Take Control of Shutter Priority Mode

Have you ever found yourself disappointed with the results from your camera, feeling like you're not tapping into its full potential?

If you're passionate about capturing stunning nature and wildlife photos that convey action, then it may be time to try out shutter priority mode. This camera setting will allow you to have complete control over the shutter speed, enabling you to freeze fast-moving subjects or create beautiful motion blur effects.

So, how do you make the most of Shutter Priority Mode? Let's look at a few key points before we go into more detail about each one.

Shutter Priority Mode Basics

  • It allows you to freeze fast-moving subjects.
  • You can also experiment with motion blur.
  • It's important to consider the available light.

Understanding Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter Priority Mode is a powerful tool that allows you to take charge of your camera's shutter speed while it takes care of setting the aperture and ISO for optimal exposure for you.

To use this tool, you'll need to switch your camera's mode dial to "S" or "Tv" (depending on the brand). S stands for shutter, TV for Time Value, but they are the same thing.

This mode is particularly useful when you want to emphasize or stop movement in your images.

If you want to capture motion as a blur, you'll need to use a slower shutter speed. This means any movement that occurs while the shutter is open will appear as a blur in your photo. This can create a sense of movement and give your images a dynamic feel.

if you want to freeze motion and capture a crisp, sharp image, you'll need to use a faster shutter speed. This is particularly useful when photographing fast-moving subjects.

However, it's important to note that using a faster shutter speed also reduces the amount of light that reaches the camera's sensor. To compensate for this, your camera may need to make adjustments.

Puffin in flightI used 1/1250th of a second to freeze this puffin in mid air, against a backdrop of the cliff face.

Exposure Triangle Components

To truly master Shutter Priority Mode, it’s essential to understand the Exposure Triangle, which consists of the camera’s shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

These three components work together to create a balanced exposure in your images, ensuring they are neither too dark or too bright.

Let's start by focusing on shutter speed. Think of it as the duration of time your camera's shutter remains open, permitting light to reach the sensor.

Now, let's move on to aperture. This setting determines the amount of light that enters your camera.

It's represented by an f-number, such as f/2.8 or f/16. A low f-number indicates a wide aperture, allowing more light to enter, while a high f-number represents a narrow aperture, restricting the amount of light.

The ISO setting adjusts the sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor to light. A lower ISO, such as 100 or 200, is ideal for shooting in bright conditions, while a higher ISO, like 800 or 1600, is useful in low-light situations.

Keep in mind that higher ISO settings can introduce digital noise, so it's best to strike a balance between sensitivity and image quality.

jackdaw-in-flightNo time to fiddle with exposure as the Jackdaw flew over my head! Shutter priority and 1/2000th second captured the action and the camera took care of the exposure.

Shutter Priority vs Other Modes

Understanding the different shooting modes on your camera is essential for taking control of your photography. Shutter priority, aperture priority and full auto mode, all have their own unique advantages and uses.

Shutter Priority Mode is a great stepping stone for beginners just getting into wildlife photography. Positioned between Auto mode and Manual mode in terms of control, it offers a balance between creative freedom and ease of use.

In this mode, you don't have to worry about setting the aperture or ISO, as the camera will automatically adjust them based on your chosen shutter speed. This makes it perfect for situations where you need to react quickly.

Aperture Priority Mode allows you to adjust the aperture while the camera takes care of the shutter speed.

As well as being an important factor in exposure, your choice of aperture allows you to control how much of your subject is in focus and how much of the background is blurred. This is known as the depth of field.

Full auto mode, as the name suggests, allows your camera to make all the decisions for you.

It sets the exposure by selecting the appropriate shutter speed, aperture, and even adjusting the ISO if necessary. This mode is perfect for beginners or situations where you need to quickly capture a moment without worrying about technical settings. However, it does limit your creative control.

In Manual mode you have the power to fine-tune each of these settings according to the specific conditions you're shooting in. It does require some understanding of photography concepts, such as the exposure triangle we looked at above.

It comes into its own in challenging situations, where the light is inconsistent or the scene has high contrast. This can ensure each photo in a series has the same exposure settings independent of whether the background behind a bird in flight consists of dark trees or a bright blue sky.

It's important to experiment with all these modes and see how they affect your images.

Take the time to understand how they work and experiment with different settings to see the results. With patience and dedication, you'll soon be able to confidently select the most appropriate shooting mode for any given scenario.

Practical Applications of Shutter Priority Mode

By understanding the capabilities of Shutter Priority Mode and experimenting with different shutter speeds, you can refine your photography skills. Let's look at some of the practical applications you can consider when out on a nature walk.

Avocet in actionA happy little accident! I thought 1/2000th would be enough, but it didn't freeze the motion of the Avocet's wings. It shows the action more vividly than if the image had been sharp throughout.

Faster Shutter Speeds

Reacting quickly to your surroundings: Nature is unpredictable and exciting events can be waiting for you around the next corner. Prepare for the unexpected by having your camera in shutter priority, with a speed of at least 1/800th of a second selected.

Then if you accidentally disturb a herd of deer, a bird of prey or a tiny mouse you're always ready to capture that fleeting moment before it heads for cover.

Capturing fast-moving wildlife: Your reactions may not be quick enough to grab a shot before the animal reacts to your presence. Having a fast shutter speed set in advance will, however, provide you with the chance to capture a photo as it's ears prick up or it takes flight, without ending up with a total blur.

Having your camera set to burst mode can give you the opportunity of getting multiple sharp shots.

You may also want to have autofocus tracking turned on if you camera has the capability. This will keep the animal in focus as it moves.

Slower Shutter Speeds

Photographing flowing water: Sometimes blur can be effective! If you encounter a flowing waterfall or ocean waves on your walk, picking a show shutter speed can result in a dreamy, silky effect. 

Experiment with different shutter speeds to find the right balance. Start slow, with 1/4 or 1/8th of a second, and see how it affects the image. You may need to adjust the aperture and ISO settings accordingly to maintain proper exposure.

Emphasizing motion in plants or trees: On a breezy day, you might encounter leaves or reeds swaying gently.

By using a slower shutter speed, you can capture the movement as a soft blur contrasting against fixed objects in the scene, such as a tree trunk or rock formation. This technique can add a dynamic element to your photographs, making them more visually interesting.

Having a sturdy tripod with you to keep the camera still and prevent any unintentional blurring caused by hand movement will be useful in these situations.

butterflies-meetingHere I was focused on the Purple Emperor on the leaf, using 1/1000th second in case he took off, when a Silver Washed Fritillary flew into the scene. The blur on the orange wings shows that the fritlliary was in action which helps tell the story.

Transitioning from Shutter Priority to Manual Mode

Once you understand how Shutter Priority works and you have had plenty of practice, you might consider advancing to Manual Mode.

In Manual Mode, you have full control over all three components of the exposure triangle: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

This may seem daunting at first, but with a solid foundation of how the shutter speed affects the other settings you are part way there.

Your starting point would be to decide which setting is the most important to your subject matter. Do you want to freeze the action or control how much of the image is in focus? The answer will dictate which setting to think about first.

A mirrorless camera is helpful here, as changing the controls will affect the exposure of your photo in the viewfinder or screen on the back of the camera. Turn the aperture down too much and things get too dark making it obvious when you have gone too far.

You can cheat a little here, by setting Auto ISO. This allows you to concentrate on the other two elements of the exposure triangle. However, do keep half an eye on the ISO to keep noise to a minimum.


Mastering shutter priority mode and understanding the exposure triangle will not only give you more creative control over your images, but also open the door to exploring manual mode and unlocking the full potential of your photography skills.

So grab your camera, venture into the wild, and let your passion for nature and wildlife shine through your stunning, action-packed photos.

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