Mastering Shutter Priority Mode on Your DSLR

Picking Shutter Priority makes the camera manage aperture and ISO

What to Know

  • For shutter priority, you set the camera shutter speed for a specific shot, and the camera selects aperture and ISO.
  • Fast shutter speeds are best for bright light and capturing fast-moving objects; slow shutter speeds are best in low light.
  • A typical fast shutter speed is 1/500th of a second. A slow shutter speed, which usually requires a tripod, is 1/60th of a second.

This article describes the shutter priority mode on a DSLR camera. It includes examples of situations that require fast (or slow) shutters speeds and when you might want to use them.

More Light Allows Faster Shutter Speeds

Under shutter priority mode, you set your camera's shutter speed for a particular scene, and the camera then selects the other settings, such as aperture and ISO, based on the shutter speed you select.

Shutter speed is the measurement of the amount of time that the shutter on the camera remains 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 short period of time, meaning less light reaches the image sensor. A slow shutter speed means more light reaches the image sensor.

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 use a slower shutter speed, so that 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.

Photography Camera
ArisSu / Getty Images

Setting Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter priority mode usually is marked with an S on the mode dial on your DSLR camera. However, some cameras, such as Canon models, use Tv to signify shutter priority mode. Turn the mode dial to S and the camera still work in a primarily automatic mode, but it bases all the settings on 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 offers a shutter priority mode, it’s becoming more common on fixed-lens cameras, too. Check your camera’s on-screen menus for this option.

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

In shutter priority mode, the shutter speed setting usually is listed in green on the camera’s LCD screen, while the other current settings are 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 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 are nearly always 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.

DSLR video is best taken using a tripod.
Jorg Greuel / Getty Images

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 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 can 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.

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