Photographer Styles:  Aperture vs Shutter Speed

As I was self-taught; I learnt the technical side of photography mainly from trying something and then seeing if it worked. Pretty much all of my experiments were based on the cameras shutter speed. I wanted to know how long I could hand hold the camera, how slow I could pan with the camera, I wanted to know what shutter speed setting I needed to blur the background or make the stars trace across my picture.

I mainly used shutter priority for all of my photography, I used the exposure compensation to make them brighter or darker, but the most important part of the picture for me was how fast was the shutter speed was.

When I was photographing single drift cars I would move from 1/60th to 1/160th depending on lens length, their speed and the ambient light conditions. Usually using a circular polarising lens to cut the glare, and allow me inadvertently use slower shutter speeds. When two cars were in the frame and they were in a battle I would shoot at 1/250th. As I wanted both of the cars (moving at different speeds) to be sharp.

So for about 7 years I never used the aperture priority setting. The arty side of Michael had not been unleashed, yet. But then I bought lenses that had smaller number apertures, which allowed me to work on other ways to get out of focus, I then started to learn about how aperture could affect my images. I did my 365 challenge at F2, and that helped with using lenses at small number apertures.

It made me realise though that there were two types of photographer styles, those that made the depth of field the most important aspect of their image (majority of landscape photographers), and those that made the amount of movement in their image the most important (majority of sports based photographers), even though those two are related to each other, the way you compose and think about how the image will look before you take the picture is very different.

How do I use each aspect on my camera?

If the depth of field is important in your picture you would use Aperture Priority and set your aperture to get the depth you wanted.

If the shutter speed was important then you would use Shutter Priority and set the shutter speed to get the desired effect that you were after.

What changes though is how you set up the picture in your mind before you take it. Long exposures or lots of depth of field with large number aperture will need a tripod; very shallow depth of field images may need to be manually focused to make sure what is important is in focus. Doing calculations (using a depth of field calculator) to make sure all in your image is going to be sharp.

Either way, there is more to the image than just pointing and shooting.


In the examples below I will outline what the thought was before and how I took the image.

Photographer StylesI was standing on this hill wanting to take a photo of the city lights and a car drove by, I saw the lights trailing down the hill and thought, how long would the car take to get to the bottom. So I timed my friend driving down the hill in my car, and then set the shutter speed to that and got him to do it again. This was shot on a Canon 300D with a 18-55mm Kit lens at ISO 200 F11 and a shutter speed of 65 seconds.

Photographer StylesThe GT Autosound car was going to be unveiled at Autosalon in 2006, I wanted to capture the unveiling, and I only had one shot at it of course, the camera was tripod mounted, and I released the shutter as the owner started to unveil. You can see his shoe near the gold front rim where he stood for a few seconds of this 10 second exposure, Shot on a Canon 20D at ISO 100, F13 and 10 seconds.

Photographer StylesI wanted to show the “Cruising of Rundle Street” in Adelaide with a slow shutter speed shot, the driver was quite still in the ½ second shot, we were doing about 25km/h no more, the lights dragging through the windscreen is what I wanted. Shot on a Canon 20D at ½ second ISO 400 and F4.5.

Photographer StylesLocation location location, being on the top of a 25 story high rise at IndyCar in 2007, the F1-11’s were going to do a dump and burn as they flew over. Not knowing what speed they would be flying past, I wanted to make sure I got a sharp shot of the planes. I set the shutter speed to 1/1000th to make sure. Shot on a Canon 20D 1/1000th of a second F8 and ISO 400.

Photographer StylesThe Brisbane river is rarely calm and mirror like unless you are awake at 4.00am before all the boats start and the wind picks up. So to make the river look calmer I made the shutter speed quite long. This makes the water look much calmer then it really is.  This shot was 8 minutes! I used a ND filter to darken the image. It was taken on a Canon 5D Mark II 487 seconds, F16 ISO 50.

Photographer StylesHere is one of my 365 challenge photos, by using the small depth of field that you get with an aperture of F2 the palm tree in the background does not distract the focus of the image. Canon 5D Mark II at F2 and 1/1000th of a second at ISO 50.

Photographer StylesIn this photo of a glass ball with Brisbane in the background I needed to make sure that the city in the ball was sharp and in focus. The image has been inverted as well. The very shallow depth of field at F2 made this photo quite tricky. Taken on a Canon 5D Mark II 1/4000th F2 and ISO 50.

Photographer StylesThis shot on HaLong Bay, was a mix of both of these styles, the problem was it was getting darker and darker, I was using my Canon 5D Mark II and the maximum ISO I wanted to use was ISO 3200. The camera was on a tripod on the deck of another boat, so a very long exposure would have been blurry, and the boats themselves were also moving. So I needed to shoot at 1/3rd of a second at ISO 3200 and F2.8 to get this shot.

Photographer StylesIn this photo of a train leaving the Pimlico station, I had just got off the train so I needed to act fast, I wanted the train to be moving through the shot, and I didn’t have a tripod with me so I needed to hand hold the shot, I set the camera to 1/8th of a second and knew that if I took three shots, at least one should be sharp. This was the result. Canon 5D Mark II 1/8th of a second and aperture F9.5.

Photographer StylesLastly this photo of a welder that was taken for my 365 challenge, I was limited to F2 for the challenge, but wanted the sparks to be flying, and for that to happen I needed a slow shutter speed. I lowered the ISO to 50 and manually set the camera to 1/20th of a second. The light from the welding sparks also lit up the welder. Canon 5D Mark II ISO 50 F2 and 1/20th of a second.

Try This

Which one are you? Are you thinking about shutter speed or aperture when thinking about your pictures? See if you can switch sides and change the way you think about your photography.

What are your thoughts?