Camera Basics: Shutter Speed Explained (With Video)

By November 9, 2019 April 21st, 2020 Camera Basics, Photography

What is Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is a measure of how long the camera’s shutter stays open. The shutter is a barrier that controls the amount of light that reaches the sensor.

The longer the camera’s shutter stays open, the brighter the image will be.  Conversely, the shorter the shutter stays open, the darker the image will be. 

Shutter Speed Light Diagram

Let’s examine the images below. The photos below were taken with two different shutter speeds while holding the other settings constant.

I shot the image on the left with a shutter speed of 2 seconds, while I shot the image on the right with a shutter speed of only 10 seconds. Notice that the picture on the right, in which the shutter remained open longer, is brighter compared to than the one on the left.

Slow Shutter Speed vs Fast Shutter Speed Illustration

Shutter Speed Settings

In general, shutter speeds have a range of different speeds, from 1/4000th of a second to 30 seconds.

Shutter speeds below one second are measured in fractions. That is, if you set your shutter speed to 25, the camera’s shutter will be open for 1/25th of a second, or 0.005 seconds. 

Once the shutter speed reaches one second, the measurement value changes from fractions to whole numbers. For most cameras, these values are indicated by a quotation sign. So, if you set your shutter speed to 25”, that means your shutter will stay open for exactly 25 seconds.

After 30 seconds your shutter speed will turn into bulb mode or B. In this setting, the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold down the shutter release button.

The choice of shutter speed will often depend on your subject and the lighting conditions around you. 

For instance, shooting at night, with reduced ambient lighting, requires slower shutter speeds to capture more light. While shooting wildlife requires fast shutter speeds to freeze motion and eliminate blur.

You can adjust your shutter speeds to be fast or slow depending on the visual story you’re trying to tell. 

How To Set Your Shutter Speed 

On most cameras, you can adjust the shutter speed using a dial on near your right hand. You can also find the shutter speed on the main LCD screen at the front of a camera. 

Front LCD - Shutter Speed Location

Shutter Priority vs Manual Mode

You can adjust your shutter speed by setting your camera to either  Manual (M) or Shutter Priority (S or SV). For all the other cameras modes such as program, automatic, and aperture priority your camera will set your shutter speed for you. 

Shutter Priority

In this mode, you manually set the camera’s shutter speed, and ISO and the camera will choose the right aperture for optimal exposure. Use the Shutter Priority mode when you want to control the way motion is captured in the image.

If you want to freeze movement, choose a fast shutter speed; to create motion blur, go instead for slower shutter speeds.

In shutter priority mode, you can sometimes end up with an underexposed or overexposed image. This will depend on the limitations of your camera and the amount of ambient light available to the scene.

Once you set the shutter speed to a certain number, your camera will pick the best aperture available to go with that shutter speed. The realized exposure will be limited to the aperture range of your camera.

For example, if your camera lens has a maximum aperture of f/4.0, it will have to shoot at that aperture. This is true even in cases where you’ll need a higher aperture, say an aperture of f/2.8, to get the proper exposure. The camera won’t be able to use an aperture lower than f/4.0, which will result in an underexposed image.

The good news is, most of the time, you can get around these limitations by choosing a higher ISO. Doing so will make your sensor more responsive to light and correct underexposure.

Manual Mode

The manual mode gives you full control over your exposure settings. In this mode, the camera lets you choose the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. 

Even though some photographers will consider this mode to be the best for creative expression, it’s not recommended if you’re starting so out. You’ll need experience and a good understanding of the camera settings before you can begin to utilize this mode effectively.

Nonetheless, there are specific instances when this mode will be your best option.

For example, photographers often deliberately underexpose or overexpose their images to create a certain aesthetic. In this case, using manual mode will be a great choice. Using manual mode is also the easiest when you are particular about the shutter speed and aperture you want to use. This is often true in night photography.

Despite being relatively complicated and even intimidating to shoot in manual mode, you cannot wholly escape it if you’re going to be a diligent photographer.

Shutter Speed and Camera Shake

Camera shake occurs when you are shooting handheld with slower shutter speeds. In this setting, the small movements in your hands are exaggerated and captured by your camera.

Camera shake causes an image to lack sharpness and appears blurry. To avoid camera shake, a common rule of thumb is not to use shutter speeds slower than 1 divided your focal length.

That is, if you are using a 50mm lens, you should not use a shutter speed slower than 1/50 of a second to avoid camera shake.

This rule of thumb does not always hold when you are using long focal lengths, crop-frame cameras, or lenses with image stabilization.

Remember to use fast shutter speeds when shooting handheld to avoid camera shake. If you need to use long shutter speeds, use a tripod to stabilize your camera.

Detailed Guide for Hanheld Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed and Motion

Shutter Speed Motion Diagram

Using fast shutter speeds can completely immobilize a subject, freezing them in place. This option allows you to capture crisp detail that would otherwise be impossible to see with the naked eye. 

Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, Single bird diving for fish

Using slow shutter speeds, on the other hand, serves to record motion and leave blurred lines across the photo. Slow shutter speed means your camera’s shutter is open longer. This enables the camera to capture a moving object in multiple positions across the frame.

Bird Flying, Blurry Image, Slow Shutter Speed

It’s important to remember that when shooting handheld (that is, without the use of a tripod), a shutter speed setting below 1/60 seconds will often result in motion blur. Slow shutter speeds also result in a blur if your subject(s) are moving such as the example image above. 

To avoid this, aim not to go any lower than 1 divided by your focal length when shooting handheld.

For instance, if you’re using a 50mm lens, do not use shutter speeds below 1/50th of a second to avoid camera shake and a blurry image.

The Trade-Off

The appropriate shutter speed setting to use in a given situation depends on three main components:

  1. Your choice of subject.
  2. The effect you’re trying to create in your image.
  3. The amount of light available around you. 

Using fast shutter speeds are best for capturing moving subjects in crisp detail. You’ll typically see fast shutter speeds used in wildlife and sports photography.

Slow shutter speeds are ideal for generating creative blurs, such as recording the movement of water or trails of light. 

Slow shutter speeds are also best when taking photos in low-light conditions to reach proper exposure.

You’ll often find slow shutter speed settings used in landscape, architecture, and astrophotography.

When choosing your shutter speed, remember the trade-off between exposure and motion blur.

To freeze motion without compromising exposure and focus,  you’ll need to use one of the other elements of exposure – ISO. 

Camera Modes Table


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