Getting out of Auto – Understanding Shutter Priority Mode.

In my previous story, I spoke of how I used aperture priority mode about 99% of the time. That leaves 1% remaining in which I split between manual mode and shutter priority mode. That doesn’t mean that they are less important; my style of photography just lends itself to using aperture priority and saves me time. In the case of photography, you should always go with what will save you time and effort from the moment you frame to taking the shot.

What is shutter priority?

Shutter priority enables the photographer the ability to set a fixed camera shutter speed to best capture and communicate motion in a photo. It can be best described as capturing motion at both ends of the spectrum: freezing an image through a high shutter speed or accentuating it through slow shutter speeds. It’s probably the least used shooting mode on the camera for most people, but is very useful to understand if you want to take your creativity in photography to another level.


fast shutter speed

Frigate bird mid-flight on the Galapagos Islands. f5, 1/2000th sec ISO100.

When should I use shutter priority?

Deciding when to use shutter priority mode is fairly easily as there are two scenarios of when to use it; when you want to freeze your subject or show to motion. At what shutter speed that you will set it at will only come down to your artistic use of conveying motion in the image as there is no set formula to go off.

For example, when you look at images from the football, you’ll see that most shots will be tack sharp while the player is frozen in mid air. In this case, a high shutter speed would have been employed to convey precision and athleticism in a fast-moving sport. When you see images of athletes or motor cars relatively in focus but the background blurred and streaky looking, a lower shutter speed would have been used to convey speed and motion.

hanoi traffic

Hanoi .f4.5, 1/20th sec, ISO100

Shutter priority isn’t just limited to sports as well. If you’re photographing kids, you may want to consider shutter priority mode as children are unpredictable and when was the last time a young child posed the same way for a photo?

How should I use it?

In order to get a properly exposed shot, you’ll need to consider the ISO settings. I find that when I am using shutter priority mode, I don’t have much time to take the shot and make ISO adjustments each time. As a result, I prefer to have the ISO settings on auto so that camera will make that decision for me, and most cameras are fairly accurate at getting the right exposure with auto ISO.

To freeze action

A rule of thumb is that if you want to freeze action such as with sports and wildlife photography, you will want to set the shutter speed at around 1/1000th second. Some newer cameras can go well beyond this limit up to 1/8000th second, but I wouldn’t recommend going this high.

A good way of testing the optimum shutter speed for you would be to start at 1/1000th second and take images of people running around in public and cars driving past you at a perpendicular angle and adjust the shutter speed until the images are sufficiently frozen.

high shutter speed

High shutter speed to freeze the action. Settings f2.8, 1/1000th sec, ISO 100

To convey motion

This style of shooting would have to be one on the most creative uses of shutter speed control, but is also the most difficult to get right. It can be deployed in two ways: a) Background in focus and subject in motion, b) Subject in focus and background in motion.

Background in focus and subject in motion

An example of this would be fire twirling where you want to freeze the surrounding environment and have the twirler in motion. The beauty of this is that the shutter speed doesn’t have to be too slow as fire twirlers tend to move rapidly and you can get positive results even when hand holding the camera.

long exposure shooting

I cheated on this one and had it sitting on a ledge. f7.1, 2.5sec, ISO100

To achieve this effectively if you are hand holding the camera, you want to know at what the minimal shutter speed you can hand hold a camera until you start getting a blurry image. In my case, I know I can get a sharp image at 1/15th second. What I do then is set the shutter speed to 1/15th second, compose the image and take multiple shots. If you have something to support the camera on such as a ledge, table or tripod, then go for that option.

No image is ever the same so you’d want to take at least a few shots and check the focus and sharpness and whether you’re happy with the motion effect of the subject.

Subject in focus and background in motion

This technique is used to capture subjects that are moving in a particular direction, such as a sprinter or a moving car. It and would also be considered the most difficult of all shooting techniques. Where the difficulty lies is that it requires the camera lens to be tracking at the same angle and speed as the subject.

As you’d know by now, camera shake and movement is the enemy of image sharpness, but if you can nail the technique properly, then you’ll end up with an amazing and creative looking image. My strike rate of getting a sharp image using this technique is one in twenty shots – and I practice technique this a lot.

To achieve this effect, it will depend on how fast your subject is moving relative to your shutter speed, as it will determine the level of streakiness in the background. As a starting point, try 1/30th second and practice on vehicular traffic.

panning photography technique

I took twenty photos just to get one keeper. f4, 1/25sec ISO220

When the subject is just shy of perpendicular to you, pan the camera in the same direction  speed as the subject and take the shot. It’s best to have your camera shooting mode set to continuous to take multiple shots and your camera focus mode set to continuous to refocus on your subject each time it takes a photo.

Regardless of which method you employ, it will take plenty of practice and experimentation. I find that when I have time on my hands, I’ll try to find some traffic to practice this type of shooting on.


One Response to Getting out of Auto – Understanding Shutter Priority Mode.

  1. Jazza - NOMADasaurus February 3, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    Nice article buddy! We very rarely use shutter priority ourselves (usually only for waterfalls, rivers, etc), but might play around a bit more with it now with these new ideas you’ve given. Thanks Jimmy!

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