What is Shutter Priority Mode? (And Why You’ll Love It!)

DSLR for Beginners, DSLR Photography

set the iso on your camera

“What is shutter priority mode?”

That's a great question. (It's one every new photographer asks.)

Shooting in Shutter Priority mode is one of the easiest ways to take control, and start getting more creative with your photos. Once you start getting more creative, your love for photography will get even stronger!

Shutter Priority is much like Aperture Priority, except you are controlling the shutter speed, not the aperture.

If you want to freeze action, blur motion, or capture light trails, Shutter Priority is where it's at!

First, A Word About Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed is the term used to explain how long the shutter in your camera stays open to expose your cameras sensor to light. It can stay open for a fraction of a second, seconds or even minutes.

The shutter itself is like a little mechanical door/curtain that blocks light from reaching the sensor. When you set your shutter speed, you are telling that door how long you want it to stay open.

Your shutter speed can be set in 3 ways:

  • Automatic Mode: As the name suggests, your camera automatically chooses the shutter speed.
  • Manual Mode: You set it yourself, along with all other settings.
  • Shutter Priority: You set it yourself and your camera sets ISO and aperture automatically.

What is Shutter Priority Mode?

Shutter Priority is a setting on your DSLR camera that allows you to take control of the shutter speed, without having to worry about adjusting the ISO and aperture settings. When you change the shutter speed in Shutter Priority mode, the camera automatically chooses the other settings for best exposure.

Shutter speed, ISO and aperture are the 3 components that make up the exposure triangle. When you change one aspect, the others need to be adjusted for proper exposure of your photos. If they are not adjusted properly your photo will be either too dark (under exposed) or too bright (over exposed.) So using Shutter Priority means the camera does the adjusting for you!

Why You Should Shoot in Shutter Priority Mode

Shooting in Shutter Priority mode is the easiest way to control your shutter speed because it allows you to concentrate on the action.

Switching to Manual Mode (where you have to choose the ISO, shutter speed and aperture) takes time and a lot of know how. Many professional photographers choose to shoot in Shutter Priority because the camera usually chooses the proper exposure very well.

In some settings, fiddling around in Manual Mode could cause you to miss the action all together. Once you become familiar with Shutter Priority, you'll be able to choose your desired speed and capture your photo much faster.

Shutter Priority Makes Creativity Easier! 

I almost always switch my camera to Shutter Priority mode when I want to get creative with the action/motion in my photos. On top of allowing me to experiment and play, it helps me capture better photos. That's why I love it so much, and why I think you will too!

The best way to learn about Shutter Priority mode is to shoot in it – and play!

longe-exposure-in-shutter-priority-mode

For this shot I was using a shutter speed of six seconds. I had the camera in Shutter Priority and just kept firing away while sitting around the campfire. I love the crazy spark trails!

A couple of my favorite experiences when I started shooting with a DSLR were using a slow shutter speed while sitting in front of a campfire (as seen above) and while shooting a fountain. I started out with a fast speed, and just kept clicking that dial until it was nice and slow. It was so cool to see the results!

Keep in mind that when you are using a slow shutter speed and you want your picture to look crisp, you'll need to use a tripod. Without a tripod, any motion coming from you will result in camera shake, and you'll have a blurry photo. In the photos for this post I used the Joby Gorillapod.

How To Use Shutter Priority Mode

To set your camera to Shutter Priority, just turn the dial (as seen here on my Canon) to the “TV,”. If you have a Nikon, it will probably be marked by an “S.” And to change the shutter speed, turn the small dial in front of the ISO button. On a Nikon this dial may be in a different location on the top of the camera, or on the back in the area to the upper right.

adjust shutter speed

As you turn the small dial you'll see the shutter speed change on your LCD display.

adjusting shutter speed camera screen

Shutter speed is at 1/125. Shown in the upper left corner of the screen.

To freeze action you will want to choose a fast shutter speed. To blur motion you'll want a slow shutter speed. Using a slow shutter speed is also referred to as a long exposure because your sensor is exposed to light for a longer period of time.


Fast shutter speeds are great for freezing action at sporting events and to freezing water (or any other object) in the midst of its action.

In the following two shots I used a fast shutter speed. The fast speed allowed me to freeze the water falling over the rocks in the first picture. And to catch my husbands amazing smile as he went down the Slip'n Slide at our family barbecue.

Fast-shutter-speed-to-freeze-motion

ISO 400, f/13, shutter speed 1/400


 

What-is-shutter-priority-mode

ISO 100, f/5.0, shutter speed 1/100

Slow shutter speeds (long exposures) are used to make water look milky, and to allow more light in for nighttime and low-light photography. Any motion or action taking place during a long exposure will be blurry in your photograph.

This includes light motion, if the light in your shot is moving you will get light trails. You've probably seen cool shots of car light trails moving through a city, or someone drawing a heart with the light from a flashlight, those photographers used a slow shutter speed. And they probably shot in Shutter Priority.

In the next two shots I was playing around with light trails. The first one was shot through the car window, I was moving the camera in weird shapes while using a long exposure in shutter priority mode. The lights were from the car in front of us, and oncoming traffic. The second shot is of a heart I drew while using a long exposure focused on the moon, my moon heart :).

playing-with-long-exposure-and-car-light-trails

Traffic light trails: ISO 320, f/5.6, shutter speed 3.2 seconds

slow-shutter-speed-for-light-trails

Moon heart: ISO 1600, f/5.6, shutter speed 1.3 seconds

Using Shutter Priority mode is pretty easy. Just relax, have fun, and take lots of pictures.

Your Turn

How do you use Shutter Priority mode? Please share your tips below! 

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Hi, I'm the Author!

Dena Haines is co-editor of ClickLikeThis: GoPro tutorial blog. She is a travel blogger and content marketer. She is also co-founder of GringosAbroad (Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with ClickLikeThis.

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