In our last article, we discussed the ever useful Aperture Priority Mode. This is an extremely useful mode and I highly encourage you to learn about it if it is not already a part of your photography arsenal. But today, I am going to dive into Shutter Priority Mode. This too is an extremely useful mode; however, not as commonly used by the generalist photographer. But some, more specialized photographers, hardly ever leave this mode. We will discuss the advantages, the do’s, the don’ts, and even some recommendations for the type of shooting you are doing. So, let’s jump right in and talk shop!
What is Shutter Priority Mode?
Shutter priority, typically designated on your mode dial with a “Tv” which means Time-value mode. Why? The shutter speed controls the exposure time. This is different from someone saying a lens is “fast”. The term “fast” is typically used to describe the aperture, how wide the shutter opens. “Fast” means that the shutter is opening up wider and allowing more light in, exposing the camera’s sensor. “Slow” is a much narrower aperture which allows less light in. Obviously, the shutter speed also effects the amount of light entering your camera and your shooting environment does come into play when adjusting this setting. However, the biggest factor effecting the shutter speed is your subject. Shutter Priority Mode is about getting a desired effect for your subject.
When to use Shutter Priority Mode?
In any priority mode, you can still adjust other settings but you are telling your camera that your exposure “priority” is on shutter speed or aperture. We learned in our article on Aperture Priority Mode that you often want to ensure a certain aperture effect, called bokeh. If the aperture is too wide, then some of your subject(s) may not be as sharp. Too narrow and you reduce your bokeh effect. Shutter priority is all about motion. If the shutter speed is too slow, you will see blurring.
Imagine you are taking a picture of a child swinging a baseball bat. If you want to freeze the moment that he hits the ball, you would need a pretty fast shutter speed. However, if you wanted to create a streak of motion from the path of his bat, you would use a much slower shutter speed.
Photography with Intent
In the situation above, getting the desired effect is more important than your aperture or even your ISO. If you don’t get the desired effect, you really aren’t taking photography with intent. You are just doing the “spray and pray” method. Shutter priority allows you to set the shutter speed to obtain your vision, the camera does the rest of the work by figuring out your aperture and ISO. So, you might ask, well why wouldn’t I just use Manual Mode?
Manual vs Shutter Priority Mode
Well, I use manual mode more than any other mode. But there are three big reasons to lean on Shutter Priority Mode. First, is set up time. You don’t always have the time, especially with a DSLR, to set up your exposure and take a test shot. That time setting up could mean missing a fantastic opportunity! Most cameras will even remain on the same settings as the last time you used that mode, so if you are always shooting sports or wildlife, more than likely you can just turn your camera on and you are ready to shoot. The second, commonly missed reason, is variable aperture lenses.
Many of us may not be able to afford that fixed aperture 600mm f4 lens we are all drooling over, so the cost effective route is variable aperture. An example is my Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3. We have an article that goes into more detail on camera lenses. But to sum it up, at 150mm my camera can shoot as wide as f/5. However, if I zoom into 600mm, now my camera can only shoot as wide as f/6.3. Since the shutter isn’t opening as wide to let it more light, this changes my exposure.
In the example of baseball, this may not be an issue if I am just shooting batters all day. But if I like to shoot a batter, then maybe a runner stealing second, a catch in the outfield… I am regularly zooming in and out and therefore changing my exposure. In Manual Mode, this would mean that images where I zoomed in would be darker than images where I was zoomed out.
In Tv Mode, the camera is adjusting the aperture and ISO for me. If I have my camera in Tv Mode and override my aperture to the widest setting possible, that means the camera will adjust my ISO up and down to make sure my image is properly exposed. Pictures where I zoomed in might have a little grain from the higher ISO, but I can remove most, if not all, of that in post processing. Which brings us to our third reason, ambient light.
When taking pictures, inside or outside, your light sources are not always going to be the same brightness. Obviously, this is going to affect your exposure. Sometimes the sun is going to hide behind some clouds, stadium lights may turn on, and of course the sun isn’t always set to high noon. During a ballet, there may be artificial lighting but it may change regularly between sets.
In Tv Mode, your camera is automatically going to adjust your aperture and ISO while keeping your shutter speed at your intended speed. Therefore, from dusk until dawn, your shutter speed and exposure will be fairly consistent without having to regularly change settings. But remember, as your camera increases ISO, it will add grain into your image. It just depends on your camera’s low light performance just how much. And, as always, you want to keep an eye on your aperture to make sure you aren’t losing sharpness around your subject. Or visa versa and lose your desired bokeh. That brings us to the next topic. We see some benefits from Tv Mode, but what photographer is really using it?
Who uses Tv Mode?
Down to brass tax, right? We can understand all the reasons that Shutter Priority Mode is helpful, but when should we really be looking at applying it in the photography world? Tv mode is best served when quick movements are involved. The two primary specialties are Sports and Wildlife photographers. Now, there are dozens of other scenarios like aeronautics, car races, dance, etc. But many of those have changing distances and effects that may draw you more toward shooting in manual mode, just depends on the situation. Even in wildlife photography, slow moving animals might be better shot in Aperture Priority Mode. But if you are capturing birds in flight, running horses on the beach, and hovering hummingbirds, shutter priority comes highly recommended by professionals.
There is an art to shutter speed. Using it takes some fine tuning to balance your needed shutter speed with your other elements of exposure. For example, we will go back to baseball. A shutter speed of around 1/1200 sec to 1/1500 sec will work out great for a tee ball batter. Using a shutter speed of 1/3000 would still freeze any motion by the batter, but because the shutter is so fast your camera might have to use a really high ISO, say 1600 or more, to ensure the image is properly exposed. Using that shutter speed of 1/1500 still freezes the motion perfectly but also uses a much lower ISO, reducing your grain. But if it’s a major league batter, then 1/2000sec or more might be your only option. Those guys swing a lot faster than a 5 year old tee baller!
In lesson #9 of our free photography course, we discuss shutter speed in depth including: shutter dragging, minimal speeds for different scenarios, and the advantages and disadvantages of a slow and fast shutter. After reading this, if you are want to learn more, maybe get a few scenarios, or even recap on your knowledge, we encourage you to check it out. Things we included are minimal speeds for handheld shooting, portrait shooting, sports shooting, and even how to make those beautifully blurred waterfall pictures. Do you know the minimum speed to freeze the flapping wings of a hummingbird? You can find out on Lesson #9; no cost, no registering or mailing lists.
That’s a Wrap
Once again, we pray that we were able to provide a new avenue of photography for you to practice and enjoy. We are constantly learning new tricks and tips of the trade, and when we do, we look forward to sharing it with you. So, what’s the best thing to do next? Go snap some pictures! There is nothing that can replace a camera in your hand practicing new methods. Throw your camera in Tv Mode and try capturing some birds in flight or a high school football game. Look at each image and see if they are coming out with your desired effect. See blurring? Bump your shutter speed up a bit until you have it perfect. Then remember that speed for next time!
I hope this was helpful and I can’t wait to see what you are able to produce in Shutter Priority Mode. Now you have one more tool in your arsenal! So, go out, have fun, make mistakes and continue learning. I’ll see you out there doing the same.
Need new equipment? Give KEH a try! But certified used equipment that is graded by experts. You can even sell or trade your old gear for new gear!
Written by Jon Frederick, Lead Photographer and Writer for Seven11 Photography