For most manufacturers, one of the hangovers from analog cameras is the chunky dial that sits on top. Two of the modes — shutter priority (often S or Tv) and aperture priority (often A or Av) — are becoming increasingly obsolete. Cameras have changed, and so has how we use them, and manufacturers need to keep up.
Every Fuji shooter will now be screaming at their screens in frustration, and yes, Fuji cameras have always been ahead of the game, not simply in terms of usability, but in mystically anticipating a while back that ISO would not always be fixed for a minimum of 24 or 36 exposures. Fuji photographers wanting to shoot at a specific aperture while letting their camera calculate the exposure simply dial that aperture in — leaving their shutter and ISO settings on auto — and get on with the job. If they suddenly want a specific shutter speed as well, they dial that in and continue to let the camera choose the exposure, thanks to auto ISO.
Sliding between different priority modes is seamless, as if these “modes” don’t exist. Instead, the mindset is reversed: instead of deciding which variable is given “priority,” you are choosing which ones to take back from the camera’s automation. For anyone trying to learn digital photography, this surely makes a lot more sense, and given that cameras are now incredibly sophisticated when it comes to metering, it’s not just beginners who can take advantage.
In contrast to Fuji, almost every other manufacturer is stuck with a system that is outdated. As the photography world slowly became accustomed to digital, auto ISO took a little while to appear, becoming much more useful when the ability to set a minimum shutter speed was introduced.
As someone who once shot almost exclusively in manual mode, using auto ISO has been something of a revelation. I now use it as part of manual mode (can you still call it “manual” if the camera is choosing the exposure?) when shooting events or in aperture priority when photographing people. If you’re not sure of the advantages, check out these two articles: Why Auto ISO and Minimum Shutter Speed Will Change the Way You Shoot, and How to Start Using Aperture Priority.
A Brief History Lesson
Both released in 2009, the Canon 1D Mark IV and the original Canon 7D were among the first to give photographers the option of allowing the camera to choose the ISO, but it’s possible that Pentax was one step ahead of them. In 2006, Pentax released the K10D and sneaked in a new setting that may have seemed a little bizarre back then, but now makes perfect sense: TAv. This blended shutter and aperture priority, but still left the camera to decide the exposure — through auto ISO. (Hat tip to Fstoppers community member John Cavan for this delightful little nugget of information.)
Today, 20 years after Canon released its first digital SLR in the shape of the D30, the vast majority of cameras still haven’t properly managed to accommodate the arrival of ISO as something that is as important as shutter speed and aperture when it comes to creating an image. However, there are signs that things are beginning to change. Last year, Canon released the EOS R and sneaked in a feature that hasn’t drawn a huge amount of attention: Fv.
Flexible Priority Auto Exposure
EOS R owners reading this article will already have noticed that Canon made some changes in how this camera is controlled. And notably, in the list of modes that the R presents you with when choosing your settings, Fv is listed second after full automation.
Humorously dubbed “Fuji Verbatim” by photographer and YouTuber Omar Gonzalez, this “flexible priority auto exposure” mode (if you have a better idea for the name, leave a comment below) goes some way to replicating the mindset (though not the dials) of choosing the settings on, say, a Fuji X-T3. Your three variables — shutter speed, aperture, and ISO — are all set to automatic until you decide to override one of them. Returning a variable to automatic can be achieved at the touch of a button. For example, on my Sony a7 III, if I choose to switch out of auto ISO and set it manually, to go back to auto ISO, I have to scroll all the way past ISO 50 to “AUTO.” On the EOS R, returning it to auto can be done with a single button press.
Imagine yourself as a relative newcomer to photography, in your backyard, attempting to capture the family dog. If it's sitting in front of you, Fv with everything on auto will be fine. If you’ve heard about wide apertures, you might even choose to set the aperture to f/4, the widest on your RF 24-105mm f/4L kit lens. If the dog suddenly starts chasing the kids around the garden, you’ll want to freeze that movement, so with one click, you put the aperture back to auto and then scroll to set the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second. Easy.
Anyone who has taught photography will appreciate how much easier it is to explain this to a beginner. Being able to say “this will give you control over the aperture” is a lot simpler than saying “this will give you control over the aperture but at the same time check what this ISO thing is doing and if it’s set to a number like 400 or 800, be sure to scroll past all of those numbers until you get to auto.”
This also gets past the confusion of having a mode called "manual" where one of the variables — i.e., ISO — can be set to auto. Of course, this is a subtle point, but it's another sign that the traditional approach to operating a camera is stuck in the past.
This isn’t a shift in mindset and dials that only affects beginners, however. On my Sony a7 III, I rarely use anything other than the two stored settings set up on my mode dial. The first is set for shooting events where I’m capturing fast, often unpredictable movements with greatly varying amounts of light entering the lens. This means manual mode but with auto ISO, an aperture of f/5.6, and the shutter speed dialed to 1/1000th. From there, I can tweak, depending on what’s happening in front of me. (If I’m choreographing action myself, I’ll shoot fully manual, as I will have the time to keep checking my histogram and tweak my ISO myself. At an event, it’s better to let the camera do the decision-making.)
My second stored setup is ready for shooting candid portraits: aperture priority with auto ISO, the aperture set to its widest for any given lens, and the minimum shutter speed set to 1/250th of a second — a variable that is easily tweaked by having this quickly changed via a custom key.
With these two saved modes as my foundation, I can usually then adjust to a wide range of situations. In a sense, I'm still using aperture priority, but not as it was originally intended. The workarounds are effective, but as Canon has suggested with its new Fv mode, there might be better ways of approaching the design of a camera's controls, means that properly accommodate the fact that ISO is no longer stuck until you change your roll of film.
What Do You Think?
Do priority modes need a complete overhaul? Should manufacturers put some energy into rethinking how we operate our cameras? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.