Running from the Law: Photography for Moms - Aperture Priority

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Photography for Moms - Aperture Priority

I'm so excited to bring you another installment in the "Photography for Moms" series.  Today's guest poster is the amazing Meredith, from La Buena Vida.  Meredith is another blogger I've been following for years and it's been so much fun watching her become a mom to two adorable little ladies.  Her post today covers a topic that is near and dear to my heart...shooting in Aperture Priority mode.  You guys, I confess right here and now that I'm an Av mode junkie.  I know I should be shooting in full manual (and sometimes I try), but Av mode is so easy and I love the results.  It's my jam!  It's quick and easy and comfortable, like a really expensive pair of yoga pants - fancier than normal, but still not full-on getting dressed and perfect to wear around the house.  That probably makes no sense.  

Anyway, Av mode is perfect for beginners that want to get out of auto, but aren't ready for full manual.  It's a great way to begin to understand the three elements in the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO), without getting overwhelmed.  When you're in Av mode, you only worry about (adjust) the aperture and your camera figures out everything else for you.  It's kinda genius, you guys.  And once you realize how changing the aperture changes your photos, everything else start to click (pardon the pun).  I'm so glad Meredith is tackling this subject today because I know you will love shooting in Aperture Priority and playing around with the results.  So, without further ado...

Hi guys! My name is Meredith. I'm a lot of things--a wife, a mom, a *total* book nerd, a wanna-be quilter, and a sometimes photographer. I occasionally blog over at La Buena Vida, but mostly can be found on Instagram as @labuenavidamere.

But back to photography, because that's why you're here! My junior year in high school, I was taking a pretty intense classload. After I registered for everything that I needed to take, my only available electives were metal shop and photography. I was zero percent interested in either of those choices, but I had no other options to round out my day, so I was stuck. Metal shop was a giant disaster. I made a toolbox. A marshmallow roaster. They were terrible. I was not happy to be there, and I don't think the teacher was any happier to have me.

I didn't expect photography to be any better...but it was. There was just something about winding my own film, taking a photo (with a COMPLETELY manual camera), developing the film while crossing my fingers that I didn't muck it up, and then finally developing the photos. While many of my classmates were trying to find ways to sneakily make out in the dark room, I was that girl who was captivated by how simply exposing a piece of paper to some light and then dunking it into a chemical bath could create something out of nothing. From then on, I was the TA for every available photography class through high school or college. One year, my parents got me all the parts necessary to set up a darkroom in my bathroom.

Needless to say, the love runs deep.
Now, I'm usually found taking pictures of my own kids, but I also do a small amount of photography on the side, mostly newborns (because they're what I love most). I still tend to love black and white more than anything else--back to my roots, I suppose! Anyway, I hesitate to call myself a "pro"--it's a hobby, and a love for me more than anything else.
Girls-11_2 TRSunset-16 Sisters-14_2
{This last one is almost a year ago! How did that happen?! *Sobs*}

When Sara pitched the idea of the Photography for Moms series, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to you all about Av mode (I'm a Canon user--for you Nikon users, I think you'll see "A" mode instead). See, when it comes to advice given to people just starting out in photography, the phrase that I most often hear is: "get out of auto and into manual mode".

I agree with the "get out of auto" wholeheartedly, and I absolutely agree that learning to shoot in manual mode (and thus learning about aperture, exposure, ISO, shutter speed, etc) will only help your photography. But can I tell you a secret? When I'm just hanging at home, shooting photos of my girls...I most often shoot in Av mode.


I kind of feel like I'm going to be kicked out of the club for telling you this, because I know that a good portion of the photography world thinks you should only shoot full manual, all the time. But I disagree, and here's why--with my two girls, we're up, we're down, we're inside, we're outside, the girls are hugging for .25 seconds flat, and if I were shooting in manual all the time, I'd miss a lot of good stuff. I just would. In that photography class I mentioned, the *only* option was shooting in full manual mode. So, I know how to do that just fine, and I can adjust in manual pretty quickly, but the truth is that I would *still* miss things that I'm just not willing to miss if I shot in full manual 100% of the time.

Indeed, I have a couple of real-life friends who are faithfully trying to learn to shoot in manual all the time...and while I think it's awesome that they're learning more about their camera, I can also tell you that I see them just *not* take a lot of photos because their settings aren't right. I hear them say, "Will you send me a picture of him blowing out the candles? My settings aren't right." I see them be disappointed in the photos that they do take because they aren't able to change settings quickly enough. And I think that's a shame. Because yes...there is value in learning how to shoot photos in full manual, but if doing so is so overwhelming that you don't take any pictures at all, then you're no better off than you were before (and I'd even argue you're worse off).

So, if you don't want to shoot in auto, but shooting in full manual is causing you to be frustrated by how much you miss or what you end up with, I would love to encourage you to give Av mode a try--it's one small, easy to learn thing that makes a BIG difference.

Now, if you're currently shooting in auto, I'll bet that a good portion of your photos come out looking something like this:

It's in focus, yes. But no different than what you'd get with a standard point and shoot camera, and probably not what you were hoping for with a dslr, right?
But this is a better snapshot. The focus is on Lizzy, and not all that stuff in the background. And you know what? You can do this too. SO EASILY, when you shoot in Av mode.  

When you shoot in Av mode, you are basically telling the camera "I'll set the aperture to where I want it, and then you can set everything else." In most cases, you'll set the aperture by spinning a little wheel or dial on your camera You can also set the ISO if you choose, but if you're just starting out, leave it on auto for now, and just focus on the aperture. There's tons of great information out there about aperture, but it can sometimes be more than you may want or need, so I'll just tell you this: 

Smaller Number = Lets in more light and has a blurrier background
Bigger Number = Lets in less light and has a crisper background 

This is obviously a gross over simplification of aperture, and if you're interested in photography, I absolutely encourage you to read more. But, if you just want to learn a few tricks for taking better photos of your kids, this may be all you need to know right now. Either way is okay :)

That said, one mistake that I see a lot of beginners make is to always set their aperture at the smallest number they can, assuming that they'll always prefer the more blurry background. But the truth is that there's a time and a place for every aperture under the sun. If you're shooting portraits, it's pretty common for your aperture to be set somewhere between 1.4 and 3. You want the person in focus, but you don't care so much about the background. On the other hand, when you're shooting landscapes, your aperture is set at a much higher number because you want EVERYTHING to be in focus. 
Landscape (8)

Landscape (10)

I lied. I have one more thing to tell you about aperture:

Start by setting your aperture at the number of people in the photo.

In all of the photos in my post, I was shooting with a 50mm 1.8 lens, so I could set my aperture as low as 1.8. And when I'm shooting indoors in the winter and need as much light as I can get, sometimes I do choose to set it that low. But as a general rule (and as you'll see below), I find that around 2.5 is the sweet spot for me, especially since I have 2 girls. But if you have four people in the photo (especially four quick moving kids), you'll probably want to start by setting your aperture at around 4 to make sure that everyone is in focus.

I know, this post has been looonnnngggg already, but I just wanted to end by walking you through what the same photo looks like with a variety of different apertures, because I think it's helpful to see! I took a series of photos of my daughter Lizzy, shooting in AV mode.  To give some context, it was about 2:30pm, and I set Lizzy on a blanket in the shade, near our garden bed. I sat on the ground a few feet away from her. Here's a pull-back shot (me standing up, and back a few feet):

And then the "real" shots. As you scroll through, notice how the photo stays consistently exposed, but only the blurriness of the background changes. Pay particular attention to the flowers in the background, and how they move from blurry (at the lower apertures) to crisp (at the higher apertures). 
AV-9 AV-10 AV-11 AV-12 AV-14 AV-15 AV-16 AV-17

I would encourage/challenge all of you to try shooting exclusively in Av mode for at least a week. If you're shooting in auto right now, I think you'll be surprised at what a big difference this little thing makes. And then, once you're comfortable there, learn the other modes. Then learn how to shoot in manual. And THEN, learn how to work your camera to the best of its ability, taking advantage of modes like Av mode when it is most convenient, while also knowing how to make changes to those settings (in manual) if you need to.

Which brings me to my last point--you do not need to invest in a lot of gear and lenses in order to take great pictures of your kids. Up until last year, the *only* gear that I had was a Canon Rebel XS, my kit lens, and a Nifty Fifty (50 mm 1.8). That's entry-level stuff across the board.

You'll hear people say that the "kit lens is crap". For the most part, I disagree. Go look at the Flickr pool called "Kit Lens Losers". You will see some amazing photos. Often taken with the same equipment that YOU already have. Truly,  I am a firm believer that you should NOT invest a ton of money in lenses and camera bodies until you really understand your camera/lenses and have pushed them to all they are capable of.

If you have kids and want to take portraits of them, I would absolutely recommend a 50mm lens (1.8 or 1.4), though there is a bit of a learning curve that goes along with them. But beyond that, my advice is to learn your camera before you buy another lens, flash, or body. I am so glad that I waited to buy another lens to replace my kit lens--I'm just feeling ready to do that now, and compared to five years ago, I have a much better idea of my style when it comes to portraits (back in the days of black and white film, I mostly did landscapes), and also a much better idea of exactly what the body and lenses that I currently have can do, and thus a much better idea of what *I* need to shoot the way that I want to. Basically, there's a value to upgrading bodies and lenses, but that value won't be realized to its full potential until you have learned about what goes on behind the camera as well!

Okay, I promise I'll wrap it up now--thanks so much for having me Sara! If you have any questions about Av mode, please feel free to ask away in the comments!

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Photography for Moms:
Part 1 - Finding the Light
Part 2 - Step Off and Step In
Part 3 - For the Love of Photos


  1. I just want to say that I am LOVING this series! Great advice on using Av mode - I learned how to get off auto by shooting in Av mode and still resort back to it occasionally. Like Meredith says, sometimes it can be a lifesaver when shooting kids and you only have a split second to capture that moment!

  2. Thanks for having me Sara! You are *SO* right -- shooting in Av mode is a lot like a really awesome pair of yoga pants (the ones that make your but look amazing)! Love it, love that you're hosting this series!

    1. *Butt*

      Autocorrect was trying to turn me into a lady ;)

  3. I love this! I've played around with Aperture mode a few times and been happy with the results. And thank for the tidbit about the kit lens...sometimes I feel like a bit of a loser since I haven't been able to invest in the lens I want yet!

  4. I love this! After hearing you recommend Av awhile back it's ALL I've used...and loved. Meredith gives some great examples and explanations...absolutely loving this series!!!

  5. Great tips! I learned to shoot in AV to get out of auto and now I try to shoot in Manual, but I love what you said about using AV instead for those everyday times. I often get frustrated because I can't get the photo just right so I just give up or don't take one at all! Thank you :)

  6. I have never really used Av mode, and it sounds like the perfect choice for when you just do not want to be fussing with settings. Thanks for sharing all of this Meredith and Sara! I'm going to try Av mode today.

  7. Great post! I shoot in full on manual mode most of the time- but I definitely agree that AV is great for when you just want to pick up your camera and grab those quick and fleeting moments without having to waste time on finding the right settings. It's also great for when you want to hand off the camera to someone else so you can actually get in the picture (and actually end up with a decent photo)! :)

  8. I love this series, and confess, I pretty much only use Av as well! I only shoot my babies monthly shots in M since I have the time to adjust the settings and she isn't moving yet! I dont know how people can set things fast enough with toddlers on the run, not to mention poor lighting indoors, Av is my crutch, my photos would suck without it!

  9. love this post! AV mode definitely makes a huge difference, even though I'm still learning so much!

  10. Love this post!!! I'm definitely still learning my camera but A (I have a Nikkon) makes a huge difference. Love this series!!!