About shutter priority…

aperture priority mode
Aperture priority – Jim Harmer

When I teach my weekly beginning photography class, I usually teach them something that I don't believe in.  I teach it anyway since it makes things simpler for learning the fundamentals and I figure they will learn to improve their technique when they have more experience. The mistake that I teach is this:   “If you you are mostly concerned with the shutter speed rather than the aperture, use shutter priority mode.”

There are many reasons why shutter priority is rarely the best answer.  Let us apply this principle to a real-life situation to understand why this advice is questionable. Sports is one area where the shutter speed is arguably the most important aspect of exposure control.  Because sports is fast-moving, it requires fast shutter speeds to freeze the action.  I teach my beginning photography students to use shutter priority in this situation to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough, and let the camera determine the proper aperture. Although I teach this as an easy way for beginners to shoot sports, I rarely do it myself.

The reason is that my main concern is always aperture.  If  I am shooting a football game at 4PM, I know for a fact that my camera will select a shutter speed that is more than accurate to freeze the motion as long as I select a low aperture… which I would do anyway to accomplish short depth of field.  If I am shooting a night football game, I would still likely shoot in aperture priority most of the time.  In this tricky lighting situation, I would continually monitor my shutter speed to determine if I need to bump up the ISO, but my main concern is still depth of field.

This same principle applies not only to sports, but most fast-moving situations.  The question may be asked why I wouldn't use manual mode in some of the situations I described.  I use manual very often, but I don't like to use it for fast-moving subjects because the light may be brighter on one area of the field than another area.  Shooting in aperture priority will use the camera's exposure meter to dynamically adjust the shutter speed to match those lighting situations.

So there you have it.  The trick is to use aperture priority in these fast-paced situations and simply keep an eye on the shutter speed to assure that it doesn't dip too low.

Before someone comments below and freaks out… I'm not trying to say that there is no place for shutter priority mode.  Obviously it would be the most useful mode for panning and other specialized situations.  I'm merely stating that I often find aperture priority to be more useful in many fast-paced environments.  I'm not alone in this opinion either.

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6 thoughts on “About shutter priority…”

  1. Jim, I completely agree. If I’m not using Manual mode I’m in Aperture Priority. And even when I use Manual mode, I choose the aperture first because, well, that’s my priority!

    I try to remember that I can get sharp images of things that aren’t moving hand holding my camera at 1/60 sec. I can get away with slower speeds but I need to pay attention to my breathing and posture to get them sharp.

    And fast shutter speeds don’t always mean sharp pictures. I took pictures of an elephant in Africa with a fast shutter speed using shutter priority, but the aperture was too wide to be sharp with the lens I was using. Even though my photos should have bee tack sharp from the shutter speed, they came out soft because of the lens and aperture. Just another case for choosing AV or M mode.

    Thanks for the great article!

  2. To me, what you’re really expressing here is your methodology for determining how to get the result that you visualize. Using Manual, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority isn’t the important thing, it’s understanding how your camera thinks. By understanding how your camera figures out the “proper exposure” you can more effectively, through whichever method makes more sense to you, manipulate your tools to achieve your desired result.

    Great post and good food for thought!

  3. Why not shoot in “P” mode and let the camera decide which setting is the best? And dial to the left or right to fit your scene…

    1. In Program mode, you cannot independently select the aperture to control the depth of field or the shutter speed to control creative blur.

  4. thanks i just got my first dslr camera and ive been trying to learn as much as possible 🙂 ive been practicing in “M” mode ill have to try AP mode soon thanks!

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