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Shutter Speed in Photography: The Essential Guide

a guide to shutter speed in photography

What is shutter speed in photography, and how does it affect your images?

Shutter speed is a foundational photographic concept – one that every beginner photographer must master. Once you know how to use shutter speed, you’ll be able to capture sharp photos at will, and you’ll also be prepared to capture interesting creative effects (such as a gorgeous slow shutter speed blur).

In this article, I’m going to take you through all the shutter speed basics, including:

  • A simple definition of shutter speed
  • The effects that shutter speed has on your images
  • The value of slow versus fast shutter speeds
  • How to use different shutter speeds for outstanding results.

So if you’re ready to become a shutter speed photography expert…

…then read on!

What is shutter speed in photography? A simple definition

Shutter speed is the length of time the camera shutter is open while the camera takes a photo. You press the shutter button, the shutter opens for a predetermined time period, then the shutter closes and the image has been captured.

The longer the shutter is open, the more light that hits the camera sensor (or film, for analog shooters); this has various effects, as discussed in the next section.

Note that shutter speed is measured in seconds (or fractions of a second). Here are a few common shutter speeds:

  • 1/125s
  • 1/250s
  • 1/500s
  • 1/1000s
  • 1/1600s
  • 1/2000s

In fact, there are literally thousands of possible shutter speeds, all of which expose the camera sensor to slightly different quantities of light.

How shutter speed affects your photos

Shutter speed affects your images in a couple of key ways:

  1. It increases and decreases exposure
  2. It increases and decreases sharpness

Let’s take a look at each item in turn.

Shutter speed increases and decreases exposure

The longer the shutter speed, the more light that hits your camera sensor – and the brighter the image becomes.

So if you photograph a tree at 1/250s, then you drop the shutter speed to 1/60s, the second image, with the slower shutter speed, will be noticeably brighter.

This has major consequences. Much of photography is about achieving the proper brightness, or exposure, for a scene, and by adjusting the shutter speed, you can get different results. For this reason, shutter speed is one of the three camera exposure variables (along with aperture and ISO).

So when you’re out with your camera, you’ll need to adjust the shutter speed to achieve a nice, balanced exposure. The specifics will depend on the scene, but watch for blown-out highlights and clipped shadows (i.e., make sure you don’t over or underexpose so heavily that you lose information in the lightest or darkest parts of the photo).

Shutter speed increases and decreases sharpness

Faster shutter speeds freeze motion. Slower shutter speeds blur motion.

So if you’re photographing a bird in flight at 1/4000s, every feather will be crisp, even the flapping wings. But if you photograph that same bird at 1/15s, it will be an indecipherable blur.

Now, the shutter speed needed to freeze motion will change depending on the speed of the moving objects. A feather drifting through the air may require a 1/200s shutter speed for maximum sharpness, while a fast-moving car may require 1/2000s or more.

shutter speed surfer action image

A too-slow shutter speed is one of the main reasons why pictures come out blurry – so you should pay very close attention to this setting. Always make sure it’s high enough to get the results you’re after.

How to set the shutter speed on your camera

The precise shutter speed mechanisms vary from camera to camera – but changing the shutter speed is usually as simple as rotating a dial (to learn all the specifics, I recommend you check your camera manual).

Note that your ability to adjust the shutter speed will change depending on your camera mode.

If you use Auto, your camera will select the shutter speed for you, and you will have zero ability to make changes.

If you use Manual mode, you can dial in the shutter speed at will (and you can also select your aperture and ISO).

If you use Shutter Priority mode, you can select the shutter speed, while your camera will select the aperture for an optimal exposure.

If you use Aperture Priority mode, you can select the aperture, while your camera will select the shutter speed for an optimal exposure.

Different modes are good for different situations, so don’t just pick a mode and stick to it; instead, learn to adjust your mode dial depending on your photographic needs.

How to choose the perfect shutter speed: step by step

Struggling to pick the perfect shutter speed? You’re not alone.

But while selecting the best shutter speed for your shooting situation might seem hard, it’s actually easy – once you get the hang of it. Here’s the two-step process I recommend:

Step 1: Determine the lowest-possible shutter speed that will get you a sharp shot

Look at your scene. Ask yourself: Are any subjects moving? And if so, what shutter speed do I need to freeze them?

You’ll get better at determining the lowest-possible shutter speed over time, but at first, it will take a lot of trial and error. Here’s a list of minimum sharp shutter speeds to get you started:

  • Water flowing: 1/125s
  • People walking: 1/250s
  • People/animals running: 1/500s
  • Cars driving: 1/1000s
  • Birds flying: 1/2000s
fast shutter speed hummingbird with splashing water

Also note that, if your scene has zero movement, you cannot simply select whatever shutter speed you like. If you’re handholding your camera, then your hands will shake, and this will create blur – unless your shutter speed is fast enough.

The lowest-possible handheld shutter speed varies from person to person, plus it depends on your lens (longer lenses increase camera shake). And thanks to image stabilization technology, some cameras and lenses allow for unbelievably slow handheld shooting. But I’d recommend keeping the shutter speed above 1/60s or so for short lenses, and 1/160s or so for long lenses, at least until you’ve done some tests.

Of course, if you’re shooting a scene with no movement, you do have another option: you can shoot with a tripod. Assuming your tripod is sturdy, it really will let you drop your shutter speed as low as you like (which is how you can create beautiful moving water effects, as I discuss later in this article!).

Step 2: Boost your shutter speed (or adjust other variables) for the proper exposure

At this point, you should know your minimum shutter speed for a sharp shot. You shouldn’t drop below this speed – but you can always go above it, depending on your exposure needs.

If you’re in Manual mode, check your camera’s exposure bar (in the viewfinder). If the scene is overexposed, go ahead and boost the shutter speed.

If you’re in Shutter Priority mode, your camera will automatically select an aperture for a good exposure. But feel free to raise the shutter speed as long as your camera continues to choose an aperture you like.

On the other hand, if the scene is underexposed according to your camera’s exposure bar, you’ll need to change other camera settings to get the right exposure. Consider widening the aperture – but if this isn’t possible, you’ll need to raise the ISO.

Do not drop the shutter speed, however. Better to increase the ISO for a noisy image than to end up with unwanted blur.

And that’s it! To recap: Start by identifying your lowest-possible shutter speed for a sharp shot, then simply make tweaks for the optimal exposure.

That way, you get a crisp photo – with a balanced exposure, too.

Slow shutter speed photography

The advice I’ve given above is perfect for situations where you want to freeze a moving subject.

But what if a sharp shot isn’t your goal? What if, instead, you want to creatively blur your photo for a beautiful effect?

You see, blur isn’t always bad; it can communicate motion, plus it can look truly breathtaking, as in this waterfall shot:

waterfalls slow shutter speed

In deliberate motion-blur situations, you should set your camera to Manual mode, then dial in the exact shutter speed you’re after.

At this point, you should check your camera’s exposure bar and adjust the aperture and/or ISO for a good exposure.

Note that you definitely need a tripod for this type of long-exposure photography. Otherwise, the entire shot will blur!

Pro tip: If you’re struggling to get a slow enough shutter speed without overexposing the image, consider using a neutral density filter, which blocks out light and is perfect for long exposure shooting.

Alternatively, you can shoot in near darkness (either indoors or at night). That’s how this subway image was captured:

subway moving fast light trails

Shutter speed in photography: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re well equipped to create some gorgeous photos.

So head out with your camera and test out different shutter speeds. Get familiar with your options. And try the two-step process I outlined above!

Now over to you:

How do you plan to select your shutter speed from now on? Do you have any shutter speed tips? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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