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Why Aperture Priority should be your priority

MattKrumins Tutorials

Over the past few weeks we’ve been exploring a couple of hot topics for photographers; we’ve looked at how Ikea has shown us the perfect model for a good composition and how your manual settings resemble the same recipe as a good suntan. Today we’re going to be looking at how we can get those beautiful blurry backgrounds with razor sharp subject with the least possible effort. If you’ve not read last weeks suntan analogy you might want to do that now as some of the below ideas rely on the analogy (CLICK HERE).

Part 1: Shutter Speed
Lets start with a couple of basics. The shutter speed is the length of time our images exposes for (the amount of time you are out in the sun tanning). This period of time could be very short, say 1/4000th of a second which will freeze action, or a much longer period of time or say 1-30 seconds where movement will be blurred. The longer the image sensor is exposed to light, the brighter the image will become (read: the longer you stay in the sun, the more colour your skin will develop). Over that period of time, if something in your photograph moves or if your camera moves (think about your hands shaking after 8 cups of coffee) then whatever movement happens will be painted into your image as motion blur. This can be a really powerful tool with street photography and a topic we cover in depth on my Travel & Street Photography Workshop but as a general rule for photographers we are trying to freeze action rather than capture it’s blur (nobody likes a blurry portrait).

Moral of the story: a fast shutter speed will result in a crisper image if any motion is involved.

Slow shutter speeds blur the movement in the image

Slow shutter speeds blur the movement in the image

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Part 2: Where aperture gets a bit blurry
As mentioned last week our f/ stop (aperture) is like the SPF+ rating on our sunscreen, the larger the number the more light it blocks from our sensor (our skin). The more beautiful aspect of aperture though is it’s side effect. The wider our aperture is (smaller number, allowing more light in) the blurrier our images backgrounds and foregrounds become, this is called our depth of field. You’ll notice in a couple of the images below that the background is blurred out to the point that it is just a creamy abstract leaving your viewer with only one place to go.. right to subject. As a general rule (with the exception of landscapes/seascapes/waterfalls/vistas) the blurry backgrounds are desirable effect as it limits the clutter in your scene.

Moral of the story: shooting with a wide open aperture for wildlife, portraits, night scenes etc is desirable as it allows more light into the camera (light is our friend) and results in our subject being isolated against a blurry background (called a shallow depth of field).

Image demonstrating aperture effects in low light photography

Shot at f/1.4, lots of light allowed a fast shutter to freeze the action and the wide aperture blurred the background/em>

Shot at f/2.8, lots of light allowed a fast shutter to freeze the action and the wide aperture blurred the background/em>

Bringing it all together and turfing the sunscreen:
The way our cameras operate is by balancing these settings out to get a happy medium. A brighter result from one will be balanced with a darker result from the other (ISO is also a factor but we’re going to leave that in auto, read this article to hear why). In terms of our tanning analogy, think about it like this: If you want to develop your tan faster (faster shutter), you need to reduce the amount of sunscreen (lower f/stop number). This means that when we are photographing with a wide open aperture (lots of light) resulting in nice blurry backgrounds, our camera will always balance this out by using the fastest possible shutter speed to capture the light available. That sounds like a win to me, blurry backgrounds and frozen action!

So how do we find this magical mix? Pop your camera into aperture priority mode (A on Olympus and Nikon, Av on Canon) and let the camera work out the balance for you. Aperture Priority will allow you to fix your f/ stop (aperture) to the lowest number available (lets in maximum light) and your camera will now automatically choose the fastest shutter it can to give you a well balanced exposure! Do remember that this is not a fix-all solution to your low light photography as even with a wide open aperture it may still take a slower shutter speed for your camera to absorb the limited light rays to develop an image, but using this mode will give you the fastest possible shutter speed for the situation. So this my friends, is why aperture priority should be your priority.

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