Beyond Auto: Full Speed Ahead

Roller coaster ride

“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundreth of a second.”   – Marc Riboud

QUICK:  When was the last time you used your camera in a setting other than Auto Mode?

…Been a while hasn’t it?  Perhaps, it’s actually been since …ever.  It’s okay, you can admit it – you are an Automatic-aholic.  You, like so many others, have fallen victim to the ease and security of Auto Mode (or any of the other preprogrammed Scene Modes on your camera).  Really, it’s okay.  It’s not your fault.  In fact, feel free to blame the technical gurus at Nikon, Canon, Sony or any of the other brand name camera companies for your addiction.  I mean those guys really know their stuff and they’ve programmed today’s cameras with some pretty wicked features that conveniently take all the guess work out of photography.  But with all of that convenience comes a price.  And that price is creative freedom.  Sure you can take some really decent photos using those preprogrammed modes, but wouldn’t it be great to create something a little better than decent – to venture beyond the everyday snapshot?  If so, then you need to break the Auto habit and explore some of the other wonderful things your camera can do for you.

In my initial installment for Automatic-aholics, What the f-stop?!, I encouraged those of you who are addicted to Auto Mode to take the first step in finding photographic freedom by branching out into Aperture Priority Mode with your camera (if you haven’t read that earlier post I encourage you go there first, otherwise you might find some parts of this post confusing.)  Aperture Priority is a fantastic setting on your camera – in fact it is my personal favorite.  But Aperture Priority can’t do everything, and despite all of its wonderful benefits, you really shouldn’t leave your camera in Aperture Priority all the time anymore than you should leave it in Auto Mode.  Nope, we certainly don’t want to trade one addiction for another.  So today I’d like to introduce you to another handy setting on your camera:  Shuttery Priority, which is represented by ‘S’ or ‘Tv’ on your camera’s dial.

Ever been in a situation where you were trying to get crystal clear, stop-action images and all you ended up with was a blurry mess?  For example, you may have been at your child’s championship volleyball game and you were just dying to capture some super sharp photos of the big game.  Unfortunately, the game was being played indoors in a poorly lit gym and you were unable to use your flash for fear of being kicked out by the grizzly-faced referee.  Not knowing what else to do in the situation, you turned your flash Blurry photooff but kept your camera in Auto Mode.  With fingers crossed, you proceeded to take hundreds of shots during the game hoping at least one of them would turn out.

Hmmmm….  bad idea.  Chances are when you got home and scrolled through those hundreds of photos all you found was a jumbled mix of blurry arms and legs.  Not cool. In fact, it is downright maddening.  Too bad you hadn’t set your camera to Shutter Priority.  If you had, then you probably would’ve captured quite a few good shots of the game.  Maybe even a few of those would’ve been worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover – well, okay, at least a coveted spot on the refrigerator door.

Shutter Priority is the perfect setting when you find yourself in situations where action is happening all around you and you want to control how that action is captured in a photo.  Shutter Priority gives you the ability to stop the action or create some motion blur.  Even better, it is an easy mode to learn!  Woohoo!!  There are no complicated concepts or reverse numbering systems like Aperture Priority.  Nope, just straight forward speed (or lack thereof).  Easy-peasy, and totally doable.

Ready to get started?


Before we can jump ahead to the practical applications of Shutter Priority, we must first understand what shutter speed means.  Quite simply, shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter of your camera is open to let light in.  If you think of your camera like the human eye, then the shutter would act like the eyelid.  When you blink quickly, you limit the amount of light entering your eye.  Conversely, when you hold your eye open you increase the amount of light entering your eye.  The same holds true for the shutter of your camera:  a faster shutter speed means less light entering the camera, a slower shutter speed means more light will enter.  The amount of time your camera’s ‘eyelid’ is open is called shutter speed. Here is an infographic to help with this analogy:

Shutter Speed Eye Analogy

Faster shutter speeds are measured in fractions of seconds, and are usually displayed on your camera in either numerator/denominator format (1/60, 1/250, 1/1000, etc.) or simply as the denominator (60, 250, 1000, etc.)  The faster the shutter speed, the higher the denominator; therefore a shutter speed of 1/1000 is considerably faster than a shutter speed of 1/60.

Slower shutter speeds are measured in whole seconds (or whole seconds + a fraction), and are usually displayed on your camera as a number with a quotation mark next to it (1″, 2.5″, 10″, etc.)  The slower the shutter speed, the greater this whole number will be; therefore a shutter speed of 10″ is considerably slower than a shutter speed of 1″.

If we add the measurement of shutter speed to our original infographic of the eyelid, we come up with a more complete visual on shutter speed:

Shutter Speed Eye Analogy

You may recall in my previous post, What the f-stop?!, I used a similar eye analogy in describing lens aperture, which acts like the pupil of your eye (expanding and contracting based on the available light.)  Just as your eyelid and pupil work in harmony to control the light entering your eye, so does your camera’s shutter and lens aperture.  Together these two components help balance the exposure of an image.**

When you leave your camera in full Auto Mode, the shutter speed is determined by the camera (in fact, everything is determined by the camera.)  However, when you set your camera to Shutter Priority, you as the photographer get to decide how fast or slow the shutter operates.  Why would you care?  Read on…


[Quick poll:  How many of you read the title of this section and immediately thought of the 1981 J. Geils Band song?  Yep, me too.  For those of you too young to know what I’m talking about, feel free to take a break to go watch the music video.  You can thank me later for getting that song permanently stuck in your head for the rest of the day.]

But I digress…

Controlling shutter speed has many practical and creative uses in your photography, but here are the three most common uses:

1.  Freeze motion.  The most common application for Shutter Priority is the ability to freeze motion by using a faster shutter speed.  When you set your camera to S (or Tv), you determine the shutter speed and your camera figures out all of the other components necessary to obtain optimal exposure.  Remember my little story about your child’s volleyball game being played in a poorly lit gym?  Well that would’ve been a perfect situation to switch your camera to Shutter Priority so you could freeze the action as it was happening.

2.  Create motion blur.  Not all motion is bad.  In fact, sometimes you may want a little motion blur to give your images life.  You may have seen advertisements for sports cars in which the car is photographed zooming by in perfect focus, but the background is a streaky blur.  The motion blur in those images creates a highly effective sense of speed, which is made possible by controlling shutter speed.

3.  Photograph in low light without a flash.  You see the signs everywhere: No Flash Photography Allowed.  *sigh*  Don’t these people realize how badly we want to photograph that _________  [insert your favorite noun:  game, concert, recital, sexy underwear model, etc.]  Well, now you can take that photo and still not upset the security guards.  By setting your camera to Shutter Priority, you can slow down the shutter speed to allow enough light to enter the camera without using a flash.

Now that you know some of the ways Shutter Priority can help you control the action around you, let’s take a look at some practical applications…


Let me share with you a few rules of thumb that I have discovered in my own practice that will help you determine which shutter speed to choose in various shooting situations:

Stop-Action Sports Photography – When you desire crystal clear stop-action sports images, you want to choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.  A good rule-of-thumb is to use a shutter speed of at least 1/250, but the exact speed you choose depends on a variety of factors:

  • What type of sport are you photographing?  A Nascar race is going to move at a much faster pace than a PeeWee football game.  As such, you need to choose a shutter speed appropriate to the speed of the action.  Faster sports = faster shutter speeds when you are looking for crystal clear shots.
  • Are you shooting indoors or outdoors?  A bright sunny day will allow you to use a faster shutter speed since more light will be entering the camera.  Shooting in a poorly lit gym will limit how fast your shutter speed can be.
  • What is the depth of field you are trying to achieve?  This is where your knowledge of aperture comes into play (aperture is discussed in-depth in my previous post, What the f-stop?!)  Because aperture and shutter speed work together to achieve proper exposure, you need to be mindful that the faster your shutter speed, the wider the aperture necessary to allow adequate light into the camera.**  A wider aperture creates a shallower depth of field, so less of your image will be in focus.  This can be desirable, or not, depending on the effect you are trying to achieve.  For example, are you aiming to capture just one athlete, or the whole team?  Do you want the background of the image to be softly focused, or tack sharp?  There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, it is simply a matter of creative choice.

Determining the best shutter speed comes with practice, and the more you play around with Shutter Priority the better you will become at choosing the speed that will work in a given situation.  For instance, on a bright sunny day, you may be able to shoot at shutter speeds upwards of 1/1000 of a second, whereas in a low light situation, your highest shutter speed may be down around 1/250 or lower.  When you are first practicing with Shutter Priority go ahead and test out a bunch of different shutter speeds to determine which one is giving you the effect your are looking for.  Feel free to use the on-camera display to preview a few test shots to make sure you are on the right track.  Remember:  practice makes perfect!

Here are some examples from my own portfolio, where I chose to use Shutter Priority to freeze the action of a sporting event:

Pro Cycling

Colorado Gymnastics

You may notice in these images that the shutter speed is considerably faster in the top photo than the bottom photo (1/1000th vs. 1/400th) even though they were both photographed using a wide open aperture (f 2.8).  Why is this?  Quite simply, one was shot in bright daylight, while the other was taken in a dimly lit gym.  Both photos have nice exposure, but because there was limited light available in the gym I could not use as high of a shutter speed as I might have outdoors.  In fact, if I’d tried to photograph the gymnastics event at a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second all of my shots would’ve been black, because the limited light would’ve superseded the capabilities of my widest aperture (f 2.8).**

At this point, I’d like to pause for a minute for a little reality check.  Truth be told, when it comes to sports photography having a really nice (i.e. EXPEN$IVE) lens is definitely a bonus.  This is a case where bigger really does mean better.  After all, there is a reason you see photographers on the sidelines of football games with lenses that look like cannons (and, yes, many of them actually are ‘Canons’).  A bigger lens gives you a wider aperture range, and as such, a broader choice of shutter speeds that will work in varying light conditions.  But that doesn’t mean the average novice can’t get some really good shots with the equipment they already own.  Most of us aren’t actually looking to have our photos featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, we just want a few awesome shots to show off to our friends and family.  So don’t be intimidated by a lack of fancy equipment – you’ll never know the potential of your own camera until you start playing around with all of its features.  (For more on my thoughts about fancy camera equipment, see my previous post Cameras Don’t Matter.)

Other Uses for Stop-Action – Of course, stop-action is not limited to only sports.  You can have fun freezing the action of any moving subject using the techniques I described above.  Take for instance the image below of my adorable little dog playing in the snow.  Just look at how the freeze frame effect of a fast shutter speed captured the wind in his hair and poofs of snow exploding up behind him… Fun!

Dog Having Fun in Snow

Motion Blur / Panning – Sometimes you want to capture some motion blur to give your photo life and movement.  In this case, you would use Shutter Priority to slow your shutter speed down.  How far you slow it down depends on the effect you are trying to achieve and how fast your subject is moving.  Once again, you will discover this through trial and error at first.  Eventually, choosing the correct shutter speed will become intuitive.

Below are several examples of how slowing down the shutter speed can be a highly effective photographic technique.  Take a look at the next two photos;  the first is of a light rail train rushing past me, and the second is of a popular amusement park ride spinning in the evening light…

RTD Light Rail

Amusement Park Ride

Did you notice how the motion blur adds energy and speed to these images?  Now imagine how different they would look if I’d used a fast/stop-action shutter speed.  The effect would’ve been quite different, and the result would’ve been rather stagnant and boring.  Keep this in mind when photographing subjects that are in motion – sometimes capturing a little motion blur is the more creative choice.

It is also possible to create motion blur even when an object is not in motion.  You can do this by moving the camera during the time the shutter is open (zooming, twirling, shaking, etc.)  In the following images, the subjects I was photographing weren’t moving at all – the first is of a street scene at night, the second is of some brilliant autumn leaves.  Look at how dramatic purposeful camera movement can be…

Shutter Speed Night Scene Falling Leaves

Another way of capturing motion blur is to use a panning technique, whereby you slow down your shutter speed and track your camera with the subject as it moves in front of you.  This causes your subject to be in relative focus, while the background becomes a streaky blur.  While this is a difficult technique to master (I’m definitely still working on my skills), it is certainly a fun way to add energy to an image…

Pro Cycling

Photographing in Low Light without a Flash – Inevitably you will find yourself in a situation where the lighting is dim, but using a flash is simply not appropriate.  At times like these, Shutter Priority can be a saving grace since you can slow the shutter speed enough to allow an adequate amount of light into the camera.

The only caveat with slowing the shutter speed down is eventually you will slow the speed down so much that a tripod becomes necessary to avoid camera shake.  If you like to use tripods, then this won’t be an issue for you.  I personally find tripods cumbersome, restrictive and a downright pain to use.  If you feel the same way, you will be happy to learn you can generally shoot with a shutter speed down to around 1/60 and still have no noticeable camera shake from hand holding your camera.  Because of this, using Shutter Priority at a speed of 1/60 is my ‘go-to’ setting for indoor, low light situations.

The image below is an example of how Shutter Priority is a great setting when you wish to hand hold your camera in low light situations.  For this photo, I was actually holding the feather with the fingertips of one hand, while my other hand held my camera – talk about a prime opportunity for camera shake – but just look at how clear the image is!  On top of that, I didn’t use a flash and was therefore able to capture the wonderfully soft light falling across the feather.  All of this was made possible by using Shutter Priority set to a speed of 1/60.  No tripod needed.  Amazing!


Even though I personally have an aversion to tripods, there are certainly occasions where a tripod is necessary.  In general, when shooting with a shutter speed of 1/50 or less, you are better off using tripod (or wall, ledge, post, etc) to steady your camera.  Shutter speeds below 1/50 are useful in capturing night scenes and other extremely low light situations.  Below are two examples of this…


Shutter Priority 13


Now that you’ve seen several ways in which Shutter Priority can help you take control of the motion in your photos, it is time to put all of the theories into practice.  To make the transition to Shutter Priority a little easier, I’ve included below a little ‘cheat sheet’ that you can carry around in your camera bag as an easy reference guide.  Once you get out there and start shooting in Shutter Priority, you will find these concepts become second nature to you.

Shutter Speed Infographic


If you’ve already ventured into the world of Aperture Priority, then Shutter Priority is an easy and logical next step.  Remember, these are chances to make your camera work for you.  Your camera is merely a tool to let you express your creativity – but you need to tell your camera what to do.  Learn to be your camera’s master, not its slave.

Most of all, remember that photography should be fun.  Allow yourself to take risks, make mistakes, and explore new and different ways of capturing life through the lens.

Happy Clicking Everyone!

**Special Note:

In reality, there is a third factor known as ISO that is necessary to obtain optimal exposure.  I will explore the concept of ISO in a future post.  For now, just keep your camera’s ISO setting its lowest setting (or even on auto), which is the typical default setting.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Auto: Full Speed Ahead

  1. Pingback: Beyond Auto: What the f-stop?! | Eyes Like A Shutter / Mind Like A Lens

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