A Guide to Understanding Shutter Priority Mode

A camera mode dial set to shutter priority.

Shutter priority mode is a semi-automatic camera mode in which the photographer chooses one component of the exposure triangle (shutter speed), the camera takes a meter reading when pointed at a given scene and does the rest of the work for you by choosing the aperture value that it thinks will get the most accurate exposure.

Shutter priority mode can also be used in conjunction with auto ISO so that the camera chooses everything for you aside from your shutter speed. In order to set your ISO to auto, you likely will need to go through your camera’s menu, which varies from camera to camera.

How do you put your camera into shutter priority mode?

Putting your camera into shutter priority mode is simple and easy but may not be all that obvious if you’re just getting familiar with your first camera. It also varies from brand to brand and model to model.

Putting your camera into shutter priority mode involves adjusting your camera’s mode dial, the dial which is usually on found on the left side of DSLR cameras. It’ll generally have a few letters and possibly pictures printed on the dial:

Camera mode dial set to shutter priority mode

‘M’ for manual, ‘P’ for program mode, ‘A’ for aperture priority mode and ‘S’ for shutter priority mode. And depending on your camera (especially with enthusiast model cameras) it might have little pictures like a person or a mountain etc. Those modes are supposed to correspond with whatever picture is on the mode dial, i.e. the mountain is optimized for landscapes, a person’s face is optimized for portraits etc.

My recommendation is to avoid using those modes with the pictures on them but that’s beyond the point for this article. The important thing is just pressing in your mode dial’s lock button and then turning your camera’s mode dial around until you switch it into the shutter priority position.

Once you get your camera set to shutter priority mode, you’re free to snap away and your camera will choose an aperture based on what your shutter speed is set to. Your camera will likely be set to manual ISO, but you have the option of setting it to auto ISO, which lets you just choose the shutter speed and your camera will choose everything else, the aperture and ISO.

How do you know what shutter speed you’re shooting at?

It depends on the brand and model of your camera, but a good deal of cameras display your shutter speed down in the bottom left corner of your viewfinder. One thing to note is that shutter speed is usually measured in fractions of a second (i.e. 1/125th of a second), but instead of showing the speed as a fraction in your viewfinder, it will likely just show the denominator of the shutter speed.

So for a 1/125s shutter speed, your camera will probably show just 125 down in the left corner.

Nikon Viewfinder Showing Shutter Speed

What shutter speed should you shoot at?

The shutter speed you decide to shoot at will have a significant impact on the outcome of your images. So you need to take into consideration what look you want to go with in terms of shutter speed.

If you want tack sharp images where everything is in focus and you don’t get any motion blur, then you’ll want to shoot at a fast shutter speed. ‘Fast’ though, is dependent on what you’re photographing.

If say, you’re shooting a jet at an air show flying through the sky or a fast moving bird in flight, you’ll need to shoot at one of your camera’s fastest shutter speeds. That could be 1/8000s on some cameras but it’s pretty standard for a camera’s max shutter speed to be around 1/4000s. It may not be necessary to shoot at the absolute fastest shutter speed that your camera can reach, but when you’re shooting very fast-moving subjects, it’s best to shoot as fast as you reasonably can if you want to freeze the action.

If you’re photographing moving people, like in a photojournalism context, ideally 1/250s would be the lowest you go in order to freeze your subjects in motion. In that context it’s not a sin to drop it down to 1/125s though – and in many cases, particularly if you’re indoors, where you won’t have enough light and need to drop it down to 1/125s.

An alternate approach is to purposely shoot with a slow shutter speed:

Shooting with a slow shutter speed is less commonly done than freezing the action but can be used to great effect when it’s the look you’re after for a particular shot. Shooting with a slow shutter speed results in what’s technically called “motion blur”.

Motion blur is the result of using a slow shutter speed and makes moving subjects appear blurry in an exposure. Your results can vary from just slightly blurry to very blurry depending on the shutter speed you’ve chosen, with the slower the shutter speed resulting in progressively more blurry images.

When handholding the camera, there’s a limit to which you can realistically shoot at slow shutter speeds, because at a point it won’t just be your subjects that turn out blurry, but your backgrounds as well. If you want to go for a look where your background is tack sharp but there is a moving or moving subjects within your frame that you want to be distinctly blurred, you can use a tripod.

By using a tripod paired with a slow shutter speed, you can create a sense of movement within your frame by having everything in focus but things like moving cars or people will just look like blurry streaks. If you do it at night, with your camera on a tripod pointed at a city scene where cars are passing by, you can get results like this, where moving headlights and taillights become blurred:

Photo of light trails from cars on a highway from using slow shutter speed

These effects are achieved by usually using full second shutter speeds, like 30 second exposures.

Using Shutter Priority Mode in Conjunction with Panning

Whereas in the examples above are based on keeping the background in focus and moving subjects captured in motion blur, sometimes you may want to do the exact opposite. By putting your camera into a slow shutter speed and then panning along (moving your camera along with a moving subject with your arms) with a subject, you can get your subject in focus but your background will be blurry instead.

This creates a different kind of movement than the examples with the moving light trails. This look is suited well to certain situations, like photographing race cars haulin’ ass down a race track. For photographing fast moving cars in particular it works because if you shoot them with a fast shutter speed then you freeze the wheels, making the car look stationary, as if it’s parked.

You can do this with any moving subject and pan along with them, think people riding on bicycles, people running, birds in flight, etc. – if you think creatively you can come up with plenty of unique ways to put this effect into practice.

Image utilizing slow shutter speed and panning of a cowboy on a horse with an american flag

When to use shutter priority mode

In my opinion, shutter priority mode comes most in handy in relatively dark situations in which you need to get your subjects sharply in focus. The most common situations that arise in which I’m talking about include shooting in dimly lit indoor settings or late evening outdoor settings when sunlight is starting to diminish (in complete darkness at night shutter priority may not be sufficient without the use of a flash).

So first, I’d like to talk about when you need to freeze action, especially in low light

When you’re indoors and shooting in a photojournalistic style in a dark environment, such as in a church or dimly lit hotel room (very common situations for wedding and event photographers), shutter priority mode can be a savior. It seems logical to think that in these situations it would work to use aperture priority. But the problem you’ll encounter when you do that is that in dimly lit situations, your shutter speed will dip down too slow in order to get enough light into the camera, resulting in motion blur.

As I touched on a bit before, motion blur can be good, but that’s only when you want it. When photographing people at events, getting your subjects in focus is usually a requirement.

Shutter priority mode lets you choose the slowest shutter speed that still allows you to get sharp images. The camera then chooses an appropriate aperture. And since you’re in dim lighting conditions, the camera will likely be forced to choose a wide aperture anyway, which is would have been the logical conclusion to do in a dark situation had you chosen your aperture in aperture priority mode.

If you’re shooting in a situation like this and you’ve got your ISO set to manual controls, it’s a good idea to set you’re ISO to the highest reasonable ISO for your camera. That may be 6400 for your camera, or possibly 3200, it just depends on the model. You should get familiar enough with your camera to know it’s limitations, as that higher ISO you go the more degraded your image quality will become.

High ISO performance can range greatly from camera to camera, so it’s important to do your homework and find out the limitations of your camera. It’s especially important if you’re doing paid work – you should find out the last ISO value you’re willing to turn in to your clients or employer and not go past that. But you also have the option of using auto ISO, which on most cameras comes set to not go past its native ISO as default.

The real reason to use shutter priority, or any semiautomatic camera mode for that matter, is that it frees you up to concentrate on what’s important: composition and finding the best lighting conditions to photograph your subjects in.

Conversely, shutter priority works great if you want motion blur

I’ve already talked some about using shutter priority mode to achieve motion blur in your images, but I just wanted to emphasize the plethora of directions you can take this theme.

I think we’ve all seen the standard ways a slow shutter speed to be used to get an image with prominent motion blur. You know, the light trails on streets from cars, landscapes of beaches with fuzzy-looking water washing up on the shore, flowing rivers, etc.

While these types of images have been done to the point of cliché, there’s always going to be ways in which to do them using your own twist to come up with a unique perspective on them. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

But, on the other hand, it’s not that difficult to come up with new, creative ways of featuring motion blur in your pictures using shutter priority mode. One of the great things about these more hands-off modes is that you can just set them and go.

By having the camera decide your aperture (and ISO if you choose to put it in automatic mode), you’re free to explore and create without the necessity of constantly having to adjust your exposure settings. I’m all for using the technology we have to make our lives easier.

Ultimately, the final result (our images) are what’s important. If using a mode like shutter priority lets you focus more on coming away with the best possible photos you can, I say use it.

In terms of what you can photograph using shutter priority mode in conjunction with a slow shutter speed, my recommendation is to just get out there and photograph. Even if you’re not getting paid for it. Some of the best images come when you’re just messing around or experimenting and not even trying to create something great.

You can apply the motion blur concept to anything – moving people, trains, cars, bikes, carnivals/amusement parks, star trails, dance, theater, birds in flight, anything you can find that moves on the street, waving wheat/grass, etc. The possibilities really are endless so if you truly take pride in your photography and want to take some photographs that you can be proud of, get out there and shoot.

There really is no replacement for shooting extensively. Just shoot, shoot, shoot, and the images will come. The sky’s the limit – have fun with it.

When to use a mode other than shutter priority

There are no camera modes that can truly do it all – the variety of situations photography places you in as a photographer calls for using multiple modes, depending on the situation. And while shutter priority mode is really effective within certain applications, it’s no exception.

Whenever you consider shooting in shutter priority mode, a good question to ask yourself is:

“How important is my depth of field for this particular shot?”

If it is important, whether you’re going for shallow depth of field or want everything in focus, (and if you’re being thoughtful about your photography then more often than not it will be important), then it’s probably a situation that demands something other than shutter priority mode. If you want a super shallow depth of field with bokeh for portraits or have everything in focus when you’re doing landscape photography, aperture priority or manual are better options.

When using shutter priority mode, the camera chooses the aperture for you, so you give up control over what depth of field you’re going to get. And if you have your ISO set to auto, your depth of field results will be even more predictable.

When depth of field is less of a concern or when shooting in a dimly-lit environment in which my camera would be forced to shoot with a wide aperture anyway is when I opt to use shutter priority mode.

Additionally, there are some situations in which shutter priority mode would work just fine, but I opt to use manual mode instead. What I’m referring to are medium to dimly lit situation in which the lighting conditions are constant, like indoor sporting events where you’re probably going to be in the same spot the entire game.

If I was photographing a basketball game, I would have no problem putting my camera into shutter priority mode and setting the shutter speed at 1/250s or higher and shooting the entire game like that. What I do instead though, is shoot in manual because I can get the exact exposure I want and not have to adjust the settings for the rest of the game because the light is going to be pretty much the exact same the whole time, especially if you’re in the same spot throughout the game.

In photography there are more than one ways to skin a cat – the important thing is just being able to navigate the different shooting modes and assess which mode is best for the situation you find yourself in.

Using exposure compensation with shutter priority

It’s worth noting that if you’re using shutter priority mode and finding that your camera is underexposing or overexposing your photos, you have the option of overriding what the camera thinks is a correct exposure by using exposure compensation. It’s useful if it looks like your camera is simply getting it wrong or if you want to take creative control over how your exposure turns out.

Exposure compensation works in third stops, so when you see it, you’ll see it in increments of +.3, +.7, +1, +1.3, +1.7, +2, etc.

In order to use exposure compensation, usually what you need to do (although obviously this can vary from camera to camera) is to hold in your camera’s exposure compensation button (they usually are marked by a -/+ symbol) and then you adjust whether you want to darken your exposures by spinning your shutter speed wheel to the left or spin it to the right if you want to brighten it.

Image showing an exposure compensation button


Being familiar with shutter priority mode and knowing when to take advantage of it makes for a good piece of an overall photography strategy. In the situations where shutter priority mode works well, it can be very useful. Shutter priority mode is not the ideal mode for every photography application, but that can be said for any camera shooting mode.

If you’re unsure of any of the terms used in this article, be sure to check out our photography glossary.

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