The Impact of Shutter Speed on Images [Case Study]

The Impact of Shutter Speed on Images [Case Study]


In this post Lyndzee Ellsworth (see their blog at shares some images from a shoot to show what impact shutter speed can have on images.

Do you ever get confused with all of the different functions on your digital camera? What about at night? Don’t worry you’re not alone. In this post I show you how experimenting with shutter speed impacted taking a shot of Downtown San Diego at night.

I’ve got four photographs of Downtown San Diego and have varied the shutter speed on each so that the shutter stays open a little less each time. I kept the ISO at 100 to keep the noise level at a minimum, which is crucial in night photography to allow the optimal amount of color and darkness at the same time. I kept the aperture at F/5 through all of the photos because at F/5 your lens is still wide open enough to get a good amount of natural light.

Starting with the first photo, I set the shutter speed for a 15 sec exposure (which on your camera should look like 15”). With the shutter open for 15 seconds, all of the light that the lens can capture in that 15 seconds is recorded and processed. By the photo below you can tell that 15 seconds was too much, so I changed it to 10, then 8 and then finally landed on 5 seconds to achieve what in my eye was the best shot.

San Diego-1 copy.jpg

San Diego-2 copy.jpg

San Diego-3 copy.jpg

San Diego-4 copy.jpg

These differences were achievable by only changing the shutter speed. Please look further on the DPS archives for more understanding of aperture, ISO and shutter speed to see how these elements work together.

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Some Older Comments

  • Eric Aker March 5, 2013 09:00 am

    One trick to add on long exposures: When you trip the shutter there is some vibration in the camera. Put a "Black Hat" in front of the camera, open the shutter, wait 3 seconds for the vibration to die out, remove the hat and count your time (5, 10, 15 seconds), move the "Black Hat" in front of the camera, then close the shutter.

  • bianto February 3, 2012 10:59 am

    Find instresting and giving a good basic skill to keep the ISO 0n 100 for this kind of shots. But, most of the time the object is moving i.e making a potrait with a background like this. What kind of set up do I need in avoiding the persons face not become too dark?

  • DMC FZ40 PANASONIC user April 28, 2011 11:56 pm

    i will try to send back the picture ive taken just a few weeks ago...

  • DMC FZ40 PANASONIC user April 28, 2011 11:51 pm

    i have tried this taking pictures in low lights but i got my best shoot in 30 seconds...very nice tutorial it help me a lot..

  • Bwanachana February 25, 2011 03:33 pm

    I'll go with 10 sec. where the sky is not pitch black. Good exercise.

  • Meerzography April 1, 2010 05:48 pm

    I LOVE the idea of case studies, thanks a lot, it makes learning much easier!

  • Tosi March 22, 2010 09:30 pm

    nice post, nice blog! :)

  • Andrew October 24, 2009 05:03 pm

    Comments about this not being about shutter speed but more about exposure are true, but this case study is a really good practical example to people new to manual of how shutter speed can affect the overall exposure (motion or not). It is important to catch this concept, so it can be at the forefront of your mind when setting up for a shot somewhere else. So yes it is about exposure overall, but this show the impact it can have on exposure. Remember the obvious negatives of slow shutter speeds being where there is motion there is blur.

  • Yurii August 28, 2009 05:06 am

    I could not see if the tripod was used while making the perfect pix like those.

  • Edwin Barreto July 24, 2009 01:30 am

    I just want to thank you for practical, fun to understand information on how shutter speed works.

  • Toby February 13, 2009 03:46 am

    The aperture on these shots was probably a little off, but I was basically playing with shutter speeds on this series of shots of the airport in Nice, southern France. The point about adjusting aperture for correct exposure is absolutely correct though. When you get into using external flash too, the shutter speed has a huge impact on the amount of ambient light on the scene (whereas the aperture tends to manage the flash impact)

  • Nancy February 11, 2009 09:06 am

    Great illustrations showing the different effects with adjustments of in Shutter Speed, F-Stop and ISO. Most people have the misconception that a picture taken this time of evening would require a higher ISO.

  • matt February 9, 2009 12:44 pm

    While I suppose it was 'helpful' to some people, this really has more to do about exposure. If you were referring to the effects of shutter speed on the images, you should be adjusting the aperture as well. In these examples, you are not which changes the exposure on each of the images (as can clearly be seen in the blown highlights).
    So if you wanted to do this properly, you would have to adjust both shutter speed and aperture.
    I would also argue that keeping your lens wide open for night photography is completely unnecessary. Your camera should be attached to a stable tripod and you want your image to be sharp. Most lenses will be at their sharpest around F8-12 or so.

    Geez, since the new format it seems like all these tutorials are half-assed with terrible examples and arguably do more harm than good for newbies trying to learn proper techniques. It's a shame. I used to love this site when it first started a few years ago.

  • pirut February 9, 2009 11:17 am

    I did this too when I shot the better moon last time. Nice demo!

  • Harry Conte February 9, 2009 03:38 am

    I did a similiar shoot at Christmastime with our local County Court house. Not only was there a difference with each shutter speed but also with changes in the White Balance. Out of curiosity what white balance where you using?

  • Floriantanplan February 8, 2009 11:24 pm

    So what ?

    The only thing this post tells me is "if you expose longer, you get more light" ... This can be summarized in a Twitter post ... I see much more interesting points in the comments. Sorry but I'm used to seing more interesting posts in DPS.

    Anyway, the picture is nice at least ... :-)

  • Richard February 8, 2009 10:39 am

    Thanks everyone.. Thats what I thought it wasn't 100% sure.

  • Julieanne February 8, 2009 09:17 am

    Thanks for this case study, interesting and something I will hopefully use in the future for night photography!

  • Alejandro Z. February 8, 2009 04:38 am

    It'd be interesting to see how smaller apertures work on those shots. The 15 second shot is overexposed, but that could be fixed in other ways than changing shutter speed.

  • Paul Monaghan February 8, 2009 01:21 am

    a good demonstration :)..

    muti exposure is also another nice thing to do for these types of shots, because as well as getting more detail in the shadow area's and better highlights you can also take say 9 (on a k10d anyway) shots at 15seconds to give a total of 145s exposure without making the image any brighter but making the water look really smooth/dreamy.

  • Brian Miller February 8, 2009 01:00 am

    Your discussion was more about exposure than shutter speed. If you had changed the aperture as well as shutter speed, each of the exposures would have been a lot more equivalent, and we could really see the impact of shutter speed on night photography. I looked at the 15 second picture, and said to myself, the levels are all way too high! I could have produced the best one by adjusting the brightness and contrast of the 15 second exposure in post-processing.

    The shutter speed you use has a subtle impact on photos, which is what I was expecting this piece to be about. Instead, it was more about exposure. Trying to capture the motion of the water, the contrails of the jet, etc. are all reasons why you would shoot at 15 sec. and f11 or so, instead of 6 sec. and f5.

  • Bozo Tic February 7, 2009 11:35 pm

    Talking about favorite night shot, this one's my favorite I've ever come across:
    It almost doesn't look like night shot but supposedly it has been taken at midnight.

  • james February 7, 2009 07:34 pm


    The light strip in number 1 and 3 must be aircrafts on final approach. You see that the second trail is pulsating, like the navigation lights on an aircraft.

  • Jane February 7, 2009 07:33 pm

    This is a great case study. I often take a few different shutter speeds when I'm doing the same. The photo below of Parliament House was 12 seconds, and it just seemed the 'right' length for that particular shot!

  • MeiTeng February 7, 2009 07:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Len February 7, 2009 06:10 pm

    @aron: That's exactly the same that I thought first!

  • LYNDZEE February 7, 2009 04:51 pm

    Hi Richard!

    Good question. The line you're talking about in the background is an airplane taking off. The San Diego airport is on the bay to the left, so that explains the lines to the right.

    Aaron Brown,

    You are so amazingly right! My favorite shot of the night was taken at 15 seconds with a F/7

    check it out here:

  • Richard February 7, 2009 02:13 pm

    Ok I have a question. Wheres the line that looks like a contrail between the buildings in the background on the 10 sec and 6 sec pictures?
    These were all taken within about 2-1/2 minutes
    15 second one 1/14/2009 at 12:58:09
    10 second one 1/14/2009 12:58:44
    8 second one 1/14/2009 12:59:45
    6 second one 1/14/2009 1:00:31

  • LisaNewton February 7, 2009 12:34 pm

    This is just what I needed. I haven't purchased a tripod yet, but by the end of the month, I'll be taking night photos. With a backdrop like LA, I can hardly wait.

    Thank you.........................:)

  • Fletch February 7, 2009 08:27 am

    Nice demo. Longer the shutter speed the brighter the shot. If only it were that simple all of the time but it only is if your subject is still and you have a tripod. The key is understanding the limits you need to work to depending on your situation and the photo you want to achive.


  • Aaron Brown February 7, 2009 08:19 am

    Nice demonstration. I'd also like to point out the differences that occur not only in the brightness of the shot, but with the level of reflection achieved in the water. At 15 seconds, the reflection looks a lot smoother, yet more "foggy". At 6 seconds, you see a bit more water texture. I think I would like this shot best if you took it at ~20 seconds at f/10 - this would give you that smooth foggy reflection combined with the exposure you preferred.