(Last Updated On: November 11, 2019)

An Introduction to Shutter Speed in Digital Photography

Understand the role and function of Shutter Speed, and how it’s affecting your photos.

What is shutter speed in photography?

What is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open and is also a measurement of time. It’s basically the timer for light coming into the camera and is what you want to change when you want to show movement in your picture. The most basic definition of shutter speed is how long the shutter takes to open and close.

The three main adjustable parts of your camera are ISOaperture, and shutter speed. Shutter speed and aperture in photography together are what determines exposure because they both affect how much light is taken in while the picture is being taken.

In addition to controlling light for proper exposure, shutter speed is also used artistically. You can use a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action of hockey game or use a slower speed to create motion blur caused by flowing water.

This video below explains the basics of shutter speed and will help you gain a clearer understanding of its roles in photography.

Camera Basics – Shutter Speed

How is Shutter Speed Measured?

Shutter speed is measured in time increments ranging from full seconds to a fraction of a second (sometimes up 1/8000). The larger the shutter speed denominator, the faster the shutter opens and closes exposing less light to the camera sensor. When you use a lower shutter speed, the shutter is open longer and the image sensor is exposed to light. Typically, you won’t be using a shutter speed slower than 1/60 because any slower and you would include motion in your picture, making it blurry.

As you start exploring the different speeds you can use keep in mind, that you use a shutter speed slower than 1/60 you will need something to stabilize your camera, such as a tripod.

Shutter Speed (Video Clip)

Here is another great quirky 34 second video clip from Canon Australia that demonstrates the difference between fast and slow shutter speeds.

Mechanical Operation of a Shutter

The actual mechanical shutter in a DSLR camera consists of two curtains we’ll call A and B. When you press the shutter button on your camera, curtain A rises to allow light to hit the sensor, then curtain B rises immediately after to meet curtain A and block the light. Next, the curtains reset and the process is repeated.

Prior to the movement of the shutter curtains, there is a mirror at a 45 degree angle in front of the shutter that moves up and out of the way to enable the camera to take the photo. When you are composing your image, light passes through the lens, reflects off the mirror and through to the viewfinder so you can see what’s happening. Mirrorless cameras are the exception to this process because they do not have a reflective mirror popping up and down.

How to Set Your Shutter Speed?

Each camera has a range of preset shutter speeds available. Common shutter speeds you’re likely to see in most cameras are: 1/40, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/ 500, 1/1000, 1/2000, etc. Shutter speeds on your camera are usually displayed as whole numbers. So a display of 125 is actually 1/125th of a second. Quotation marks are used shutter speed of one second or more. For example, 2 seconds may be displayed as 2”0 in your camera viewfinder. The Bulb setting leaves the shutter open as long as you like.

Shutter speeds on your camera usually double with increment. When you have settings like 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/500, 1/1000 your doubling the speed as you move to increasingly fast shutter speeds. It’s just like changing your aperture – as you increase the aperture by one increment, you let in half as much light.

When determining what you want your shutter speed to be, you have to know if you want to see movement in the finished picture or if you want a frozen moment to take with you. Just remember, the slower your setting, the more movement and motion you will see in your picture.




Tips for Slow and Fast Shutter Speed

As you start exploring the different speeds, keep in mind that using a shutter speed slower than 1/60 will require stabilization.

You need to use a shutter speed that is fast enough to avoid camera shake. It’s nearly impossible for most people to hold a camera perfectly still. If you’re using a shutter speed slower than 1/60, you should probably use a tripod so you don’t blur your photos from movement while you’re holding the camera. If it’s difficult for you to hold the camera still, no problem. Try using a shutter speed that is one over twice the focal length of your lens. If you’re using a 50mm lens, use a shutter speed of at least 1/100.

If you absolutely must stick with a slow shutter speed of 1/50th or less, we recommend using a wireless remote. It’s not expensive and can make slow shutter photography a much more enjoyable experience. You don’t have to compromise image quality and it provides plenty of flexibility for different styles of photography.

There are also some cameras now that have a built in image stabilization system to help your pictures not be affected by any accidental shakes.

How does Shutter Speed Affect Your Photos?

In this video clip from B&H Photo, they show a couple of great examples of how shutter speed can be used to freeze motion, create cool motion blur effects, and long shutter effects like taking images at night. This is a great video to gain some inspiration on how you can use shutter speed to create amazing images.

How do you use Shutter Speed Creatively?

Now that you know what shutter speed is and how it functions, it’s time for the fun part. Playing with shutter speed opens new creative possibilities in photography and can transform an average photo into one that’s visually striking and full of energy. Here are a few creative ways you can incorporate shutter speed into everyday photography.

Motion Blur and Panning

Ever wondered how photographers capture motion so well? The key is slow shutter speed. It’s an excellent technique to use when you want to create a strong sense of time and movement in your photos. Many sports and street photographers use this technique to create dynamic in their shots. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when capturing motion blur:

  1. Use Slower Shutter Speeds. The exact shutter speed to use will depend on the speed of your moving subject, lighting situation, and other factors. Try experimenting at different speeds, from 1/15th, 1/50th, etc. 
  2. Control your Exposure. Slowing down the shutter speed means you’re at a risk of overexposing your photos. You want to find the right balance between shutter speed and lighting to capture the perfect motion blur effect. 
  3. Use a Tripod. Most of the time, you don’t want the entire shot to be blurry. Therefore, you’ll want to stabilize the camera so that way a few elements (or the main subject) of your shot is in complete focus.



Freezing the Moment

Other times, you’ll want to freeze the motion by using a much faster shutter speed. Maybe you want to photograph a star athlete making the goal or capture a helicopter landing. That’s where shutter speed comes in very handy. You’ll usually want to set your shutter speed to at least 1/250th depending on the speed of your subject.

For example, if you’re capturing a helicopter landing, you’ll want to use a shutter speed of 1/1000th or higher. If you’re shooting an athlete jogging on a field, however, you could probably get away with 1/250th shutter speed. After experimenting with different speeds, you will be able to gauge which number is appropriate for your subject and situation.

Keep in mind that when you increase shutter speed, you’ll need to correct the exposure by increasing ISO or opening your aperture so more light can enter your sensor.

Long Exposure

Long Exposure Photography can produce dramatic and stunning images that your eyes cannot see. It is mainly used in landscape photography. Next time you see a marvelous star trail photo, or a buzzing car trail nighttime shot, that was most likely captured using the long exposure technique. Read on for helpful tips on how you can get incredible photos using the right shutter speed for long exposure photography:

  1. Avoid Camera Shake and Any Vibration. Find a stable spot to secure your camera, and use a sturdy tripod to reduce any kind of vibration. Many photographers use a remote shutter release for the most crisp, blur-free shots. This is especially crucial when you are using a macro, or telephoto lens as it magnifies the blurred motion blur.
  2. Choose the Correct Shutter Speed. Long exposure photography usually requires a shutter speed between 1-30 seconds. This will heavily depend on what style you’re going for and the setting. Make sure your aperture is set to a smaller number, typically between f/11-f/32 for maximum sharpness throughout the image. You may also set your camera setting to “Bulb” mode, which opens the shutter for as long as you’d like.

We hope these tips help you to gain a better understanding of shutter speed and how it can create movement and interest in your photos. Not only can it help improve your overall photography skills, but also opens new opportunities for developing your creativity and visual style. Be sure to comment below your thoughts on shutter speed, and your experience working with different speeds.

5 COMMENTS

  1. i don’t actually understand it!!
    are you saying that for higher shutter speeds,the blur less images will be made and for lower shutter speeds,the blur less videos will be made??!!!

  2. When light is plentiful it’s great to capture a still shot with a fast shutter speed. The problem is that the aperture can only open so big (especially on cheaper lenses). So it comes down to getting more lighting if you want to have good exposure and a quick shutter speed.

  3. You’ve talked about the (negative) effect a long exsposure time can have. Are there any negative effects to having a very short exsposure time, such as underlighting? (Which I assume can be corrected with aperture settings).

    Great site by the way 😀

  4. Hi,

    I just found this site and it is great!! All the courses online cost hundreds, and this answered my basic questions in 5 minutes. Thanks so much for such a great site!!

    Cheers and happy holidays,

    Mike

  5. There is more to shutter speed than keeping an image from blurring. Using a slow shutter speed for long exposure times can be used to good effect to add blur to a scene in order to give the sense of movement. Long exposure times are often used with the waterfall example you to show the movement of the falling water. Taking a photo of a moving object against a fixed background, or visa versa, can also give the viewer the sensation of speed in a photograph.

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