also great if you need to adjust to certain conditions fast" - I strongly disagree. You must have a plan for these situations. When I photograph underwater, the quickest adjustment is to stay in Manual and quickly click on Auto ISO if it's a slow moving subject or change to a predefined setting with Shutter priority if it's a fast moving subject. For landscape photos, I often bring 2 cameras and one of them is in "surprise mode" which is Manual mode with a fast shutter and F/5.6 using a versatile lens - that works if I see a wild boar or something like that and I need to snap a pic - but realize that it's not going to be a breathtaking photo.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

I can't find where to set aperture priority on my Sinar. Maybe the problem is my 120 Angulon? not sure.

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

I'm just a control freak about my settings. Any mode that takes the meter reading and moves settings without me expressly deciding to do so is usually not what I want. That includes AV.

Shoot however you want though.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Well, the meter reading is what decides your settings in Av. You do not "lose" control just because you shoot in Av or Tv. Your exposure is determined by your light meter no matter what :)