Shutter Priority - What I wish I'd known / by Harry Peckover

For this explanation I will be covering all of the techniques around shutter priority I wish I had been told about when I first got into photography. I apologize that most of them are around slow shutter speeds as I class techniques such as shallow depth of field under aperture priority.

What shutter speed basically is:

TV mode also known as shutter priority is a common camera function which lets users manually adjust the camera’s shutter speed while the camera adjusts the ISO and aperture to compensate. For instance if you wanted to leave the shutter open for a long time then the camera would close down the aperture to avoid the shot being overexposed. This function is particularly useful when a photograph either requires a faster or slower speed than what would normally be used. 

Fast shutter speeds

Subsets of photography which require high shutter speeds include:

  • sports photography

  • wildlife photography

High shutter speed is required in these particular fields to prevent blurring a fast moving subject. Freezing movements is useful but it can also be visually uninteresting. When freezing motion, the most interesting subjects tend to be the ones unperceivable by virtue of the naked eye. These subjects often require the highest shutter speeds and include explosions of various kinds, droplets of water and thrown objects (though such subjects are often confined into the realm of high speed videography). One of the methods used to capture these high speed shots is burst mode, a common camera mode which lets the camera take many photographs in quick succession.

Sadly, though fast shutter speeds have the distinct advantage of reducing camera shake they do have downsides too. Since there is less time for light to enter the sensor and expose the shot more intense light sources have to be used otherwise the picture quality needs to be sacrificed by upping the ISO (light sensitivity). Also fast shutter speeds often require faster lenses due to the wider apertures they offer. This can be difficult as lenses with wide apertures are both expensive and heavy as they often contain a lot of glass.  

Slow shutter speeds

On the other hand, fields of professional photography that require slower shutter speeds include:

  • landscape photography

  • astrophotography

Shots of this kind need a lot of light in order to capture all the detail they need. Techniques such as light painting also require slower than average shutter speeds. Light painting involves shooting a fast moving and light emitting subject with a slow shutter to make dreamy trails of light appear throughout the frame. A more extreme extension of this effect are star trails. This method which comes under astrophotography (which requires a long shutter speed in and of itself) involves leaving the shutter open for so long that the stars leave trails of light dictated by their path across the night sky. Depending on where you live this effect can be amplified due to that fact that stars appear to move faster or in tighter positions depending on where you are taking the picture geographically. This is because the rotation of the earth dictates the movement captured, for instance, near the equator the pattern would simply appear as bands of stars all moving in the same direction whereas if you were photographing at the north pole directly on the earth’s axis the stars would be visible in rings of light getting tighter towards the center of the frame.

Since slow shutter speeds tend to lean towards more abstract shots many approaches reflect this. Zoom blur uses abstraction by using a slow shutter and while the shutter is open zooming the camera in. It is often important to have the camera zoom at a constant speed to produce satisfying results. Zoom blur is often an extension of light painting as the zoom can make stationary lights converge or repel depending on if the photographer zoomed in or out. Though panning is often a technique constrained strictly to videography if a photographer pans with his camera at the same speed that his subject is travelling the background can be blurred while the subject remains in focus.

Slow shutter speeds unfortunately have downsides much the same as fast shutter speeds due to specialist equipment sometimes being required. For example, if a photographer wished to take a long exposure in the daytime their lens may not have a small enough aperture to account for the high amount of light entering the sensor. This would normally lead to an overexposed shot but to combat this photographer use ND filters of varying intensities. ND (neutral density) filters are simply tinted filters which can be screwed onto the front element of the lens, the darker the tint the longer the shutter speed it can account for. ND filters can also be colour tinted to impact the temperature of the image. Other commonly used pieces of equipment are the shutter release or remote shutter. Both serve to reduce camera shake, one of the major flaws in using a slow shutter speed. Items such as these let photographers remotely activate the camera’s shutter which doesn’t rock the camera as much as pressing the shutter button by hand would. Tripods keep the camera steady too as no matter how hard anyone tries it is virtually impossible to negate camera shake entirely when shooting handheld. Since tripods offer a sturdy structure to which a camera can be mounted it is invaluable in the world of photography at large.

Summary:

Fast shutter speeds -

Pros:

  • Reduces camera shake

Cons:

  • Requires wide apertures
  • Requires a higher ISO
  • Can be uninteresting

Slow shutter speeds -

Pros:

  • Allows for more detail to be captured

Cons:

  • Can require expensive gear
  • Camera shake

Thanks for reading and let me know if you found this helpful at all.

-Harry