Category Archives: Freezing Action Photography

Shutter Priority Mode – Freezing Moving Objects

If you end up shooting a lot of images of your children playing that are blurry, this is the article for you.  When things are in motion, there are basically only two ways that you can capture them in a frozen, crisp, clear manor.  One is with a very bright flash of light and the other is by increasing your shutter speed.  We’ll talk about the bright flash of light at the end of this, because it’s the least desirable method to use.  And by the way, if you haven’t read our article on the basics of Understanding Exposure, you really need to go over it before reading this.

The shutter speed determines how long your camera’s sensor is exposed to the available light.  If it’s open for too long, the things that it records will show any movement that occurs as blurred.  “Too long,” is a funny way to phrase it, because we’re really talking about very small fractions of a second.  They are typically expressed in terms of 60 (for 1/60th of a second), 125 (for 1/125th of a second), 250 (for 1/250th of a second), and so on.  There are both faster and slower speeds than the few I just listed.  These fractions (shutter speeds) are adjustable on your camera and can be set in either full manual mode or more preferably, in Shutter Priority Mode.  The reason that Shutter Priority Mode is more preferable is because it’s easier!  This mode is similar to Auto Mode, in that the other elements of your exposure (your aperture and your ISO) are auto adjusted to insure you get a proper exposure, based on the specific shutter speed that you selected.  In other words, you set the shutter speed and the camera takes care of everything else.  Although every camera can work a little differently, usually, if you set it to Shutter Priority, you then adjust the shutter speed by turning one of the dials on your camera.  If you watch the viewfinder while turning the right dial, you’ll see numbers like, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, etc…(some cameras may have a few extra ones, so don’t be alarmed).

Typically, subjects that are relatively still, can be captured blur free at 125 (1/125th of a second).  250 to 500 will freeze most moderate movement, while 1000 will handle some serious activity.

Below are some examples of different activities paired with different shutter speeds.

This first image was shot at 160 (1/160th of a second…I’m going to stop writing the fraction out now, because at this point, I’m hoping you’ve got the idea).  If you look at the full size image closely, you’ll notice that the kids’ movement (a slow walk) is frozen, as are the puppies, except for the second one that is in the middle of a jump.  That particular puppy was not listening to me when I said, “Walk slowly.”


This next image was shot at 125, and you can see that girl in the center has both her hand, as well as her pant leg blurred.  Once again…not listening!  I said, “Spin slowly.”  Just kidding.  Sometimes, a little blur can give a great sense of motion to your image, bringing it to life.  But it’s good for you to see what types of activity will not be frozen at certain shutter speeds.


In this next one of the same girls, I increased the shutter speed to 800, and everything is as crisp and clear as could be.


Below, the horse and rider were captured perfectly at 640.


The skateboarder and football game were both shot at 1000, an ideal speed for serious action.



Notice in the football shot above, my camera’s perspective.  I’m on my knees, very low to the ground…at the kids’ level.  This makes for so much better of an image than one taken from a standing position.

The tennis player below was shot at 800.  Such a cool shot of him suspended in air!  You still see a little movement in the racket, but that’s because it’s moving at close to 100 mph.  A shutter speed of 1000 probably would have caught it clearly, but I actually like it’s movement…a nice contrast to the mid-air stillness of the player.


So, that’s all the good stuff about Shutter Priority Mode.  Here’s the bad…faster shutter speeds (the shutter opening and closing faster), means less light getting to the image sensor.  If you’re out on a bright sunny day, it’s not going to be a problem.  Even on most cloudy days, you should be OK.  The most problematic situations are sunset, sunrise, and the worst of all, indoors (i.e. a basketball game or gymnastics).  As we discussed in Understanding Exposure, three things control the light that gets to your sensor:

1. ISO
2. Aperture
3. Shutter Speed

Since we need the shutter speed to be at a specific setting (to freeze our action), we’ll have to rely on adjusting the aperture and/or the ISO to get more light to the image sensor (still staying away from the subject of flash at this point).  Most camera’s will let you set the the ISO manually, so you should try a higher setting, maybe 800.  You can certainly go higher than this, even up into the 3200 range (on some cameras), but you start getting into grainy-looking images at those higher levels, with some cameras handling it better than others.

The other available adjustsment would be your aperture.  In a DSLR, this will come down to how much money you spent on your lens.  The more expensive ones have much lower available f stops (lower numbers, like f2, meaning a larger opening, letting in more light).  This is often referred to as a “fast lens.”

In most decent cameras, if you’re in Shutter Priority Mode, the camera is going to auto adjust your ISO and aperture to give you a proper exposure at the shutter speed you’ve selected.  But know that you could always venture into the world of full manual mode and take total control if desired.

We should also touch on the nasty topic of shutter lag.  This is most noticeable on a point-and-shoot camera.  It’s the time lag between when you press the shutter button and when it actually opens.  It’s usually measured in a fraction of a second, but that can easily be enough to miss the shot, or at least have the moving subject no longer at the location on which your camera was focused.  Clearly, if you’re committed to a lot of action photography, a DSLR is the way to go.  But many point-and-shoot cameras do have a workable solution…it’s called Burst Mode.  You may have to check with that extremely boring camera manual, but this is a setting available to most good to great point-and-shoot cameras (like my lovely Nikon Coolpix 7800!).  It causes the camera to take anywhere from 6 to 10 images (maybe more or less, depending on the camera), each time the shutter is pressed.  I’ve gotten some great action shots on my 7800, but there will be a few fuzzy ones mixed in as well.  The point is, you can still get the shot and not have to lug around a bunch of heavy camera gear.

Finally, lets touch on flash.  If you’re indoors, let’s say at a basketball game, you can forget using your flash.  The flash on most cameras, even on a DSLR, is going to reach out about 10 to 15 feet.  Beyond that, the light is getting too dim and because your camera will automatically set your shutter speed to 60 as soon as you pop up the flash, all you’ll get is a dim blur.  If you can get close, it works, but you’re better off with no flash and a fast lens.  Indoor sports are tough situations, and sometimes, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently stated, “You can’t always get what you want.”  On a note of good news, for those of you that might have kids in the theater, most stages are so brightly lit, you can usually get pretty decent shots of them acting and singing their hearts out.  Just remember to leave your flash turned off!

In summary, capturing a moving subject without blur is all about getting into Shutter Priority Mode and raising that shutter speed to an appropriate level for a particular type of action (faster action = faster shutter speed).  It works best with a DSLR (little to no shutter lag), but can also work with a point-and-shoot, using the camera’s burst mode, if available.  Regardless of the camera, don’t expect every shot to be perfect, but many will be.

I’ll go over more detail in my upcoming book, but this is more than enough to get you on your way.

Now, pick up your camera, put it on Shutter Priority Mode, and  get out there and practice for a few minutes.  Use the dog (if you’ve got one) so your kids won’t roll their eyes into the back of their head because you want to take more pictures!

Here’s what 800 looks like with a Jack Russell, running full speed, preparing to kill his Frisbee.


And yes, you can even do this with a cell phone camera.  I took this on my cell phone using a camera app (called Camera FV-5) that has a burst mode.  This is actually a small area if the image that I cropped it to, so the resolution is not as great as I would like, but I got the shot!


Go take some pictures, and post some of your images in our Monthly Photo Challenge!

Remember, the choice to use Shutter Priority Mode should be driven by your need to freeze fast action.  For what you might call “regular” photography, I’d suggest sticking with Aperture Priority Mode.  In most normal lighting situations, your choosing to set an aperture of f2 – f5.6 to soften a distracting background, is likely to cause your shutter speed to automatically be set above 250.  This is more than adequate to freeze moderate movement.

In another article, I’ll discuss a related subject, Setting The Focal Point Of Your Camera.  Did you even know you could do that?