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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 can you use it to create stunning photos?

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. You’ll also be prepared to capture interesting artistic effects (such as 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 different (and importance) 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 let’s dive right in!

What is shutter speed?

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 (i.e., the shutter speed), then the shutter closes and the image is complete.

When the shutter is open, light hits the camera sensor; therefore, the longer the shutter speed, the more light the sensor receives. 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:

  • 10s
  • 1s
  • 1/10s
  • 1/30s
  • 1/60s
  • 1/125s
  • 1/250s
  • 1/500s
  • 1/1000s
  • 1/1600s
  • 1/2000s

The list begins with a length 10-second shutter speed, but the shutter speeds get shorter and shorter, ending with a lightning-fast 1/2000s shutter speed.

Note that the shutter speed measurements listed above certainly aren’t comprehensive. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras let you select from 30-second shutter speeds all the way down to 1/4000s or 1/8000s, though you may also have access to a special mode – called Bulb mode – that lets you keep the shutter button open for your desired length of time.

Therefore, while most cameras offer several dozen basic shutter speed options (shutter speed presets, if you will), there are literally thousands of possible shutter speeds you can use, all of which expose the camera sensor to slightly different quantities of light. Make sense?

How shutter speed affects your photos

Shutter speed impacts your images in two key ways:

  1. It increases and decreases exposure (i.e., image brightness)
  2. It increases and decreases sharpness (i.e., image detail)

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 1/1000s, then you lower the shutter speed to 1s, your second image – with its 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. In other words, 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 object. 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 your shutter speed value. Always make sure it’s fast 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 mode, 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 independently select your aperture and ISO).

If you use Shutter Priority mode, you can select the shutter speed and the ISO, while your camera will select the aperture for the optimal exposure (based on its evaluation of the scene).

If you use Aperture Priority mode, you can select the aperture and ISO, while your camera will select the shutter speed for an optimal exposure (again, based on its evaluation of the scene).

Different camera 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 slower 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 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. It’s commonly used to create long-exposure images in bright conditions.

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

What shutter speed is best? Basic recommendations

Now that you’re familiar with the ins and outs of selecting a shutter speed, I’d like to share a few basic recommendations for selecting the right shutter speed. These recommendations won’t always work, but they should certainly offer you a good starting point when adjusting your camera settings.

The best shutter speeds for landscape photography

Landscape photographers generally have two shutter-related goals:

  1. Get the image sharp from foreground to background
  2. Create artistic motion blur in moving water and clouds

Now, foreground-to-background sharpness refers to a deep depth of field. And while this isn’t directly related to shutter speed, the longer the shutter speed, the easier it becomes to achieve a deep depth of field.

(Why? The depth of field is controlled by the aperture – and lengthier shutter speeds allow you to adjust the aperture without underexposing the scene.)

Plus, as I explained in a previous section, if you want artistic motion blur, you need to lengthen the shutter speed.

Bottom line: Landscape photography thrives on long exposures. Most landscape photographers shoot at 1s to 1/200s in bright daylight, and as the light falls, the shutter speeds slow. Many landscape shooters work at 1/30s to 30s (or more) around sunrise, sunset, and at night.

Such lengthy shutter speeds are only possible with a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod, then it’s often best to drop your shutter speed as low as you can go without creating camera shake (often around 1/60s or so).

The best shutter speeds for portrait photography

Portrait photographers can be pretty flexible when choosing shutter speeds. The key goal is to keep your shots sharp – by avoiding camera shake as well as motion blur – but because you can generally instruct your subject and work from a stable position, this shouldn’t be too tough.

If you’re shooting a stationary subject, feel free to drop your shutter speed to around 1/80s or so (though 1/200s is safer).

And if you’re shooting a moving subject, such as a person dancing, I’d recommend working at 1/500s and beyond.

The best shutter speeds for wildlife and bird photography

Bird and wildlife photography generally involves capturing fast-moving subjects with long lenses.

Therefore, you should generally use the fastest shutter speed you can get away with. For slower-moving animals, 1/500s is a reasonable starting point (and you can go lower if the animal is completely stationary – just make sure you keep your lens on a tripod or handheld as stably as possible).

For fast-moving animals and birds, 1/1000s is the place to start. And when action is occurring, I’d really recommend pushing your shutter speed to 1/2000s and beyond.

The best shutter speeds for street photography

Street photographers tend to be less concerned with sharpness than other shooters, so your choice of shutter speed isn’t nearly as important.

That said, if you’re walking while shooting and/or photographing walking people, 1/250s is a safe starting point. If both you and your subject are stationary, then you can often shoot at 1/100s or slower (assuming you’re using good handholding techniques and relatively short lenses).

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!

What is the best shutter speed?

Fast-moving subjects shot with long lenses require a short shutter speed (such as 1/250s or higher). But you can get sharp shots of stationary subjects shot with short lenses at 1/60s to 1/200s. And if you have a tripod, you can go even slower!

What is the shutter speed in a camera?

The shutter speed refers to the length of time the shutter is open when you press the shutter button. The longer the shutter is open, the more light that hits the sensor, and the brighter the image becomes.

What is a fast shutter speed?

Shutter speeds around 1/1000s and above are fast, while shutter speeds in the 1/100s to 1/1000s range are average, and shutter speeds from 1/100s on down are slow.

Is a higher shutter speed better?

A higher shutter speed helps guarantee a sharp photo. However, if your subject isn’t moving, a high shutter speed can be overkill (and it will decrease the image exposure, which can be a problem). Also, a slower shutter speed can create artistic effects (such as blurry water).

What is a safe shutter speed?

A basic safe shutter speed is 1/250s, which will let you capture sharp shots of stationary and slow-moving subjects. But if you’re photographing cars driving, birds in flight, or other fast action, you’ll generally need to shoot at 1/1000s or above.

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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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