Editor's note: This month only...grab our Mastering Lightroom Classic bundle for just $19! All the ebooks are fully updated for the latest version of Lightroom Classic and come with free lifetime updates. Thanks for reading! Andrew.
Shutter Priority mode is your friend when it comes to creative photography. From using fast shutter speeds to freeze motion, or slow ones to add blur, it gives you complete control of your camera’s shutter speed. The only question is, how are you going to use the possibilities this provides to make exciting and dramatic photos?
What is Shutter Priority mode?
There are two ways to use Shutter Priority mode.
Option 1: You set the shutter speed and ISO, and the camera sets the aperture according to what it thinks gives the correct exposure.
Option 2: You set the shutter speed, and enable Auto ISO. Your camera sets both ISO and aperture.
Auto ISO may seem like a good idea, but in practice it’s more straightforward to set the ISO to a specific value. That way the camera can only change one exposure setting (aperture).
This approach keeps things simple and gives you more control over your camera settings. For example, if your camera sets a wide aperture, but you want a smaller one for more depth of field, you can make that happen by raising the ISO.
How do I set Shutter Priority mode?
Most cameras have a Mode Dial with Shutter Priority marked on it. Set your Mode Dial to either S or Tv (Time value) to activate Shutter Priority mode.
- On some basic model cameras there is no Mode Dial and you have to activate Shutter Priority mode in the menu settings.
- On Fujifilm X series cameras you can activate Shutter Priority by setting aperture to Auto (A) and dialing in the required shutter speed and ISO settings.
When should I use Shutter Priority mode?
There are four situations when Shutter Priority mode is the best one to use.
Situation 1: When shooting action or wildlife photos with a telephoto lens and you want to freeze the action. Shutter Priority mode lets you set a fast shutter speed to do it.
Situation 2: For travel and street photography, when you are walking around taking photos. In this situation it makes sense to set a shutter speed that’s fast enough to prevent camera shake and let the aperture take care of itself.
Tip: Remember, you can control the aperture indirectly by changing the ISO (a higher ISO results in a smaller aperture). You can also switch to Aperture Priority mode if you encounter a situation where you need a wide aperture for creative effect (in other words, to blur the background).
Situation 3: When you want to do the opposite of freezing the action and add blur to your photos. You can do this with a hand-held camera under the right circumstances, and at other times you’ll need a tripod.
Situation 4: For special lighting effects, such as painting with light or steel wool spinning.
We’ll take a brief look at these techniques today, and explore them in more depth in future tutorials.
Shutter Priority mode and action photography
If you’re shooting action photos then you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.
Depending on exactly what you’re photographing, you’ll probably need a shutter speed of somewhere between 1/500 and 1/4000 second to completely freeze any movement. Shutter Priority mode is ideal for this as you can experiment with different shutter speeds to see which one works best.
For example, if you’re photographing an athlete running at 1/500 second you may end up with a photo where the athlete’s body is sharp but his hands and feet, which are moving faster as they pump up and down, are slightly blurred.
But at 1/2000 second everything is sharp. These subtle nuances matter. Using Shutter Priority mode lets you find the shutter speed that works best for you, and then to continue using it.
I used a shutter speed of 1/2000 second to capture this horse and rider at a jousting display.
Shutter Priority mode and travel and street photography
When you’re out taking photos in the street, whether it’s at home or while traveling, it makes sense to use Shutter Priority mode and set a fast shutter speed to prevent camera shake.
An automatic exposure mode like Shutter Priority works well in this situation because the camera adjusts the settings according to the light levels.
Imagine that you are walking along a street with one side in sun, and the other in shade. One minute something interesting happens on the sunny side, and then you see something in the shady side you’d like to take a photo of. With Shutter Priority mode you can just do it without thinking about the settings.
In this situation I usually set the shutter speed to 1/180 or 1/250 second. This helps prevent camera shake and freeze subject movement, and means I’m ready for just about any situation.
How to use motion blur creatively in photography
The interesting thing about using the camera to record moving subjects in a blur is that it’s unique to photography. No other artistic medium does the same. Nor does the human eye. In this case, photography gives us a new and expressive way of seeing.
So let’s take a look at the various ways you can use Shutter Priority mode to select shutter speeds that blur the moving subject.
Blurring fast moving subjects
Take a look at this photo of an antique, but working, machine.
You’ll see that part of the photo is blurred, but the rest is sharp. That’s because the shutter speed I used (1/125 second) is fast enough to prevent camera shake but not fast enough to freeze the movement of the machinery.
In this situation you could use Shutter Priority mode to experiment with a range of shutter speeds from 1/60 to 1/500 second to see which creates the most interesting effect.
The same effect occurred in this photo. Even a shutter speed of 1/250 second wasn’t fast enough to freeze the movement of the spinning lathe.
Tip: If you’re using a camera or lens with Image Stabilization, you can experiment with shutter speeds as low as 1/4 second.
Intentional camera movement
Another technique is to use slow shutter speeds and move the camera during the exposure to deliberately create blur. This is called intentional camera movement (or ICM) and is an interesting way to create unique photos of moving subjects.
I created the following photos of waves on a beach using shutter speeds between 1/6 and 2/3 second.
If you use a tripod and cable release you can explore the effects of using slow shutter speeds in landscape photography. A common theme is to take photos of waterfalls using shutter speeds of around 1/2 second to blur the movement of water. The result is a photo that contrast the sharp parts of the photo, such as the rocks in the photo below, with the flowing water.
It gets even more interesting if you have a model in the scene. The key to success here is to ask your model to stay still and take several photos of the same pose. That increases the odds that she’s sharp in at least one of them.
Painting with light
Painting with light is where you use a torch, flash or other source of light to illuminate the subject or create patterns in the air while the camera’s shutter is open. It’s normally done either at night or at dusk, while there’s still enough light in the sky to gently illuminate the background.
Shutter Priority mode is the ideal exposure mode for painting with light as it lets you control the shutter speed. This is essential because the ideal shutter speed depends on how much time you need to create the painting with light effect you’re trying to achieve. There are times when you’ll need a relatively short shutter speed, like two seconds, and others when you’ll need a much longer one.
I made this photo using a shutter speed of four seconds. The lighting pattern was made by a friend of mine using an illuminated electronic hula hoop.
Steel wool spinning
Steel wool spinning is an effect where you get somebody to whirl a whisk containing burning steel wool around. The sparks flying from the whisk create beautiful patterns.
Note that if you’re thinking of trying this technique yourself that it’s potentially dangerous and you have to take relevant safety precautions (I’ll write more about this in a future tutorial).
In terms of shutter speed, the best effects seem to come at shutter speeds between ten and twenty seconds. Of course, Shutter Priority mode is the easiest way to get there.
Light trails from cars
This technique involves using a slow shutter speed at dusk to turn the lights from passing cars into trails of light. For this to work properly you’re likely to need shutter speeds of around 20 to 30 seconds. Again, Shutter Priority is the ideal mode to help you do that.
If you’ve got used to using your camera in any of its fully automatic modes, or even in Manual mode, all the time then it’s time to stop. If you’re shooting a subject where the shutter speed is the most important factor in the exposure triangle then you should be using Shutter Priority mode instead.
We’ve only touched on some of the subjects you can shoot in Shutter Priority mode in this tutorial, and I hope it inspires you to go and use it more. And most importantly, that it encourages you to start experimenting with making creative photos using shutter speed!
Mastering Exposure ebook
Have you ever wondered why your digital camera has so many exposure modes, and what each one does? Or why it’s so easy to under- or overexpose your photos even with the latest cameras and most advanced evaluative or matrix metering modes?
Our best-selling ebook Mastering Exposure teaches you how to get the best exposure every time, no matter how tricky the light.