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What is shutter priority? How to master blur in “S” or “Tv” mode

Olympus OM-D E-M1X review Camera Sample Photos
Camera settings: 43mm at f/5, 1/100, ISO 200 Image used with permission by copyright holder

New photographers don’t have to go straight from auto to full manual mode without training wheels. Shutter priority mode is one of three semi-auto mode that mixes the best of auto and manual together. It gives you manual control over shutter speed, while leaving aperture (and, optionally, ISO) up to the camera. This lets you control the amount of blur in your photo, either keeping everything tack sharp, or allowing for some creative motion blur as in the photo above.

Besides being a great tool for beginners, even professional photographers will use shutter priority to shoot quickly in changing lighting conditions, or when there simply isn’t time to dial in exposure manually.

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed 1/160 Image used with permission by copyright holder

Understanding shutter priority first requires an understanding of shutter speed. We cover shutter speed here, but here’s a quick refresher on what the camera setting means.

One of three pieces to the exposure triangle, shutter speed refers to how fast (or slow) the exposure time is. The speed is written in fractions of a second, or full seconds for very slow shutter speeds. A fast shutter speed, such as 1/1,000, freezes motion but doesn’t let in as much light, creating a darker image. A slow shutter speed, such as 1 second, lets in lots of light but creates blur from any movement that occurs during that full second that the image is being recorded. 

Besides any action happening in the photograph, the motion of your hands will introduce blur. That’s why slow shutter speeds typically require a tripod. How slow depends on your camera, but the general rule of thumb is to keep your shutter speed at or above the reciprocal of your focal length. So, a 100mm lens should shoot at a 1/100 second or faster. (Note that these are full frame equivalent focal lengths; on a smaller sensor, you have to first multiply the focal length by its crop factor.) Many modern cameras can actually shoot much slower than this rule allows thanks to great stabilization systems (we’re looking at you, Olympus).

What is shutter priority mode?

Olympus OM-D E-M1X review Camera Sample Photos
Camera settings: 56mm at f/4, 1/160, ISO 200 Download full resolution

Shutter priority mode is a semi-manual mode that allows the photographer to choose the shutter speed, while the camera balances out the exposure by automatically adjusting the remainder of the exposure settings. The mode is similar to aperture priority mode, which allows the photographer to choose the aperture setting. Both modes offer more control than Program mode, an advanced automatic mode that allows photographers to flip through pairs of balanced aperture-shutter combinations.

Shutter priority is typically designated by an “S” symbol on the mode dial. On Canon and Pentax cameras, the mode is designated by a “Tv,” which stands for Time Value. While the name may be different, S and Tv modes are identical.

Shutter priority mode is ideal for working with sports or fast action, since you can choose the speed that will freeze the movement. The opposite is also true — you can use shutter priority mode to shoot long exposure images to create intentional blur with a tripod. Shutter priority mode is also great for working with flash and keeping your camera settings below the flash sync speed, or the fastest shutter speed that you can use while working with flash.

Once you pick the shutter speed — say, a 1/1000 for sports, a 1/250 for flash, or 30 seconds for a long exposure with a tripod — the camera will automatically choose the aperture that will balance out the exposure. Besides simplifying the process of learning manual mode by reducing the number of controls you have to think about, shutter priority is also ideal for scenarios where the lighting isn’t always consistent, such as a soccer field where the sun keeps peeking in and out of clouds or a gymnasium that isn’t well lit.

Shutter priority mode isn’t completely locked into whatever settings the camera decides will go best with the speed that you’ve selected. You can also use exposure compensation to lighten or darken the image. If you are working with shutter priority and the aperture the camera automatically selects is too light or dark, exposure priority will correct the problem.

Troubleshooting shutter priority mode

Olympus OM-D E-M1X review Camera Sample Photos
Camera settings: 300mm at f/4, 1/1000, ISO 5000 Download full resolution

All you need to do to use shutter priority mode is to turn to the S or Tv on the dial and select a shutter speed using the camera’s control dial. But shutter priority is still part auto mode — which means sometimes, the camera doesn’t always do the right thing.

First, make sure the selected shutter speed isn’t going beyond the limits of the aperture. While the camera will select an aperture setting for you, the lens attached to your camera only has so many apertures available. If you try to use a very fast shutter speed in a very dark environment, even the brightest apertures setting may not be enough. If the aperture setting on the screen (the f-number, such as f/2.8) is blinking, then the shutter speed you selected is too high or low for the camera to balance out with the aperture. (If the F number is low, like f/2.8, the shutter speed is too fast; if the F number is high like f/22, the shutter speed is too slow). You’ll need to either adjust the ISO to compensate, or select a different shutter speed.

In shutter priority, the camera chooses the remaining settings based on a built-in light meter. Choosing the right metering mode will help ensure a more accurate exposure. Evaluative metering, for example, considers the entire image when setting the exposure. Spot metering, on the other hand, reads only the subject, which can help prevent the subject from being over or under exposed. 

If the images are still too light or too dark, exposure compensation will fix the problem without switching over to manual mode. Exposure compensation is measured in stops, each stop doubles the amount of light in the image — or halves it, for negative numbers — allowing you to adjust the image even if you’ve never ventured into manual mode.

Shutter priority is not just for beginners

Olympus OM-D E-M1X reviewe-30218
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Some photographers insist that professional photographers only use manual mode — don’t believe them. While shutter priority (and aperture priority) serves as great training wheels for learning manual mode, the shooting mode is also ideal for scenarios where the light is constantly changing and the action is too fast to warrant adjustments between every shot.

While manual is the only mode for having complete control of shutter speed, aperture and ISO, shutter priority masters blur without constantly adjusting settings as the lighting or scene changes.

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