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Moving Toward Manual Settings: Understanding Shutter Speed (a beginner’s guide)

This post on Understanding Shutter Speed, written by Hawaii photographer Natalie Norton is a follow up post to Moving Toward Manual: Understanding Aperture. The posts are being written as a beginner’s guide to gaining confidence in using manual camera settings.

understanding shutter speed

Hello boys and girls, are we feeling confident that we’re understanding aperture and how it affects overall exposure and depth of field??! How’d the assignments go? Are you scratching your head right now thinking “what’s this sista talking about??” If you’re not quite up to speed on Aperture (fstop) and it’s role in exposure and/or if you’re not totally clear on depth of field, I suggest taking a quick peek at part one on understanding aperture before you jump into this weeks installment.

You’re so close to mastering manual settings I can just taste it! I know, exciting right?! Yeehaw. (Let’s just face it, no one knows how to spell that word. Not a soul. . . is it Yehaw? Yeeha? Yee Haw? Boo.)

Let’s review:

  • What is Exposure? NO PEEKING!!! Answer first and then read the answer below!

Exposure is basically the process of recording light onto your digital sensor (or film). It is the amount of light (Aperture) that is recorded over a specific amount of time (Shutter Speed). And that’s that. You with me so far?

  • What is Aperture? Again, NO CHEATING! Try to remember on your own and then look at the answer below.

Your Aperture, like the iris in your eye, “opens up” to let in more light or “closes down” to let in less. Your Aperture controls the Depth of Field in a photograph.

  • Which aperture (fstop) is going to let in more light? f2.8 or f4 Again, NO PEEKING!

f2.8 Remember the smaller the number the larger the “hole” and thus more light entering the camera to be recorded by your digital sensor.

  • What is Depth of Field? Cheaters never prosper. The end.

The depth of field is basically the part of the image that is in focus in any given image. If the entire image is crisp and in focus, then the image has a large (deep) depth of field. If there is a lot of fall off, meaning that only a small portion of the image is in focus while the remainder is blurry, then the image has a very shallow depth of field.

How did you do? You really need a 3 out of 3 to be ready to move on. We’re not going in to depth on exposure, aperture or depth of field, because like I said we covered those last week. if you’re confused in any way shape or form, don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to start here. Go back and read Moving Toward Manual: Understanding Aperture. It’s important that you have a foundation before we move along. Off you go. If you are in fact up to par and ready to move on, it’s time to get this party started!


1. What is Shutter Speed?

In the most basic terms possible, shutter speed controls the ability to demonstrate or stop motion in a photograph. It is the MOMENT that light is exposed (recorded) on your digital sensor (or film) and the length of the exposure. Simple, no? NO? Ok: it is the amount of time your shutter stays open when you click the button thingie. 🙂 Shazaam. That’s it.

Shutter speed is set by fractions of a second as follows:


So if you’re set at 1/1000 of a second, then your shutter will obviously be open for less time than if your shutter speed was set at 1 full second.

2. Why Does Shutter Speed Affect Motion in a Photograph?

The longer your shutter stays open the more motion it will have time to record.


Image Credit: Jonathan Canlas

The shorter the time your shutter remains open, the more motion it will freeze. Kapishe? Kapishe.

stop-motion.pngImage Credit: my man, Richie Norton

3. How do Aperture and Shutter Speed Work Together?

Well shutter speed determines the amount of TIME your camera’s shutter remains open, but if there was no OPENING allowing for light to enter and hit the sensor, then you would have no image. . . just black. The aperture determines (based on how widely it’s open) the AMOUNT of light that is let in within the amount of time determined by the shutter speed. Read it again and give it a second to sink in. You with me? Ok.

4. Do I Need a Tripod When I’m Experimenting with Shutter Speed?

A general rule of thumb if you’re not a tripod lover (which I am NOT): most people can hand hold their camera without introducing camera shake at the shutter speed that corresponds with the focal length of the lens. So for example: if you have a 50mm lens, then you will most likely be able to handhold your camera at shutter speeds of 1/60 or faster. If it’s a 200mm lens then you’re going to need to remain at 1/250 or higher.

Get more tips on avoiding camera shake here.

Your assignment for this week, pop your camera on over to Shutter Priority and take 2 images of the same (or at least the same type) of moving object. For one image your goal is going to be to stop motion and for another it will be to SHOW motion. If you’re not clear on how Shutter Priority works: you put in the desired shutter speed, and the camera will select the appropriate aperture for the lighting conditions you’re in.

Happy shooting and good luck!

Stay tuned for the upcoming post on manual settings and ISO and another on how flash freezes motion. subscribe to Digital Photography School here so you don’t miss the next post in this series.

Want to learn more about Shutter Speed? Check out our previous post – an Introduction to Shutter Speed.

Natalie Norton, world renowned wedding and portrait photographer, resides on the North Shore of Oahu, HI. View more of her tutorials and samples of her work at www.natalienortonphoto.com.

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Natalie Norton
Natalie Norton

is a writer and a lifestyle wedding and portrait photographer who shoots across the globe. She is based off of the North Shore of Oahu and out of Gilbert, Arizona. Enjoy more of her photography and writing at www.natalienortonblog.com. You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

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