Understanding Shutter Priority


Don’t just “take a picture,” “make a picture.” Take charge of the settings on your camera so the image turns out the way you want. Don’t let the camera make the decision. While the PROGRAM mode provides a PERFECT exposure 98 percent of the time, it doesn’t know that in situation A, it’s more important that the shutter speed freezes the action. It also doesn’t know in situation B, it’s more important the shutter speed is slow to emphasize movement. While the computers in today’s cameras are amazing and let you capture a great image, the manufacturers still haven’t figured out how to interface PROGRAM mode with your brain, so the final image turns out the way you want. This being the case, it’s time to take charge of your settings to wind up with an end result of what you envisioned when you pressed the shutter. This week’s Tip focuses on Shutter Priority mode. Another will focus on Aperture Priority.

Shutter Priority: The “S” setting on your camera gives priority to the shutter speed. Based on the speed you set, the camera chooses a corresponding aperture to provide a proper exposure. The given amount of time the shutter remains open determines the amount of action that is either stopped or exaggerated. Logically, the faster the shutter speed, the more action stopping potential you have. The longer it stays open, movement will be recorded. Additionally, the direction in which the action takes place has an effect. For instance, if the action is perpendicular to the camera, a much faster shutter speed is needed to freeze it than if the action is coming toward the photographer. When you photograph a runner going across the film plane, a shutter speed in the neighborhood of 1/250th is necessary to stop the action. If the runner is coming directly toward the camera, it can be slowed down to 1/60th and freeze the motion.

The speed of the action along with the amount of available light determines how much action can be stopped. What dictates whether or not it can be frozen is dependent upon how fast the subject is traveling in conjunction with the intensity of the light. For instance, if you try to halt the movement of a 150-mile-per-hour racecar that’s perpendicular to the lens and it’s heavily overcast, there simply won’t be enough light to do so. Digital photography has given us the luxury to bump up the ISO to very high numbers, but the quality of the image suffers as the ISO is raised. On the other hand, if it’s bright and sunny, very usable ISOs can be dialed in and shutter speeds that are fast enough to stop the motion of the racecar can be set. What it comes down to is learning how the variables play into a given lighting situation and setting the optimal shutter speed to try to achieve the effect you desire.

While freezing the action shows drama, exaggerating it produces more of an artistic effect. This is where knowing how to control the shutter setting to produce a given effect is important. As described above, fast shutter speeds halt movement, so the given is slower ones emphasize it. The idea is to discover the shutter speed that best portrays how much motion you want in the image. The beauty of digital photography is you receive immediate feedback and can make the necessary adjustments on the spot. If the chosen shutter results in too much movement, set it faster. If there’s not enough of an effect, set it slower. Again, your choices are dictated by the speed of the action in conjunction with the amount of available light. The important concept to glean from all the above is to be able to predict the end result. Learn how a given shutter speed impacts the photo relative to the speed of the subject in conjunction with the amount of available light. Set your camera to shutter priority and take charge of the end result.

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