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Photo (left): o palsson | Photo (right): paul bica

For pros and beginners alike, Shutter Priority can be a very good place to be on your camera. Stay tuned for more travel photography tips, or, in the meantime, visit MatadorU.

A COMMON PIT STOP on the road to shooting in Manual is Tv (Canon) or S (Nikon), a semi-manual mode that allows you to control the shutter speed; it then selects the appropriate aperture (and ISO if you want it to) to get a correctly exposed image.

What is shutter speed? It refers to the amount of time you allow for the shutter to open and close, usually expressed as a fraction of a second. For example, 1/100th means you’re giving it 0.01 seconds to open and close. It’s determining just how much light you’re letting hit the sensor, which determines the exposure of the image. Too much light, and your shot will be white or washed out; too little and it will be dark.

Shutter Priority allows you to set the ISO as well as shutter speed. ISO is your sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light your sensor will be, therefore allowing you to increase the speed of your shutter. But ISO also adds more noise (grainy bits you can see, especially in shadows) when boosted high. You can leave it on Auto, and let the camera decide, or you can set it yourself. I recommend setting it yourself and leaving it at 100 until you absolutely need the boost to get a faster shutter speed.

While it has many uses, there are three very common motives for using Shutter Priority:

1. To freeze action

If you want a shot that captures the details of a split-second, Shutter Priority is your friend. A fast shutter speed is generally considered 1/500th or faster — with newer DSLRs capable of 1/8,000th. Your goal with speeds this fast is to freeze the action taking place.

Photo: mikebaird

Shooting sports, for example, requires high shutter speed because you probably want to freeze all the action. You will have a very hard time getting a sharp image of that surfer without a high speed to freeze him in motion. If you don’t often shoot sports, the same idea can be applied to festivals, events, animals (think: birds in flight) or children who won’t sit still. It’s also great for freezing sprays of water; same goes for something that’s spilling, exploding, breaking, etc. If you know your best friend is about to throw her drink in someone’s face, it’s time to get to Tv and bust out some fast speeds.

Tip: The faster your speed, the less light you’re letting in. If your pictures are coming out dark, you need to either lower the shutter speed or increase the ISO. If lowering the shutter speed means not freezing the action at hand, then it’s time to boost your ISO to compensate — but be aware of the noise this brings into your image.

2. To imply motion

On the other hand, sometimes you want to imply or reveal motion by using a lower shutter speed. This leaves the shutter open longer, allowing the sensor to capture any movement that takes place.

Photo: Nrbelex

A slower speed is technically less than 1/500th, but motion really starts to get revealed around 1/50th, and increases as you come closer to working in full seconds. And yes, you can go over a second — most DSLRs will let you get as high as 30 seconds, which would be expressed as 30”.

There are lots of situations where a slow shutter speed can be loads of fun. In a city setting, it can capture the madness of traffic and overpopulation. It can also be quite beautiful: A long exposure of a flowing waterfall, for example, will give the water a soft, smooth look. If it had been taken with a fast shutter speed, the water would be frozen with lots of detail — not necessarily lending to the mood the motion brings.

Because the longer speed lets in more light, it’s best done in lower-light situations, and with a low ISO. This is especially true if you want to play with full seconds. If there’s too much light hitting the sensor, the picture will be washed out or even totally white.

Tip: As your shutter speed gets longer, there’s more of a risk for something called “camera shake.” Humans are actually not very stable, and our hands shake a bit when we hold our cameras up. With fast speeds, this isn’t a problem. With slow speeds, however, it becomes very noticeable and can cause blur. Always use a tripod or set your camera on something stable.

3. To battle camera shake

As mentioned above, camera shake becomes visible at shutter speeds longer than 1/50th, and sometimes even up to 1/100th or higher depending on severity. If you’re shooting hand-held — or you’re a traveler who often ends up on chicken buses, fishing boats, old trains, or other less-than-smooth modes of transport — you can use Shutter Priority to make sure you don’t dip below 1/50th and end up with blurry shots.

Tip: If you’re fighting to find enough light (images are dark) or sharpness (still blurry), you can boost your ISO, increasing the light sensitivity, until you obtain fast enough shutter speed for a clear shot.

* In the MatadorU Travel Photography course, you’ll learn the skills you need to become a travel photographer.

About The Author

Kate Siobhan Mulligan

Kate Siobhan Mulligan is a Vancouver-Based writer, photographer, seeker of social justice, Beatles expert, coffee snob, and trophy wife. She also operates and travels with The Giving Lens, blending photography with humanitarian aid. In her spare time she enjoys surfing, craft beer, more coffee, and her husband. (And, for the record, it's Gaelic and it's pronounced "Sha-Vaughn")

  • Paul Levy

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  • Scott Hartman

    Good, straightforward explanations. Learning these types of things with the camera are like learning the chords on a guitar: once the basics are learned, then the Imagination can start playing… then it really gets fun! :)

    • Kate Siobhan Havercroft

      Thanks Scott! That is pretty much exactly what I was going for: clear, concise, straightforward. And then like you said, once they’re nailed down, a whole new world opens up :)

      I like the guitar metaphor. I usually use a language metaphor, and things like shutter speed and aperture are like basic verbs to build basic sentences … then for a while you stammer a bit and find your bearings, and then, you know, eventually you’re having a conversation and telling a story :)

  • Jeff Green

    I feel this isn’t good advice. I don’t agree with using shutter priority when you need a fast shutter speed. It makes way more sense to open your aperture to the most open setting and increase your iso to the point where you get a satisfactory shutter speed. This will then give you the fastest shutter speed your camera is capable of in that lighting situation. If you choose shutter speed priority, you’ll often put a shutter speed that the conditions don’t permit (causing a blinking LCD) or it will be less than you could otherwise get. The ONLY time I use shutter priority is if I want a very specific shutter speed when shooting action (like 1/30th for a special blur effect on running animals), not just “a fast one.”

    • Kate Siobhan Havercroft

      Hey Jeff! Do you disagree with all of it, or just the third point? I do see what you’re saying. To clarify, my angle for this was that it’s the step before aperture priority, and it was aimed at folks who don’t necessarily grasp aperture yet, but don’t want to shoot Auto. I would agree that in most situations, Aperture Priority is a better choice – but the purpose of this was to be a simple step in that direction. As for the dreaded blinking LCD, you’re right in that most will hit that wall at some point with this method. Well, one has to understand the full exposure triangle to correct it; this article is just looking at one part of that triangle, so there was no point in delving into that aspect (yet). Hope that explains the purpose of this article a bit better :)

    • Jeff Green

      Hi Kate – actually, I only disagree with your first point – because I believe the best way to get the freeze-action shutter speed is to go wide open-aperture like I mentioned before. But I can see a benefit to using shutter priority for the second and third points. On the second point, I think you’re saying the same thing I mentioned – for purposeful blur (and oftentimes a very specific shutter speed is needed for the right effect). And for the third point, it could make sense to avoid blurry pictures and ensure that you get a shutter speed of at least 1 over the focal length (such as 1/200th sec or faster for a 200 mm lens). So basically, I only disagree with the first point and the other two do make sense. Perhaps if a person is unfamiliar with the exposure triangle, then like you mentioned, shutter priority might be less confusing (until they get the blinking LCD readout).

    • Thomas Adams

      But if you open the aperture to it’s widest setting you will have such a thin depth of field (especially on a full frame camera) that you will more than likely have an out of focus subject, and we are discussing action photography after all. I’ve tried f2 with my 3 year old son running around in a park and at such a wide aperture the best camera in the world would struggle with fast action.

  • Joseph Guyton

    The picture I use for my profile was shot using shutter piority.

    • Joseph Guyton

      the chess board

    • Kate Siobhan Havercroft

      Joseph Guyton and it’s a great shot! As are the fireworks :)

  • Eric Morton

    For the first and third case, I wish cameras offered a “semi-shutter-priority” case where you can dictate a limit (e.g. do not go below 1/50 when shooting something where you are worried about camera shake, or do not go below 1/400 when shooting action), but then still allow it a little bit of freedom to choose the aperture/speed based on the lighting of the shot.

    • Kate Siobhan Havercroft

      Interesting concept! Kind of like how you can set a top end ISO limit in your menu (on most cameras).

  • Linda Silan

    Very interesting article. I think it is useful for many clients. Thank you for this articles.

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