How to Master Shutter Priority Mode on Your DSLR

Buttons on a camera
Kyle Schurman

When making the switch from point and shoot cameras to DSLRs, one aspect of the DSLR that can be confusing is determining when to use the camera’s various modes. Under shutter priority mode, the camera will allow you to set the shutter speed for a particular scene, and the camera then will select the other settings (such as aperture and ISO) based on the shutter speed you’ve selected.

Shutter speed is the measurement of the amount of time that the shutter on the DSLR camera is open.

As the shutter is open, light from the subject strikes the camera’s image sensor, creating the photo. A fast shutter speed means the shutter is open for a shorter period of time, meaning less light reaches the image sensor. A slow shutter speed means more light reaches the image sensor.

Figuring out when it’s a good idea to make use of shutter priority mode may be trickier than actually using it. Try these tips to figure out how to determine when it’s best to use shutter priority mode and to use different shutter speeds.

More Light Allows Faster Shutter Speeds

With bright external light, you can shoot at a faster shutter speed, because more light is available to strike the image sensor in a short period of time. With low-light conditions, you need a slower shutter speed, so enough light can strike the image sensor while the shutter is open to create the image.

Faster shutter speeds are important for capturing fast-moving subjects.

If the shutter speed is not fast enough, a fast-moving subject may appear blurry in the photo.

This is where shutter priority mode can be beneficial. If you need to shoot a fast-moving subject, you can use shutter priority mode to set a much faster shutter speed than the camera might select on its own in fully automatic mode.

You’ll then have a much better chance of capturing a sharp photo.

Setting Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter priority mode usually is marked with an “S” on the mode dial on your DSLR camera. But some cameras, such as Canon models, use Tv to signify shutter priority mode. Turn the mode dial to “S,” and the camera will still work in a primarily automatic mode, but it will base all of the settings off the shutter speed that you select manually. If your camera doesn’t have a physical mode dial, you sometimes can select shutter priority mode through the on-screen menus.

While nearly every DSLR camera has a shutter priority mode available, it’s becoming more common on fixed lens cameras, too. So be sure to look through your camera’s on-screen menus for this option.

A fast shutter speed might be 1/500th of a second, which will appear as 1/500 or 500 on the screen of your DSLR camera. A typical slow shutter speed might be 1/60th of a second.

To set the shutter speed in shutter priority mode, you usually will use the directional buttons on the camera’s four-way button, or you may be able to use a command dial. In shutter priority mode, the shutter speed setting usually will be listed in green on the camera’s LCD screen, while the other current settings will be in white.

As you change the shutter speed, it may change to red if the camera cannot create a usable exposure at the shutter speed you’ve selected, meaning you may need to adjust the EV setting or increase the ISO setting before you can use the selected shutter speed.

Understanding Shutter Speed Setting Options

As you adjust the settings for the shutter speed, you’ll probably find fast settings that begin at 1/2000 or 1/4000 and that may end at the slowest speeds of 1 or 2 seconds. The settings will nearly always be about half or double the previous setting, going from 1/30 to 1/60 to 1/125, and so on, although some cameras offer even more precise settings in between the standard shutter speed settings.

There will be times when shooting with shutter priority where you may want to use a relatively slow shutter speed. If you’re going to shoot at a slow shutter speed, anything 1/60th or slower, you will likely need a tripod, a remote shutter, or a shutter bulb to shoot photos. At the slow shutter speeds, even the act of pressing a shutter button could jostle the camera enough to cause a blurry photo. It’s also extremely difficult to hold a camera steady by hand when shooting at slow shutter speeds, meaning camera shake could cause a slightly blurry photo, unless you make use of a tripod.