Shutter Priority Mode: When and How to Use It

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Shutter Priority Mode.

Out of all the main exposure modes on most digital camera models of today, the shutter priority mode is the least commonly used and least commonly understood.

Does that say something about the utility of shutter priority shooting? Is it preferable to choose manual mode or aperture priority mode instead, or maybe even full auto mode?

That’s precisely what we are going to analyze today. In this short guide, I will try to help you see where the strengths and weaknesses of shutter priority lie and where it can really shine in your photography. Let’s get right into it!

What is Shutter Priority and How Does it Work?

In shutter priority mode, your camera selects a lens aperture setting to match the shutter speed that you choose depending on the lighting conditions in your scene.

By taking direct control over the exposure time, you can prioritize the level of motion blur in your scene and sharp focus.

A herd of wildebeest attempting a crossing over a shallow body of water. High-speed and sharp wildlife photography captured in shutter priority mode.

On the other hand, the depth of field, which largely depends on your choice of aperture, will be out of your control in shutter priority mode.

Hence, shutter priority offers you more control than program mode, somewhat less direct exposure management than manual mode, and represents the inverse of aperture priority.

How to Set Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter priority mode sits on the same mode dial that you’ll find some of its functional neighbors on, like aperture priority and program mode.

Simply switch on over to S mode (or Tv mode, as Canon likes to call it on their cameras), set the shutter speed on the camera, and off you go! Like all other shooting modes, shutter priority is compatible with both manual and auto ISO.

The same goes for white balance, focus, and any other settings apart from the aperture itself.

The Role of ISO Values in Shutter Priority

A close-up view of an old analog camera's ISO dial, showing numbers for film speed in different scales.

Because shutter priority mode locks you out of aperture adjustments, you have fewer settings at your disposal compared to manual mode. However, many beginners make the mistake of assuming that the shutter speed is the only variable that really counts in shutter priority.

Instead, just like I alluded to earlier, there are many somewhat neglected elements of exposure that you can directly control in this mode, far beyond shutter speeds alone.

Among these, ISO is particularly crucial. You can use manual ISO to not just improve the quality and fidelity of your final image but also to force your camera to choose certain apertures.

Imagine the following scenario. You are shooting on a bright, sunny day, and at a fast shutter speed of 1/200s, your camera determines an appropriate aperture value of f/8.

Let’s say you want to increase your depth of field – well, all you have to do without changing any of your other settings is to select a lower ISO, which will force your camera to compensate by opening up the lens.

Conversely, you can play with higher ISO values to create a higher depth of field.

The Best Use Cases for Shutter Priority Mode

Let’s take a look at some of the very best photographic environments that benefit from shooting in shutter priority mode. You might find that your own personal preferences differ slightly from the scenarios I am going to present – that’s perfectly normal!

In the end, there is no objectively best way to shoot and no “perfect” exposure mode that will give the best results for each use case, no matter what. It’s absolutely up to you to use whatever you find to create the most compelling images!

Making Creative Long Exposures With a Slow Shutter Speed

One thing that shutter priority makes extremely easy is playing with long shutter speeds to create long exposures heavy in motion blur.

A blurry image might not be what you’re going for all the time (or ever), but believe me when I say that motion blur done right can be absolutely stunning! Since all you have to do is dial down the shutter speed – shutter priority mode lets your camera do the rest – it’s really very easy to experiment with these kinds of effects.

A close-up shot of a mountainous river landscape. Water appears as a vague, cloudy mist thanks to a slow shutter speed select in shutter priority mode.

Note how, depending on the rate of motion of your subjects and the slow shutter speeds you choose, different degrees of blur are possible. From creating surrealist dreamscapes out of flowing rivers like above to transforming busy crowds into masses of ghostly figures, your imagination’s the limit here!

Snap-Freezing Fast Action

Conversely, you can also use shutter priority mode to do much of the opposite, forcing your camera’s shutter speed into a high range.

This can be hugely beneficial when shooting sports, for instance. It allows you to snap-freeze a moving subject and really bring out details in otherwise difficult-to-observe scenes.

A Motocross rider navigating difficult terrain at a high speed. An example of high-shutter speed action photography enabled by shutter priority mode.

The utility of shutter priority in these kinds of contexts is only multiplied when working with telephoto lenses. A long shutter speed combined with a long lens makes for boatloads of camera shake, something many of us would rather avoid.

The simple remedy: Set a faster shutter speed, use shutter priority mode, and your camera chooses all other settings as necessary.

As before, you can rely on getting a (mostly) correct exposure this way, no matter what kind of specific shutter speed you select, especially if you enable auto ISO to ward off a potential light loss from very fast exposure times.

Setting a Fast Shutter Speed for Higher Image Quality When Shooting Handheld

A photographer at work by the shore of a lake with a flock of seagull birds. Handheld nature photography.

Most cameras these days are pretty good at producing a well-exposed image in any automatic mode. After all, the exposure triangle isn’t too difficult to calculate when you have the brainpower of a high-performance computer and the sensory capacity of a finely-tuned light meter.

However, there are some potential gripes to be aware of. For example, when shooting in aperture priority or in program mode, your camera automatically chooses the shutter speed and ISO based on a certain baseline expectation of your shooting situation.

The idea is that this baseline is generally accurate for most situations but not for all of them. Too much long exposure and you might suffer losses of sharpness, with blurry images, especially in the case of hard-to-track subjects. To combat this, you can take complete control over shutter speeds and dial in something that will ensure stability.

Surviving Challenging Lighting Conditions

A stormy landscape featuring a mostly overcast sky with storm clouds raging over a field in the middle of the day. An example of tricky lighting conditions in landscape photography.

If you’re out on a photo shoot for a few hours, you need to be able to deal with changing lighting. If you’re shooting portraits in aperture priority, this can be more finicky than it’s worth.

For example, if clouds cover the sun unexpectedly while you’re shooting at your maximum aperture, you might not want to balance that out with a higher ISO for fear of excessive noise.

Instead, by switching over to shutter priority, you can just keep the shutter open for a tad longer, preserving the look of your existing photo without negatively affecting quality.

Shutter Priority Mode and Exposure Compensation

A close-up view of an exposure compensation dial on a contemporary Fujifilm digital camera.

If there’s one important, even essential control to know when using shutter priority mode, it’s exposure compensation. Yet, many beginner photographers are hardly taught how exposure compensation settings work or how to use them. Let’s fix that!

Your EV compensation dial allows you to “push” or “pull” your image in an instant. In other words, it automatically increases or decreases your overall exposure value without requiring you to calculate the desired shutter speed and ISO or aperture yourself.

While dead simple to use, it’s hard to overstate just how powerful exposure compensation can be. Whenever shutter priority mode gives you a slightly darker image than what you’re going for, remember that your ideal exposure is only a little nudge of the EV compensation dial away!

Limitations of Using Shutter Priority

While incredibly versatile, shutter priority mode is definitely not a universal do-it-all. If that were the case, we’d hardly need all those other letters on your camera’s mode dial, would we?

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the various situations where you’d probably be wise picking something other than S mode.

Shutter Priority in Portraiture

A female model posing for a portrait photographer indoors.

Traditionally, the inherent lack of depth of field control is what has put portraitists off from using shutter priority mode for their work. To create expressive separation between your foreground and background elements, it’s much easier to handle the aperture value yourself.

Of course, you can use some of the tricks I mentioned – including the clever use of exposure compensation as well as manual ISO – to force your camera into a wide aperture setting while retaining shutter speed control.

However, most portrait photographers would likely agree that this is more trouble than it’s worth. In this kind of subject-focused photography, fast shutter speeds are largely irrelevant.

At the same time, the ability to create a very shallow depth of field can be essential for expressive compositions. That’s what has increasingly made full manual and aperture priority mode the two default settings for photographers in this niche.

The Importance of Aperture Control in Landscape Photography

A landscape photographer setting up his shot during a beautiful sunrise by a lake.

Just like portraitists, landscape shooters also tend to favor aperture priority mode or even full manual mode. The reasoning here is quite similar: since your subjects are mostly immobile, shutter speed becomes far less important than depth of field.

And as the depth of field flows pretty much directly from your aperture setting, it’s that control that becomes most crucial. Unlike portrait photographers, landscape artists generally favor a greater depth level to keep both the foreground and background sharp and detailed.

As landscape shots tend to be composed with the camera firmly resting on a tripod, you are going to see very few visual differences between slower and faster shutter speeds anyway.

While this can obviously differ depending on each individual photo and each individual photographer (just like in portraiture), the bottom line is that landscape photography benefits a ton from full control over your lens diaphragm, which makes shutter speed priority at best an unorthodox choice.

Learning to Get the Most Out of Your Images With Shutter Priority

A long exposure of highway traffic showcasing surreal light trails. An effect easily created with the help of shutter priority mode.

In the right hands, shutter priority mode can be a real lifesaver for the professional photographer. Dialing in a slower shutter speed allows you to play with creative blur effects, whereas keeping your shutter speed high can result in absolutely pin-sharp action photography and wildlife shots.

By making smart adjustments in exposure compensation and manual ISO, you can even learn to adjust much more than shutter speed alone in this powerful shooting mode. It can be a great gateway to improving your professional photography skills while also teaching you loads about a crucial element of the exposure triangle.

On the other hand, shutter speed control is not always essential. Sometimes, you may find it much easier to enable manual mode or aperture priority and take full control over your lens opening to play with depth.

Where a fast or slow shutter speed does not matter much, you may want to rethink whether to use shutter priority mode in your work.

With that said, I encourage you to enable shutter priority mode on your next photo walk and see how much you can get out of it! I am sure that you will both learn a lot about the importance of shutter speed while also having a lot of fun trying out something new.

That’s it for today. Until next time!

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.

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