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

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

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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 You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • sam April 11, 2013 11:56 am

    Hi when photographing weddings I masks home made and at that time I used a mamiya 645 medium format and my flash was a metz c t 60 and I was always asked to do double exposures of the bride and groom in brandy glass having to use a mamiya hood . Can I get a lens hood that is is built on a short rail I have looked with no results can you help in this


  • cornell December 25, 2012 04:37 am

    This guide is very well organized and couldn't have been written any better for an amateur photography like myself. Thank you.

  • Paul May 3, 2012 10:33 am

    I like the simple, yet colorful way you (Natalie) put things. I am learning a lot and finding (dare I say) the courage to think outside the box, so to speak, and venture into the manual settings of my Rebel. I was thinking that an article discussing the pros, cons and programming specifics of various settings like Portrait and Landscape would be cool. Does that exist? I have toyed around with them a little. Thanks.

  • Lisa December 30, 2011 02:33 pm

    Recently purchased canon sx40 powershot, any recommendations for getting great shots!

  • Tenkan November 1, 2011 07:56 pm

    Thanks for this little explanation. You're good at summarizing and making things simple for uni students like me to read in the library before a test. ^_^

  • Missy October 8, 2011 03:25 am

    Thank you for the information! I've been experimenting with manual settings. I shoot a lot of football and baseball and have gotten some awesome shots with motion stopped - however it was quite by accident! Now I'm understanding how it all comes together!

  • Rohit Ghogale July 28, 2010 05:47 pm

    Great guide as usual!
    I rarely use shutter priority, I mostly just use Aperature priority or full out Manual.
    Thanks for these guides,
    it’s always good for a refreasher now and then!!

  • mariah April 28, 2010 11:15 pm

    I just want to say thank you sooo much for this info. I have been a photography student for about 2 years and im ashamed to say that i still didnt have a full understanding of shutter speed and aperature and how they compensate for each other until i read're the best!

  • julie December 31, 2009 05:01 am

    Wow...I get it now! That was easy, you totally rock. PS, been stalking your blog, love it!

  • Nathan December 30, 2009 02:40 am

    Good advice but amidst the mewling praises of being an "outstanding human being" I think the writing would be easier to follow if thw writer slowed down and used a more considered style instead of the frenetic 'stream of conciousness' of this article.

    PS - It might be Yeehaw or yeehaa but it's not kapishe. Capisce?

  • eddiegovan October 24, 2009 08:12 am

    Thank you for the simple explanatory lessons.You are a saviour to the beginners in photography once again thank you very much

  • ken October 23, 2009 07:53 am

    Thank you Natalie.
    I have been shooting in auto for way to long> I recently have been hanging out with a lot of pro photogs (getting lessons on how to use my NikonD60.) I have spoken at length to at least 4 different guys on thses subjects, and never really grasped it. I read two of your posts and COMPLETELY understand what is going on.
    No more feeling like a moron. You are a truely great writer and outstanding human being.
    Thank you thank you thank you.

  • Myron September 16, 2009 05:55 pm

    Your posts are very easy to understand I just read your first post 15 minutes ago and I understand completley tahnlyou for making this easy for beggining photographers. Again, 17 year old boy lol

  • Kievgal September 12, 2009 06:12 am

    God BLESS you, Natalie! :-) for years I had a desire to learn how to shoot on manual settings, but every single time I picked up a manual or a book on phtography to read...I felt STUPID and left it alnoe time after timne...until now :-)
    My brain doesn't work the way "digital verbage" goes - you have made it easy to understand and, (yet another plus) I toned my tummy muscles from all the laughing I do while reading your posts. :-)
    Tremendous THANK you for taking time from your busy schedule to wite posts.

  • rubberslipper July 17, 2009 01:58 am

    zigwig have u tried taking your photos with flash?

  • johnny July 15, 2009 04:11 am

    Very well put > im enjoying this to much . moiveing right along YEEEHAAAAA!

  • AdelinaG May 30, 2009 04:38 am

    Thanks so much for making it simple. You put yourself in a beginners perspective and it helps.I love how you write too, as if your taking to your readers as friends.

  • Paulie April 13, 2009 08:56 pm

    These posts are great. Thanks Natalie. I have owned a Canon Powershot G9 and finally I can use the manual settings. Have noticed a massive improvement already.

  • Cheating Wife March 19, 2009 02:00 am

    Do you guys have a recommendation section, i'd like to suggest some stuff

  • Saiful January 9, 2009 02:08 am

    I want to become an excellent photographer. I did not performed any training on Photography. I use Cannon Power shoot A530.

    How can I show me excellent?
    Need your help, anyone excellent, please...

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  • John Johnson December 31, 2008 12:34 am

    It's whatever your current focal length is. If you're all the way wide, you should be fine to ~1/15. If you're zoomed all the way in, 1/250 or faster.

  • Muhammad Ali October 10, 2008 10:53 am

    If the lens is 18-200mm, the shutter speed will depend on whether you are zoomed in or not, right? Meaning if not using any zoom, a shutter speed of 1/18 sec or faster should be used to avoid shaking? Or will this still be considered a 200mm lens and speed of 1/250 sec should be used regardless of whether your are at the wide angle or the telephoto end of the zoom?

  • klbuley September 11, 2008 02:07 am

    This is wonderfully written! Its great, Natalie!!!

  • RacingGuy August 27, 2008 03:30 am

    zigwig - under the indoor conditions you describe, you might need a 'faster' lens or use a flash. A faster lens is one with a lower f-stop (wider aperature) to allow more light to enter the camera. Alternatively, a flash adds more light to the scene to allow your existing lens to do the job without cracking up the ISO. Don't give up!

  • zigwig August 19, 2008 04:03 pm

    thanks for the replies guys. i wanted to freeze a moving subject, which is why i was increasing shutter speed. but i am shooting indoors. it is still dark even when i increase ISO ( i was already at 1600 ISO!), even at my widest aperture. so i guess i should just accept that I cannot shoot great "frozen' shots too well indoors?

  • kristarella August 19, 2008 09:29 am

    bogart, that is the nature of "exposure". It's the amount of light you exposure your film or sensor to. So if the shutter is open for less time then less light is recorded.
    The two ways to compensate for that is to open the aperture (see Natalie's last post) or increase the ISO (essentially making the sensor more sensitive to the available light, Natalie said she'll write about that in the next post).

  • bogart August 19, 2008 09:21 am

    I have problem with the shutter speed when i shoot in the dark. The faster shutter speed the more lights it needs.

  • Jeremy August 18, 2008 02:18 pm

    hey zigwig,

    try taking control of the ISO and bumping it up a bit, maybe 400 to 800 just be careful how high you go before you get noise ect. I found that when using slower shutter speeds outdoors you generally need to bump ISO rite down as well.

  • Sunnyman August 18, 2008 09:41 am

    zigwig, you have to think of it this way:

    - what kind of effect do I want to create with this picture?
    with a slow shutter speed you may get some motion blur (depending on if the subject is moving, and how fast, like snail vs. Ferrari...)

    And if you prefer to "freeze" the motion, use a fast shutter speed (if the light is sufficient, that is).

    You say you get too dark pictures at fast shutter speeds. Well, the camera should WARN you if the light is insufficient, with some blinking red icon or something. Check the manual to figure out how that warning feature looks like on your camera!

    I have an article about shutter speed on my site, that may also be helpful:

  • kristarella August 18, 2008 08:41 am

    Great tips. The revision questions were really good.

    The ball-park figures for hand-held photography are good, but I think everyone should experiment with their own camera to see how steady they can keep it at slow speeds. I find that I can get down to about 1/15th without shaking (probably of a still subject, and maybe not as good with a larger lens).

  • zigwig August 16, 2008 03:55 pm

    sorry but am i the only one encountering a problem?

    i set my cam at TV mode (this is the shutter priority right?). ISO - Auto.

    when i take a photo at a slower shutter speed (anywhere between 1/4 to 1/200, true enough, i get a blurry photo, but well lit. so that part's great. i get that.

    but when i increase the shutter speed past 1/400, the images are already too dark to be of any use. i am shooting indoors. or should high shutter speeds past 1/250 be done OUTDOORS with maximum lighting? if so, does this mean i cannot take nice "frozen" pics of moving objects indoors?

  • Lynne Rogers August 16, 2008 02:24 pm

    You know, I've been reading reading reading and this is truely the one article that I have read and the information is actually making sense and staying! Thanks alot

  • Author: Natalie Norton August 16, 2008 08:07 am


    That's exactly the direction we're heading! Get this foundational stuff down and before you know it, you're going to be able to figure that stuff out all by yourself!!



  • Jeremy August 15, 2008 12:40 pm

    Great lesson, I really like using the shutter speed priority for water falls and rivers. Get some great shots with that.

    Will be great for lesson on ISO as well.

  • Rosh August 15, 2008 11:15 am

    Best definition for Aperture

    I've found my best simple definition for aperture is "the area of focus around the subject"


  • Jon August 15, 2008 10:05 am

    So now that we know about aperture and shutter speed and what effect they have on the pictures, it would be helpful to know what settings to use under specific situations. I think I have a good understanding of what these settings do, I just don't know what combination of them gives me the right result in any given situation. Is that just experience or is there some basic guide that I can use so that I have more confidence about using these more manual settings.

  • Deb August 15, 2008 08:32 am

    I am really liking your no nonsense approach to teaching us 'auto' shooters how to move beyond our comfort zones. I have only recently upgraded my digital camera to one with manual choices and the timing couldn't have been better.

    This might even inspire me to get out that old film SLR and revisit what it can do, it never did much but shoot on auto!

  • Bill August 15, 2008 06:23 am

    Great article. Remember to take into account your camera's crop factor when estimating the shutter speed required to avoid shake. For example with a crop factor of 1.5 and a lens of focal length 55mm, the effective focal length is 82mm so you should use a shutter speed faster than 1/82 sec to avoid blur.

  • Shelly August 15, 2008 05:55 am

    Excellent and easily understandable yet again. Thank you, Natalie for the great article!

  • Fernando August 15, 2008 02:50 am

    Great guide as usual!
    I rarely use shutter priority, I mostly just use Aperature priority or full out Manual. Dunno why really....
    Thanks for these guides, it's always good for a refreasher now and then!!

  • Antoni August 15, 2008 02:41 am

    Thks a lot Natalie.

    For the first time anybody explains easy to understand these concepts.

  • Stephanie August 15, 2008 02:21 am

    Yes, I get this! I love how you explain stuff, thank you! Can't wait to have you explain ISO and flash. (And, of course, how do you use aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all together to make awesome photographs!)


  • Karthick August 15, 2008 01:46 am

    Natalie is so cool!
    Thanks for the explanations Sistah!

  • taryn August 15, 2008 01:40 am

    thanks for part 2, natalie! it was very easy to understand.

  • AC August 15, 2008 01:39 am

    This is my favorite mode to shoot in personally. I think it makes for very interesting snaps. Also, people with stable hands and a good grip on the camera can use shutter speeds up to 1/5 quite easily. Once you pass that, a tripod helps a lot.

  • richard August 15, 2008 01:38 am

    SO CLEAR! Nice shots! THANK YOU!

    Pete: I LOVE the baseball idea! My 5 year old is about to start his first year in soccer. I think I'll try this with the ball and him running!

  • chaim August 15, 2008 01:27 am

    can you help with diamond photography please ?

  • Embassy Pro Books August 15, 2008 01:18 am

    This is great information, thanks for the part 2

  • Pete Langlois August 15, 2008 12:31 am

    I've used various shutter speeds when shooting my son's baseball games to get the ball to freeze or the bat to show motion blur.