“Real pros shoot manual.”
If I had a penny for every time I had heard this in a photography forum, I could have given up wedding photography years ago and bought my own island. The sad fact is that photography forums are not really a great place to learn about photography. More often than not, one or two “strong characters” will voice an opinion, and then their acolytes will repeat it until all opposition is crushed. Forums are more about clashes of egos than real photography advice, with one or two notable exceptions.
Often, the best real-world choice is worked out by photographers in the field, not armchair enthusiasts with an axe to grind. I have shot in manual mode for prolonged stretches, and I do still use it if that’s the best option, but for wedding photography or anything where things can unfold quickly, I find aperture priority the best choice.
My Journey Away from Manual Mode
Like most young photographers who started shooting film, I was taught to shoot in manual mode and use a separate light meter. I used black-and-white film and slide film. Slide film has a very low tolerance for exposure error, so measuring light with an incident meter was a must. If you don’t know, an incident light meter measures the light falling on a subject and disregards its tone, so the reading is always accurate. In an ideal world, this is the best choice; the trouble is, this isn’t an ideal world!
I have always loved street photography, and it’s something I’ve done for pleasure for many years, but more often than not, the lighting conditions are not ideal. In many ways, this was my training for becoming a wedding photographer. For years, I shot in manual—mainly because I used a rangefinder (a Voightlander Bessa R), and it only had a manual mode. This was fine when the light was consistent, but a total pain if it wasn’t. I would meter and set my camera up for sunlight only to miss shots in the shade or vice versa. On days with broken sunshine, the light would be a constant frustration, and I would have to constantly refer back to my meter. In the end, I spent more time checking my light meter than I did shooting pictures, and I knew something had to change.
When I switched to digital for my 35mm work, I started to play around with my technique to suit the new equipment I was using. I found that the in-camera metering was good enough. Most of the time, I could let it do its own thing, and the exposures would be dead on. I had enough experience to know when they wouldn’t be, and in those situations I would override the camera. I found that using aperture priority mode meant I spent more time looking for pictures and less time worrying about camera settings.
The Speed of Auto, The Control of Manual
When I started shooting weddings, I found that my aperture setting was one of the main weapons in helping me turn the chaos of a wedding into beautiful images. Aperture choice is one of the main determining factors towards the look of a photograph. You can use it to blur out the busy backgrounds that can ruin wedding shots. Weddings move fast—too fast for fiddling around with your camera if the light changes, so a degree of automation is a real necessity.
Reasons I Prefer Aperture Priority
Here are the reasons I prefer Aperture Priority over Manual mode in a wedding environment:
1. Most of the time it’s just not possible to use a separate meter.
If you’re positioned at the back of the church during the ceremony and the light changes, you can hardly walk up the aisle, take a quick incident reading off the bride’s face, and retire back to your station. If you are using the camera’s built-in meter, there is very little point in setting the camera manually when the camera would set itself to the same way automatically. If I feel that the camera has got it wrong, I use exposure compensation. That way, if the light levels drop, the exposure will still be correct.
2. Aperture priority gives me control over the look of an image.
Depth of field can have a decisive effect on the look of an image. An aperture of f/2.8 will look very different to f/11. Once the shutter is fast enough to freeze motion, you can’t tell the difference between 1/500 and 1/2000 of a second, so Shutter Priority mode does not offer the same aesthetic control, especially as your aperture will change in variable light and change the look of the images.
3. Modern camera meters are good enough (most of the time).
Modern camera meters will get exposure right 95 percent of the time, so not using it can almost feel like an affectation. Weddings are hard work, and it makes sense to let technology help you where appropriate.
4. I can concentrate on image making, not technicalities.
The less I have to worry about technical concerns, the more I concentrate on creativity. Ultimately, creativity is what people are hiring me for, so I make sure I’m not getting too bogged down in the technical side of things. I’ve come up with a simple way of working that I can rely on, and I stick to that.
5. Events move quickly, and I need to capture them.
I’m not a fan of making the bride and groom repeat anything. I think you can tell when something is fake, so I treat every event at a wedding as a one-shot deal. That means I have to think fast, be flexible, and react to things as they happen. I don’t have time to keep fiddling with my camera, so aperture priority gives me the perfect balance of control and automation.
6. It’s better in low light.
I can often find myself at the ragged edge of low-light capability at weddings. If things are getting tricky, I use aperture priority to decide what needs to be in focus in the frame and then adjust ISO to get a usable shutter speed. This way I’m always at the best ISO I can get away with.
Conclusion (And Some Caveats)
I’ve stopped using manual mode for fast-paced situations, but one of the reasons I can use aperture priority successfully is that I have enough experience to know when the camera is likely to be caught out. If you’re a beginner or intermediate photographer who wants to take his or her photography more seriously, I still recommend a prolonged length of time learning to use manual mode on your camera.
Too often today, workshops and online tutorials try to persuade you that photography is easy, and you don’t have to know the technical stuff. Well, unfortunately, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and understanding photography at its most basic is still a necessary grounding in the craft of image making. Aperture priority is a great tool, but it’s not a replacement for a good photographic brain. The real skill in photography is learning what to do in a myriad of circumstances, and choosing the best compromise to suit the situation.
About the Author:
Toby Key is a wedding and portrait photographer based in West Sussex, UK.