You find yourself standing at the edge of a bustling city street, camera in hand, ready to capture the world around you.
As you peer through the viewfinder, your eyes are drawn to the rush of people, the vibrant colors, and the fleeting moments of life unfolding before you.
But how do you freeze those moments in time? How do you control the very essence of motion within your photographs?
This is where shutter speed comes into play – a fundamental element of photography that empowers you to control time itself.
In this article, we will dive into the captivating world of shutter speed, unravel its secrets, and equip you with the knowledge to harness its power and unleash your creativity.
Let’s dive in!
What is Shutter Speed?
The shutter speed is the time needed for the shutter to open and close. Shutter speed is caused by the shutter of your camera, obviously. The shutter is essentially a curtain in front of your camera that will open and closes after you shoot.
When you input the shoot command, the shutter opens and exposes the camera’s sensor to the light originating from the lens.
The light comes in, and then the shutter closes afterward.
A fast shutter speed will only be 2000th of a second, making it capable of shooting fast objects. While slower shutter speeds will usually average the fractions of a second such as 1/2, 1/4, etc.
Oh and fun fact, the button to shoot is called the shutter. Just wanted to put it out there.
Why is Shutter Speed Important?
1. Exposure of an Image
Shutter speed can affect the exposure of an image since it controls how long the shutters are opened.
A slow shutter speed lets in a lot of light on the sensor of your camera, while a fast shutter speed does the opposite.
The longer the sensor is exposed to light, the brighter the image becomes. So let’s talk about the second function, motion blur.
2. Motion Blur
Taking photos of fast-moving objects such as a skydiving bird or vehicles speeding in your neighborhood is hard with a slow shutter speed.
Using slow shutter speeds will give your picture a trail of blur following the object, AKA the motion blur.
Motion blur gives off the impression that the object has impressive speed.
Remember the trail that Sonic the Hedgehog leaves when he runs? Well, motion blur looks like that.
Imagine if Sonic didn’t leave that trail behind, he would just look like your average running character. It just won’t look fast enough, the picture won’t give off a “fast” impression to its viewer
Although, you could also make a moving object look like a ghost (which requires an even slower shutter speed).
Fast shutter speeds can capture your object in its track. It gets rid of the unwanted motion blur and gives the impression that you just stopped time.
You could call it “freeze mode” for obvious reasons. The sheer speed of the shutter speed can freeze droplets coming out of a waterfall or rain. All of that while keeping the details extra sharp.
This is the part when I give you the “shocking” fact that you must balance the shutter speed with the two other settings. Although it shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve already read a few articles or already done photography.
How to Change Shutter Speed?
However, since we are aspiring professional photographers, we should use manual mode instead.
Putting your camera into manual mode gives you access to select both shutter speed and aperture.
But, jumping straight into manual mode might be a little too advanced. If you are still learning the ropes, I recommend using the “Shutter Priority Mode.”
Setting your camera into shutter priority mode allows you to choose the shutter speed. But, the camera will automatically select the appropriate aperture.
Both of these modes will still give you the ability to set the ISO either automatically or manually.
Most photographers are fine with using aperture priority mode, it’s automatic and makes things a bit easier. The aperture priority mode will automatically set the shutter speed, while you are given the controls to manually set the aperture.
If you find yourself introducing too much motion blur, progressively increase the ISO while choosing a faster shutter speed.
What is a Slow Shutter Speed?
A slow shutter speed is generally around a fraction of a second. Slow shutter speeds include the ½, ¼, etc.
This is not to be confused with a long shutter speed. Long shutter speeds have durations of around a second and above.
Since the smaller apertures commonly used in landscape photography don’t let in much light, photographers will tend to rely on shutter speed more.
The longer your shutter speed is, the more light it will let in.
Shutter speeds slower than 1/125 will require you to use a tripod, as shooting handheld will cause motion blur and increase rolling shutter effects.
To give you a reference of how the motion blur increases throughout the long shutter speed I made a little list:
This speed is optimal for panning photography in lowlight conditions.
This speed is the lowest you can go with panning photography. Moving your
camera at this speed will introduce too much blur.
Starting from this speed and onward, you should start using a tripod for your
camera. The movement will start to blur ever so slightly.
This shutter speed will start to capture the motion blur in the water.
Photos in the scene will start to emit motion blur. Giving off the perfect
amount of motion blur, making it hard to see whether it’s accidental or not.
A more intense motion blur, making flowing water appear as if it’s a mist.
This shutter speed is commonly used for twilight photography. There might
not be much light for your exposure, but you can use a flash for some extra
Above 1 second
Longer shutter speeds above 1 second will start reigning into night
Exposures that last over more than 30 seconds can be manually controlled using the shutter release. This is also called “Bulb Mode,” which is often used in astrophotography.
To further explore the subject of slow shutter speeds and see some of the things you can do with it, check out this in-depth video by Mike Smith:
What is a Fast Shutter Speed?
Fast shutter speed is often known for its time-freezing capabilities.
Photographers will typically refer to the smaller fractions of a second, around 1/250 and faster.
The main goal of a fast shutter speed is to reduce motion blur as much as it can. Since different objects move at various speeds, the speed of your shutter speed might need some adjustments.
Here is my little cheat sheet for fast shutter speeds and their function:
Optimal at freezing subjects without needing to think too much about focal
length and motion blur. I usually start here before changing my shutter speed.
Starts freezing fast-moving civilians, cyclists, and runners.
Does a great job at shooting fast-moving cars, motorcycles, and other
This shutter speed does fantastic work in shooting a bird in mid-air. Different
birds will flap their wings faster if they do switch to the even faster shutter
Perfect at capturing high-speed objects. A bursting water balloon, a soccer
ball flying mid-air, and those similar to it.
Do keep in mind that this is a reference sheet that I use. This does work as a general guideline for what shutter speed to use in certain situations but always adjust on the go.
To further explore the subject of fast shutter speeds and see some of the things you can do with it, check out this in-depth video by Nick Stubbs:
What is the Best Shutter Speed to Use?
There is no such thing as a perfect/best shutter speed. Everything really boils down to your goals and objectives.
Each shutter speed shines in its own way. For example, mainstream landscape and portrait photography will generally use different speeds because of their TPO (Time, Place, and Occasion).
You will rarely come across portrait photographs that use a shutter speed of 1/4000. The fast 1/4000 is commonly used for taking images of people running or dancing.
Portrait photography rarely takes photos using the concept of the subject doing their work. Usually, their themes would either be suit and tie or smart casual.
On the other side, landscape photographers will opt for the slower shutter speed. They will usually choose slow to long shutter speeds since they use a small aperture and sharp details.
What is a Normal Shutter Speed?
Maybe you’re wondering what shutter speed you can easily use as a rule of thumb. For that matter, most photographers don’t use a shutter speed that exceeds the lens’ focal length.
This means, that if you use a 200mm lens you shouldn’t be using a shutter speed slower than 1/200 for a sharper image.
Well, various websites say that the average shutter speed will usually be around 1/60. Which in my opinion, is quite slow and produces too much motion blur.
It still is a viable option if your subject and their surroundings will only produce the slightest movement
Although I should be suggesting that your shutter speed should be equal to the lens’ focal length or faster. It won’t particularly translate into normal shutter speed.
Because in its essence the word normal means average. The problem is that each field of photography has its own “normal” shutter speed:
- Normally, photographers that shoot fast-moving subjects will use a fast shutter speed.
- On the contrary, photographers who shoot still objects and subjects will use a slow shutter speed.
- For photographers who want to take pictures in the dark or pictures of stars, they will normally use a long shutter speed (more than a second).
Always remember to adjust your settings on the fly. The more situations that you shoot/practice in, the faster you can start adjusting the shutter speed.
What is Shutter Speed Measured In?
Your common shutter speed is often measured in fractions of a second.
So the 1/2000 shutter speed is read as one-two-thousand of a second, which is faster than a millisecond.
For shutter speeds starting from a second and above, there are two possibilities. Either your camera doesn’t add any symbols and just displays the number or it uses a quote (“).
The straight/typewriter/ASCII quotation marks (“) serve as the symbol for “seconds”.
Common entry-level DSLR cameras can use shutter speeds up to 1/4000. Higher-level DSLRs are capable of an even faster shutter speed, reaching 1/8000th of a second.
The fastest shutter speed of all time is held by The Steam (Serial Time-Encoded Amplified iMaging) camera, with a whopping 440 trillionths of a second. But this camera relies on laser pulses and not a physical shutter.
It’s pretty crazy, if you want to check this thing out here you go:
If you are a landscape photographer wanting a longer shutter speed. Use the Bulb shooting mode and adjust the shutter speed for 5 to 30 seconds. It’s recommended to use a tripod and a self-timer/external remote triggers to avoid possible blurring.
- Neutral Density (ND) Filters (Optional)
- Light Meter (Optional)
- Camera Bag
- Understand Shutter Speed: Familiarize yourself with the concept of shutter speed and its effect on your photographs. Shutter speed refers to the length of time the camera's shutter remains open, determining the duration of light hitting the camera sensor. A faster shutter speed freezes motion, while a slower shutter speed captures motion blur.
- Determine Your Subject and Intent: Identify your subject and the desired effect you want to achieve. Decide whether you want to freeze action, capture motion blur, or achieve a balance between the two. This will guide your selection of the appropriate shutter speed for the situation.
- Assess Available Light: Consider the lighting conditions and the amount of light available in your scene. In well-lit environments, you can use faster shutter speeds to freeze motion. In low-light situations, you may need to decrease the shutter speed or use additional lighting to maintain proper exposure.
- Use a Tripod or Image Stabilization: For slower shutter speeds, it's crucial to minimize camera shake. Use a tripod or other stabilization techniques to ensure the camera remains steady during the exposure. This helps prevent unwanted blur caused by shaky hands or vibrations.
- Experiment and Adjust: Start with the recommended shutter speed settings based on your subject and lighting conditions. Take test shots and review the results. If the images are too blurry or not freezing motion as desired, increase the shutter speed. If the images appear too static, try slowing down the shutter speed to introduce motion blur. Continually review and adjust your settings until you achieve the desired effect.
To recap on “what is shutter speed”, let’s start with the shutter speed definition:
- Shutter speed is the time needed for your stutter to open and close.
- A longer shutter speed allows more light in but also makes moving objects appear blurry.
- You can easily change the shutter speeds by choosing it in the menu itself or going into aperture priority mode. This makes the camera select the shutter speed automatically.
- The best shutter speed doesn’t exist. Despite this, you can still choose the optimal shutter speed which follows this formula. Optimal shutter speed = 1/ focal length or higher.
- Some websites use 1/60 as the average shutter speed. In my opinion, 1/250 would be much more useful.
- For a little reminder, only shutter speed and aperture affect exposure. While ISO doesn’t count as affecting the aperture.
That should be it! Shutter speed should always be adjusted based on your theme and subject. The more hours you put into learning and practical usage of shutter speed, the faster you’ll understand it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do photographers use shutter speed?
Photographers use shutter speed to control the amount of time the camera’s shutter remains open, determining how long the sensor is exposed to light. By adjusting the shutter speed, photographers can freeze fast-moving subjects with a faster shutter speed or create motion blur with a slower shutter speed, allowing for creative expression and capturing the desired effect in their images.
Does faster shutter speed give sharper image?
In general, faster shutter speeds tend to result in sharper images when photographing moving subjects or handheld shots. A faster shutter speed helps to freeze motion and minimize the effects of camera shake, reducing the likelihood of blur and producing sharper, more defined details in the image.
What happens when you don’t use a fast enough shutter speed?
When you don’t use a fast enough shutter speed, you risk capturing motion blur in your images. Moving subjects or camera shake can cause blurriness or a lack of sharpness, resulting in a loss of detail and a potentially undesirable effect, especially when you intend to freeze action or capture crisp, static scenes.
Nate Torres is an entrepreneur, growth marketer, and photographer and writes mostly on those topics. Nate runs his own professional photography business and photography blog called Nate Torres Photography. Nate enjoys learning about new digital marketing strategy and new ways to think creatively. He is also a photography speaker and author on Photofocus.