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How to use Shutter Priority

You have read my topics on Exposure Triangle, Reciprocity, Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. And everything is as clear as mud. That is not uncommon, as there is a lot of information to be digested. So perhaps a discussion on the application of those principles will help. After reading this topic, if it makes sense, go back to the other topics - re-read them, and see if they become clearer.

Shutter priority means you want to give the shutter speed the priority in your photo. In that regard, you set or control the camera's shutter speed. The camera will automatically set the aperture to match what you set for the shutter speed. While there is no mode for ISO priority, the camera will also set the aperture to match changes you make in either shutter speed or ISO. The camera will not however change the shutter speed or ISO from what you have set.

To enter Shutter Priority, change your camera's mode dial to "S". On Canon cameras, this would be "Tv" (Time Value).

Next, set the camera to your desired shutter speed. As cameras have different methods of setting the shutter speed, you will have to consult your manual.

That's it, you are done! You are now in Shutter Priority, and the camera will automatically adjust the aperture to what you set for your shutter speed.



Now you didn't really think it was going to be that easy, did you? When you set the shutter speed, you have to be mindful of what the camera sets your aperture to. For instance, you want to take a photo of a speeding race car, and you think that 1/500th of a second would be a good shutter speed for stop action. However, depending on the speed of your lens, your ISO setting, and the lighting conditions, the aperture could be set for either too low of a Depth of Field, or be beyond the capability of your camera. So while the camera sets the aperture, you still have to keep an eye on what it is setting it to.

If you find that the camera cannot set the aperture to your liking, you can increase the ISO. If the aperture is set to f/2.8 in your action photo, the Depth of Field is going to be limited. If you would feel more comfortable with an aperture of f/8, which will give you a better Depth of Field, from the Aperture topic, recall that f/8 is -3 EV (Exposure Values) less than f/2.8. Therefore, increasing your ISO by +3 EV will solve the problem. If your current ISO is 200, +3 EVs would be ISO 1,600. Remember, due to the Inverse Square Law, each EV is a doubling or halving of the next.

Perhaps an ISO of 1,600 has too much noise for your liking. In many cameras, that high of an ISO can indeed introduce significant noise. Some cameras do have noise filters that you can turn on, which may help a little, but balancing shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the trade-offs we must balance as photographers to get that good shot.

The logical step to obtain a better photo is to purchase a faster lens - which is more expensive. Now you know why the pros buy $6,000 lenses.


Exposure Compensation

Most advanced cameras have some sort of exposure compensation function, but unfortunately most do not have a nice dedicated dial as shown in the photo at the right. You typically have to depress a button combination or menu selection to set this function.

Exposure compensation allows you to change the degree of over or under exposure in your photo without upsetting the shutter speed you have already set. In effect, it tells the camera to adjust the aperture a bit more than it thinks is needed.

There are two times when exposure compensation comes in handy. When shooting scenes with a lot of bright background, such as snow, will usually trick the camera into underexposing the scene by -2EV. When this is the case, simply set the exposure compensation to +2EV or whatever is appropriate for the proper exposure. This control is also useful for scenes with a lot of dark background, as they are typically overexposed.

The second time to use the exposure compensation is when shooting HDRs (High Dynamic Range photos). Typically you would set the exposure compensation to -1EV; take a photo, then adjust to 0EV, take a second photo, and finally +1EV, and take the third photo - or in whatever combination you desire. This will give you a set of photos all exposed at different values. Call it "manual bracketing" if you wish.

Do realize that in reality, exposure compensation simply adjusts the aperture according to your changes, the ramifications of using too low of an aperture or going beyond the camera's capability still exists.


Determining the Shutter Speed

The ability to set shutter speed is one powerful function of a camera, but with it comes the potential to take a really bad photo. Some guidelines to setting the shutter speed are:

  • To reduce hand-held camera shake, use 1/60th of a second or faster.
  • To reduce hand-held camera shake in a lens 200mm and above, use 1/250th of a second or faster.
  • Using Vibration Reduction (if you have it) will allow you to use slower shutter speeds.
  • For those milky waterfalls, use a shutter speed of 1/4th to 1/15th of a second.
  • For crisp stop action in fast moving objects, use as fast of a shutter speed you can.
  • For panning moderate speed objects and to get a blurry background, use 1/60th of a second.

The guidelines are just suggestions, you may find experimentation is the best way to capture those great shots. In an nutshell, low shutter speeds creates blur, fast shutter speeds creates stop-action.



Shot at 1/320th of a second, this photo stops the action of the water, and you can see individual droplets splashing over the waterfall.

The same photo - shot at 1/5th of a second - shows the creative use of blur. The waterfall is blurred, and has that characteristic water-veil effect so highly prized in moving water.

In conclusion, using Shutter Priority unlocks the power of your camera, and makes it possible to take those wonderful "effect" photos that provide the suggestion of motion or speed. Don't be afraid to experiment and practice. Try different shutter speeds, see what works and what does not. Use a notepad and jot down a few notes as you develop your skills and find things you like. There are few rules in photography, and those rules are meant to be broken. So above all else, have fun!