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Shutter Priority Mode: The Ultimate Guide

a guide to shutter priority mode

What is Shutter Priority mode? And how can you use Shutter Priority for consistently outstanding results?

In this article, I take you through the ins and outs of Shutter Priority. I discuss:

  • What makes Shutter Priority so special
  • Common scenarios when Shutter Priority is useful 
  • The difference between Shutter Priority and related camera modes (such as Aperture Priority)
  • Much more!

Ready to level up your camera settings knowledge? Then let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:

What is Shutter Priority mode?

Shutter Priority is a semi-automatic camera mode that allows you to set the shutter speed and ISO, while your camera sets the aperture.

shutter priority mode

More specifically, when using Shutter Priority mode, you choose a shutter speed and ISO based on image quality considerations. Your camera will then select an aperture that’ll give you a well-exposed image.

Therefore, when using Shutter Priority, you can maintain a consistent shutter speed – which can be very, very helpful. If you’re photographing action, for instance, you may need the shutter speed to remain above a certain number; thanks to Shutter Priority, that’s easily done (and you won’t need to spend a lot of time fiddling around with camera settings, either).

The Shutter Priority exposure variables (+ exposure compensation)

As you may be aware, image exposure – that is, brightness – is controlled by three camera settings: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Widen the aperture, lengthen the shutter speed, or raise the ISO, and you end up with a brighter image. Narrow the aperture, increase the shutter speed, or lower the ISO, and you end up with a darker image.

One of the toughest technical aspects of photography is maintaining a balance between these exposure variables. That’s what semi-automatic modes like Shutter Priority are designed to do: select the right variable values for a well-exposed shot.

Unfortunately, while camera exposure calculations are generally accurate, there are times when Shutter Priority mode will produce overexposed or underexposed images. For instance, if you try to shoot a snowy landscape, your camera will try to make the snow gray; in the process, it’ll underexpose the entire shot by narrowing your aperture too far.

shutter priority mode
Your camera will try to underexpose images like this!

But most cameras offer a way to counter this problem and manually correct Shutter Priority exposures: Exposure compensation. Dial in a bit of positive exposure compensation, and your camera will deliberately widen the aperture to overexpose the shot. Dial in a bit of negative exposure compensation, and your camera will do the reverse.

That way, you can use Shutter Priority on autopilot – but if you check your LCD and notice a touch of over- or underexposure, you can make the necessary changes.

Now, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are essential parts of the exposure process, but they each have an additional effect worth considering. 

Aperture adjusts image depth of field (i.e., the amount of the scene that’s in focus). You can use it to create artistic shallow depth of field bokeh or more conventional deep depth of field effects.

shutter priority mode
Shallow depth of field effects can look stunningly artistic.

Then there’s shutter speed, which adjusts your ability to freeze the action. The faster the shutter speed, the better chance you have at getting a sharp shot when photographing moving subjects or when handholding. Slow shutter speeds, on the other hand, are a great way to produce artistic effects by deliberately blurring moving subjects such as water:

shutter priority mode

Finally, the ISO affects image quality: The higher the ISO, the noisier the photo, so – I’m going to say this right off the bat – you should always keep the ISO as low as you can. 

The point here is that you should choose your shutter speed and ISO carefully, and you should always keep an eye on your aperture. Though you technically don’t have control over the aperture setting while in Shutter Priority mode, you can force the camera to choose a wider or narrower aperture by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, respectively.

When should you use Shutter Priority mode?

Shutter Priority is a great choice if you:

  • Are photographing moving subjects and need to make sure they turn out sharp
  • Are working in rapidly changing lighting conditions

As I mentioned in the previous section, Shutter Priority will ensure you maintain a consistent shutter speed across a series of shots, which can be hugely helpful if you’re worried about coming home with blurry images. 

For instance, if you’re photographing birds in flight, you’ll often need a shutter speed of at least 1/2000s. With Shutter Priority active, you can dial in 1/2000s, pick an ISO, then let your camera choose the aperture needed for a good exposure. You won’t need to worry about monitoring the shutter speed, and while it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your exposure variables, you can technically just trust your camera to handle the rest. (Of course, you should always check your LCD every so often to ensure you’re not getting over- or underexposed images. In such cases, exposure compensation is your friend!)

shutter priority mode

And if the light is changing, Shutter Priority becomes even more useful. The sun might go behind clouds, or your subjects might move into the shade – but your camera will maintain the same shutter speed and will adjust the aperture to balance out the exposure.

Of course, Shutter Priority mode, while handy, isn’t always the perfect choice. 

For instance, if you care deeply about the depth of field in an image, it’s generally best to use Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode; that way, you don’t rely on your camera to set the aperture. Macro, portrait, and landscape photographers often use Aperture Priority or Manual mode for this very reason.

(Aperture Priority mode lets you dial in the aperture and ISO while your camera chooses a corresponding shutter speed, while Manual mode lets you independently choose the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.)

Additionally, if the light on your subject is constant but you’re worried about underexposing or overexposing the image, it pays to use Manual mode. You can set your exposure variables, then trust that you’ll get a consistent result, even as your subject moves in front of different backgrounds.

Bottom line: 

Shutter Priority mode can be a solid choice, especially if you’re shooting action, but it’s not always perfect. Sometimes it makes sense to go with Aperture Priority or Manual mode instead!

How to use Shutter Priority mode to shoot action: step by step

To get started with Shutter Priority mode, turn your camera mode dial to the Shutter Priority icon (usually a “Tv” or an “S”).

Next, consider your subject. What shutter speed do you need to keep it sharp? Walking pedestrians generally require 1/250s or above, while 1/1000s is best for bikers and 1/2000s is good for slower birds in flight. Dial in the minimum shutter speed required for a tack-sharp shot, and set your camera to its lowest ISO value (generally ISO 100).

shutter priority mode

Point your camera at your subject (to ensure an accurate meter reading), then check the aperture. What value has your camera chosen? 

If the aperture is too narrow, then you should increase your shutter speed until you get the result you want. (Don’t increase it too much, though! Otherwise you won’t have any wiggle room if the light starts to drop.)

And if the aperture is too wide, then you should leave the shutter speed alone but increase your ISO. 

Make sense? 

Once you have a good set of exposure variables, take a test shot, then review it on your LCD. If the result is overexposed or underexposed, then dial in some exposure compensation, then take a second test shot. Check it again – and keep following the same process until you get the exposure you want.

And when you do get a good exposure, then enjoy your photoshoot!

How to use Shutter Priority mode to shoot long exposures

Shutter Priority mode is most commonly used for action photography, but you can also use it to capture long exposures with deliberate blur effects.

You’ll need to start by setting your camera to Shutter Priority mode (see above). Make sure your camera is mounted on a sturdy tripod, then dial in your camera’s lowest ISO and the shutter speed you need for your long exposure.

(What shutter speed is best? That depends on the speed of your subject and the effect you’re after. If you’re photographing fast-moving water, a shutter speed in the 1/30s to 1/10s range can work well. If you’re photographing slow-moving water, you’ll probably want to work at 1s or longer, and if you’re photographing clouds as they streak across the sky, 30s is a good choice.)

shutter priority mode

Check the aperture. In these situations, you generally want to keep your entire scene in focus, so if your camera is giving you a wide aperture – f/4, for example – then you’ll probably want to lengthen your shutter speed further. 

That said, it’s possible to have an aperture that’s too narrow (you don’t want your images to suffer from diffraction), so keep that in mind, too!

Take a test shot. If the exposure is too bright or dark, go ahead and dial in the required exposure compensation. 

Then proceed with your photos.

Shutter Priority mode: final words

Well, there you have it:

Everything you need to know about Shutter Priority mode. Now that you’ve finished this article, you can capture stunning action shots and produce beautiful long-exposure photos.

So get out your camera. Try Shutter Priority. And see what you think!

Do you plan to use Shutter Priority mode on the regular? What will you use it for? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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