Shutter Priority exposure mode is a fantastic tool for controlling how motion appears in your final image. This exposure mode allows the photographer to set the shutter speed while the camera determines the aperture.

Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer at least four different exposure modes including shutter priority, aperture priority, program mode and manual. Although I shoot the majority of my images in aperture priority, I regularly use shutter priority for subjects where I’m concerned about properly conveying motion.

How to set up Shutter Priority

To use Shutter Priority, set the camera’s exposure mode to “S” for Nikon, Fuji, Sony, Olympus cameras, or “Tv” for Canon cameras. Next, set the shutter speed on the camera by rotating one of the control dials. Each brand is slightly different in what dial you’ll need to rotate, but it is typically the main command dial on the back or the sub command dial on the front that allows you to set the shutter speed.

Shutter speed values are typically indicated on the camera as follows:

  • 2000 = 1/2000s
  • 125 = 1/125s
  • 15 = 1/15s
  • 1” = 1s
  • 15” = 15s

Note that a quote mark indicates shutter speeds that are longer than one send. So, 30” equals 30 seconds, not 1/30s.

Shutter Priority is an auto-exposure mode, so that means the camera uses its metering system to adjust for light in the scene to determine the final exposure. Basically, Shutter Priority allows the photographer to choose the shutter speed while the camera automatically chooses the aperture.

Why use Shutter Priority?

Shutter Priority is often the best exposure mode for photographing sports, action and wildlife. For each these genres, you are generally trying to control how motion appears in the final image. Most photographers are either trying to freeze subject motion or deliberately showing motion blur. Fundamentally, shutter speed controls how much motion appears in your final shot.

A fast shutter speed won’t allow motion blur to appear in the image while a longer shutter speed allows motion blur in the subject. So, if you want crisp shots of fast-moving activities like soccer, tennis, basketball and wildlife, then you’ll need shutter speeds of 1/1000s to 1/2000s. On the other hand, if you want to show a little bit of motion blur to indicate movement, then you’ll choose a shutter speed between 1/60s to 1/250s.

For creative blur, you might want to choose a relatively long shutter speed of 1/4s to 1/15s. In these situations, you’ll want to pan the camera along with the moving subject while taking your shots.

What role does ISO play in Shutter Priority mode?

There are three factors that help determine your final exposure: Shutter speed, aperture and ISO. When using shutter priority exposure mode you’ll actually need to set two variables; shutter speed (e.g. 1/2000s) and ISO.

ISO defines how sensitive your imaging sensor is to light. A high ISO value like 3200 means that the camera can use a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture to expose the scene. A low ISO like 100 or 64 means the camera must use a longer shutter speed or a bigger aperture for the same exposure.

So, if you are shooting action or wildlife with the goal of keeping everything sharp, I suggest setting your ISO at a higher values like 800, 1600 or 3200. These values help keep your shutter speed high and motion blur to a minimum.

On the contrary, if you want to deliberately show motion blur in your image, then I suggest ISO values of 64, 100 or 200. These lower ISO settings will require longer shutter speeds which will allow motion blur in your image.

Limitations of using Shutter Priority

In my mind, there are two limitations to using Shutter Priority. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use Shutter Priority for your photography, rather I want you to understand where you might run into potential problems using this mode.

1. Aperture changing for each shot

Since the camera is using aperture to adjust exposure (remember you’ve set shutter speed and ISO), you’ll find that you can get wildly varying aperture values from picture to picture if your subject moves from dark to light areas. This can result in dramatically different visual effects for the picture from changing depth of field.

For example, imagine taking a sequence of soccer images where the subject moves from shade to sun. In the shade, the camera will use a big aperture like f/2.8. This larger aperture results in a narrow depth of field with good visual separation between the subject and the background. As the soccer player moves into the sun, the camera then chooses smaller apertures like f/8 or f/11. These apertures will result in much greater depth of field, so those images now have a different aesthetic.

2. Running out of aperture

There are times when you’ve chosen a specific shutter speed and the camera just can’t provide the correct exposure because it has reached the maximum or minimum aperture for the lens. For example, if you are photographing birds on a dark overcast day, you might run into issues when trying to use fast shutter speeds. In this scenario, if you choose a shutter speed of 1/2000s, the camera will probably need an aperture of f/2.8 or f/2.0 or f/1.4. Your lens might not have apertures that large, so you run the risk of underexposing your images.

The same is true on the other end of the scale. If you are photographing on a bright day and want to use longer exposures to show motion blur, your lens might not have a small enough aperture to accomplish your goals. In this case, you might need to use a neutral density filter to cut the amount of light entering your camera.

Shutter Priority is a powerful exposure mode when used in the correct way. Understanding its purpose and limitations will go a long way in helping you create the images you’re after. If you haven’t used Shutter Priority, then I encourage you to give it a try. Either way, tell me about your experiences in the comments below.