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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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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