Shutter Priority Mode: When and How to Use It (And When to Avoid)

Shooting in semi-automatic modes allows you a lot of creative freedom while saving your time. That is why 99% of professional photographers use them! Today I want to share with you everything I have learned along the way about one of the most useful semi-automatic modes: The shutter priority mode.

What Is Shutter Priority Mode?

Shutter priority mode is a semi-automatic shooting mode in cameras. It allows the user to select a shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the aperture to get the correct exposure. In Canon camera’s it is labeled as Tv (Time value) or in Nikon as S (Shutter Priority auto)

Why would you use shutter priority mode? Since shutter priority mode put you in control of the shutter speed, it is great for creatively capturing motion. For example, creating motion-blur or freezing motion.

How Do I Set Shutter Priority Mode?

Every camera manufacturer has its own particularities so the way you select shutter priority mode will be slightly different depending on what camera you have.

Both Nikon and Canon cameras have a top dial to select your shooting mode. To select the Shutter Priority Mode, you just need to turn the mode dial to Tv (Time Value) in Canon, or S (Shutter priority auto) in Nikon.

A photo of a Nikon camera's mode dial showing the Shutter Priority (S) mode.
Turn the mode dial of your camera to choose the Shutter Priority Mode.

With other camera brands, it’s likely that they use similar abbreviations. If you have a shooting mode dial, look for a Tv or an S option. If not, just check your camera manual to learn how to select it.

What Is Shutter Speed and How Does It Affect My Photos?

Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter mechanism of your camera stays open to expose the sensor to light. It has a significant impact on your image’s exposure. The longer the shutter is open, more light hits the sensor, resulting in a brighter photo.

Shutter speed is measured in either seconds or fractions of seconds. Most cameras have a range that goes from 1/4000th of a second to 30 seconds. To learn more please read our shutter speed guide.

shutter speed chart showing the effect of shutter speed on exposure, and motion capture.
As shutter speed slows (left to right) the aperture stays open for longer (let more light in and capture motion blur)

Here is an example of a series of photos with different shutter speeds. As the shutter speed slows (from left to right) the camera captures motion blur. The fastest shot on the left freezes cat’s hand motion while slowest shot on the lower right corner captures the motion blur.

In this photo series, I set the camera ISO at 200. In shutter priority mode, I selected the shutter speed (in red) and the camera compensates the exposure selecting a different aperture value each time. As you can see, all the photos have the same exposure. However, when I use slow shutter speeds (1/30sec or slower), the paw of my Maneki-Neko (Japanese for beckoning cat) appear blurry. With faster speeds, I froze the movement. Photo by Sarah Rodríguez Martínez.

How to Change Shutter Speed While in Shutter Priority Mode?

When you are in Shutter Priority mode, you can change the shutter speed with the camera’s main dial. There might be differences in the dial placement between manufacturers. However, the main dial is usually placed close to the shutter release button. Here’s a screenshot showing where it is located on Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

a photo showing the main dial of Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras
Turn the main dial of your camera while in Shutter Priority Mode to change the shutter speed.

As you turn the main dial, you should see that your shutter speed value changes (look through the viewfinder)

Best Shutter Speed to Use

Choosing a shutter speed depends on the effect you want to achieve. In general terms, quicker shutter speeds freeze action while slower shutter speeds create motion blur and even ghosting effects.

I took these two photos in a busy street in Tel Aviv (Israel). In the left photo, I used a shutter speed of 1/160sec. As cars were not moving fast, I managed to freeze them. In the right photo, I set my camera at 1/6 sec to blur the movement. Photo by Sarah Rodríguez Martínez.

The faster the subject, the faster the shutter speed you need in order to freeze its movement. Shutter speed chart below gives you a good starting point for your own experimentations.

A shutter speed chart showing approximate shutter speed values to use in different situations
The shutter speed you select depends on your creative needs as well as your subject (how fast or slow it is moving)

When to Use Shutter Priority Mode

The short answer is whenever you want to creatively control how you capture motion. Here are several situations you may want to use Shutter Priority Mode:

1. To Freeze Movement

To freeze fast-moving subjects, you need to select a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze action. In other words, the shutter will open and close so fast and the moving subject will appear as if they are still.

A snowboarder in action taken using the shutter priority mode with a 1/800s shutter speed
For freezing movement, you need to use a faster speed than the movement of your subject. For freezing action of this snowboarder a shutter speed of 1/800 seconds was used.

2. To Capture Motion Blur

In this case, the shutter speed should be slower than the movement of the subject. Motion blur is a great creative tool when you want to give your audience a sense of action/movement in your photography.

A person doing a yoga pose while passerby people are blurred by the use of a slower shutter speed
My friend Nita (@reinodenita) and I wanted to show the contrast between the people moving and her being calm and still. I set the shutter speed at 1/5 sec. All the people that walked around her appear blurry as we wanted while she stays sharp! Photo by Sarah Rodríguez Martínez.

3. Panning

Panning is a technique where you pan your camera while aiming it at a moving subject. The result is a relatively sharp subject in comparison with a really blurry/moving background. This technique gives your photography a sense of speed.

Being on Shutter Priority Mode while panning allows you to select a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze your subject without having to worry about aperture value (manual mode)

A panning shot of a biker taken with shutter priority mode
Panning involves controlling your shutter speed so that you can freeze your subject in action while you pan the camera.

4. To Avoid Camera Shake

I use Shutter Priority mode especially when I know there is a risk of camera shake due to slower shutter speeds. Personally, I noticed that my photos are blurry/shaky if I use a shutter speed lower than 1/100 second while hand holding the camera (I have shaky hands). So I often limit the shutter speed to 1/100s by using shutter priority mode to avoid camera shake.

Do you know what is your personal limit on slower shutter speed when hand-holding your camera? Keep an eye on your shutter speed when hand-holding to avoid going below this limit.

I took this photo through a window in Istanbul. The window was high, so I needed to stand on my tip toes and raise the camera in a really uncomfortable way. I knew my hands would be very shaky, so I set the shutter speed at 1/250sec (My personal limit in normal situations is 1/100sec) and I let the camera do the rest. Photo by Sarah Rodríguez Martínez.

Common Problems in Shutter Priority Mode and How to Avoid Them

As with any camera shooting mode, Shutter Priority mode also has its limitations. However, knowing these limitations in advance will allow you to better prepare for them or even bypass them.

1. Camera Shake at Slower Shutter Speed

When the shutter speeds are slow the slightest movement of your hands makes the picture blurry due to camera shake.

To avoid camera shake, it is recommended to use a tripod when the shutter speed is slower than 1/focal-length of the lens.

For example, if you are using a lens with a focal length of 100mm, then you need a tripod when the shutter speed is 1/100 seconds or slower.

If you don’t have a tripod, look for alternatives that can help you to stabilize your camera. You can lean onto stable things you find around you such as walls, trees, tables…etc.

A camera on a tripod ready to take a landscape photo
Be aware of camera shake when choosing lower shutter speeds. Use a tripod or another stabilization to avoid camera shake.

Generally speaking, a shutter speeds longer than 1/60 seconds, is likely to yield camera shake when hand holding. This depends on the person. For example, I have shaky hands and I know by experience that I need a tripod when I shoot slower than 1/100sec. My recommendation is that you use the rules as a starting point and adjust them as needed.

2. Limit of 30 Seconds Exposure

Most camera models limit the slowest shutter speed to 30 seconds in many shooting modes. You might want to choose a shutter speed that is slower than that for long exposure photography. In that case, you should switch to Bulb Mode using your camera’s mode dial since shutter priority will not allow you exposures that are longer than 30 seconds.

In Bulb mode, your aperture will stay open until you press the shutter button for a second time. To avoid any camera shake in Bulb mode, I strongly recommend using a tripod along with a remote release.

For taking star trails photos you need to use slower shutter speeds than 30 seconds. Photo by PTNorbert.

3. Limit of Lens Speed in Shutter Priority Mode

Largest aperture (lowest f-number) of your lens determines how much the lens can be ‘opened up’ to let light in. When you are increasing your shutter speed in Shutter Priority mode, the camera automatically opens up the aperture to let more light in to keep the same exposure level. However, once the largest aperture of your lens is reached, the camera can no longer attain the correct exposure if you keep increasing your shutter speed.

The camera will indicate its inability to attain correct exposure by flashing your exposure level indicator.

A Nikon camera LCD warning "subject is too dark" due to under exposure
Your LCD screen/viewfinder should warn you if your photos are underexposed due to using fast shutter speeds.

In this case, you can try to increase the ISO (your sensor’s sensitivity to light). This will compensate for the limitation of not having a wider aperture to let more light in. However, this option adds noise (grainy artifacts) to the image.

If you find your self in such situations often, perhaps you should go for a faster lens (with a wider maximum aperture)

To learn more about how ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture effects the exposure, please read our exposure triangle guide.

4. Increasing Exposure in Shutter Priority Mode

As we mentioned, in shutter priority mode, the camera will automatically adjust the aperture to achieve what it considers a good exposure. So no matter what shutter speed you choose, it will not change the exposure of your photos.

If you want to change the exposure if your photos to fit your creative needs, you must use the exposure compensation feature of your camera.

In that case, you can use the exposure compensation tool to manipulate the exposure. Read our exposure compensation guide on how to do this.

A photo showing the exposure compensation feature of a DSLR camera
Adjust the exposure of your photos using the exposure composition feature of your camera.

When to Avoid Shutter Priority Mode

1. When You Want to Blur Your Background

One way to make your subject stand out is to make it appear in focus with a blurry background behind it. To get this effect, you need to open up your aperture (lower F-number) to get a shallower depth of field. It would be easier to control aperture using Aperture Priority mode of your camera instead of the shutter priority mode.

I wanted to get a blurry background to eliminate visual distractions from the background. I wanted the aperture to be the widest I could (f 1.8 in this case). In these cases, I shoot either in Aperture priority mode or Manual because I don’t want the camera to decide the aperture for me. Photo by Sarah Rodríguez Martínez.

2. When Taking Portraits

When taking portraits it is important that the model will be the center of attention of the image. You want to choose an aperture that is wide enough to blur the background but not too wide to blur parts of his/her face. Since aperture control is more important in portrait photography, portrait photographers tend to stay in Aperture Priority mode most of the time. Exception is when you are doing portraits of moving subjects (kids, sports portraiture…etc)

In portrait photography, you want to control your DoF/aperture. So it makes to stay in aperture priority mode when you are taking portraits.

3. When You Want to Maximize Depth of Field

When you want to maximize your depth of field, you need to close down the aperture (large f-number). That is why most of the time landscape photographers stay in aperture priority mode. If you want to calculate things like hyperfocal distance or sunny 16 rule, it is important that you control your aperture instead of shutter speed.

Landscape photographers are aware of the importance of using the aperture that will allow them to take sharp images. Photo by fxxu on Pixabay

4. Still life Photography

You won’t be able to get creative effects using shutter speed when your subject is completly still. In this case, you can simply focus on other settings such as Aperture or ISO, so it does not make sense to use shutter priority mode.

With non moving subjects, it’s not worth it to use shutter priority mode because you won’t get any creative effects by playing with your shutter speed.

5. Exposing for More Than 30 Seconds.

In certain types of photography, you need to open the shutter speed for longer than that is allowed in shutter priority mode (30 seconds). In such situations, you should be using the Bulb Mode. Some examples are night photography, light painting, light trails, and long exposure nature photography.

To get beautiful light trails like in this photo, you will need to use Bulb mode and expose your sensor for more than 30 seconds. Photo by PTNorbert on Pixabay

Please Share Your Shutter Priority Mode Shots with Us!

The best way to learn photography is by taking photos!  So set your camera to shutter priority mode, go out there and start taking photos! It can be anything; an object you have at home (a toy or a pinwheel), a friend (order him/her to jump, run, dance…) or any car or bike that might cross your way.

We would love to see your photos on PhotoBlog.com or in the comment section below!

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About the author

Sarah Rodríguez-Martínez

I am a self-taught photographer based in a sea-side town close to Barcelona. I love shooting portraits, yoga photography and nature. I have a lot of fun editing in Lightroom, my favorite editing software. Besides photography, I practice yoga, I am a recognized coffeeholic and I hate Mondays. You can contact me easily by both Instagram (@sarahrmphotos) and email ([email protected])

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