Using Shutter Priority Mode on your DSLR camera: Lesson 5

The shutter priority mode allows you to create photographs with very long and very short exposures. Like aperture priority, which was the previous post in Beginning Photography, you can be quite creative. Here, I will cover the basics of shutter priority as we progress in this series.

What is Shutter Priority?

You will see this on your command dial, or LCD screen usually as S (Nikon and most other cameras), or Tv (time value, Canon).

Changing the dial or menu to this setting will allow you to change the shutter speed while the camera controls the aperture suitable for a good exposure. This is similar to aperture mode, where the camera controls the shutter speed for proper exposure.

Using shutter priority allows you to adjust how long the shutter stays open for an exposure. Remember, the shutter is covering the sensor until you press the shutter release button manually or by remote/cable.


I covered stops in Aperture Priority, indicating that each change in 1 stop, halved or doubled the light. If you need to review this you can go to this page now.

In the shutter priority mode, you are also doubling or halving the light with each change of your shutter speed. Like aperture priority, there is a scale to shutter speed.

Shutter Speed Scale
Shutter Speed Scale

As you can see from the above graphic the numbers are represented as fractions of a second to full seconds. Each stop change will double or halve the light with each full stop.

Higher shutter speeds, for example, 1/250, 1/500. 1/100 each halve the amount of light because the shutter stays open for less time with each stop change. This requires more light to enable freezing action.

In decreasing order like 1/4, 1/2, 1″, the light is doubled as the shutter is open for a longer period of time. Longer shutter times are required for low light situations or to blur an image.

Minimum Shutter Speed

Although different shutter speeds are recommended for hand holding your camera for a sharp image, there is no one shutter speed that will guarantee this. Use your lens’s effective focal length, which is found by multiplying the focal length by your camera’s crop factor. Crop factors were briefly discussed in this post.

Full Frame Body/Lens

It’s simply the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens you are using.

LensMinimum Shutter Speed
50 mm1/50
500 mm1/500

Crop Sensor Camera/Lens

For crop sensor cameras a calculation is needed. The multiplier is a fixed number depending on your camera model. You can find your crop sensor multiplier online with a google search, or refer to your manual. Nikon and Canon’s are shown here.

LensMultiplication FactorMinimum Shutter Speed
50 mm X 1.5 (Nikon) X 1.6 (Canon) = 75 (round up 80) and 1/80
500 mm X 1.5 (Nikon) X 1.6 (Canon) = 750 (round up 800) and 1/800

In the example in the table above, the Nikon crop factor calculation resulted in 1/75 and 1/750. Since there is not a 1/75 or 1/750 stop we round up to the next full stop, which is 1/80 and 1/800.

A word of caution. These are minimum shutter speeds recommended based on these calculations. If you can stop down to an even faster shutter speed do so.

Using Shutter Priority to Freeze Motion

With very fast shutter speeds little light hits the sensor because the shutter is open briefly. In contrast, longer shutter speed allows more time for light to hit the sensor.

For images like sports, a recommended shutter speed of 1/1000 or faster is suggested.

Flying birds are a frequent subject for nature photographers and capturing a bird in flight needs an appropriate shutter speed to freeze the wings. Slower flapping birds like herons and egrets you could start with 1/1000-1/2000 or faster to freeze the wings. Faster flappers you are are likely going to need about 1/2000 or faster. Hummingbird wings are frozen around 1/4000 or faster.

To freeze motion always use the fastest shutter speed that will result in a good exposure, and keep in mind, minimum shutter speeds are a starting point.

Sticking the Landing
Sticking the Landing at f/6.4, 1/3200

Shutter Priority to Show Motion/Long Exposures

Slower shutter speeds are used to show motion blur, like car tail lights at night or intentional blur. It is also used in long exposures to smooth ocean waters and skies, or for low light situations like night scenes.

When using shutter priority for these purposes a tripod is required. The tripod needs to be of solid construction to support your camera and lens firmly. More on tripods later.

Also required is a way to release the shutter, preferably by not touching it. This can be done in several ways:

Use Exposure Delay

Some cameras allow you to go in the menu system and set a delay to trigger the shutter after pressed. No remote is needed and this is ideal if you don’t have any other way to trigger the shutter for a long exposure.

Remote Release

Use a cabled or wireless release made for your camera. These can be as simple as plugging this into the appropriate port for your camera or holding a wireless remote and trigger it from a distance.

Note you will have to set the shutter speed in camera. For example 15″. For longer exposures than 30″ set your camera to “Bulb”. This will open the shutter with the first press, and close the shutter on the 2nd press. You will need a way to time your exposure.

Simple Cable Release
Nikon Wireless Remote

Electronic Timers and Release Systems

Electronic shutter release and timers. These are similar but also include features that allow you to dial in very long exposures, delay times, and incremental shutter release that are timed. They also come in wired or wireless models.

Wireless Electronic Timer Example

I prefer a wireless shutter release with timer functions, although if you are shooting 30 seconds or less you can use a simple wireless remote.

Crescent City Beach, CA 13 second exposure at f/16


Using shutter speed creatively has limitless possibilities for your photography. From fast action sports shots, freezing water drops to using a long exposure for a lazy river flowing by or to enable you to shoot at night.

I’ve hope you have learned something from this tutorial as I continue to build on camera basics. You have an understanding of aperture and now shutter speed. In the next post, I will discuss ISO and how and when to use it.


Using your camera in daylight try to set fast shutter speeds in shutter priority to photography birds, insects, breaking waves, sports or moving cars. I’m suggesting daylight because you should not have to make any changes to your ISO, and we will be covering that next.

As always, have fun!

Using Shutter Priority Mode on your DSLR camera: Lesson 5


Welcome! My interest in photography spans 40 years and started with the purchase of my first SLR. Since then my passion has grown to landscapes, beach scenes, and travel photography primarily. Photography techniques I particularly enjoy are long exposures, and what I call splash art. You can see these on my gallery page if it interests you. Currently, I live on Amelia Island in Northeast Florida with my beautiful wife and our wonder dog, Fuji.