Shutter speed is one of the three elements of the exposure triangle.
In this guide:
I’ll be covering everything you need to know about shutter speed including:
- The definition of shutter speed
- How shutter speed works
- The importance of shutter speed
- Common shutter speed values
- How to pick the correct shutter speed
Let’s dive right in.
If you’re more of a visual learner, watch the video I made on shutter speed:
Table of Contents
What is Shutter Speed in Photography?
Shutter speed refers to the length of time that the camera’s shutter remains open while taking a photograph.
The shutter itself is a mechanical or electronic component of your camera.
It controls the amount of light that enters the camera’s sensor or film.
The duration of the speed of the shutter is measured in fractions of a second such as 1/30, 1/125, or 1/500.
The larger the number, such as 1/500, then the faster the shutter speed, and vice versa.
This is because it’s measured in fractions of a second so the larger the number actually means less time, which means it’s faster.
How Shutter Speed Works
When you press the shutter button, the camera’s mirror flips up, allowing light to pass through the lens and reach your camera sensor or film.
The shutter then opens and remains open for the duration of the shutter speed that you set it to, allowing light to enter the camera.
Once the shutter speed is complete, the shutter closes, and the mirror flips back down, allowing you to see the image you have captured.
A faster shutter speed means that the shutter is open for a shorter amount of time, allowing less light to enter the camera and freezing motion:
On the other hand:
A slower shutter speed means that the shutter is open for a longer period, allowing more light to enter the camera.
Creating a motion blur effect:
Shutter Speed and the Exposure Triangle
It’s very important that you first understand shutter speed’s role within the exposure triangle.
As I’ve mentioned:
A faster shutter speed will allow less light into the camera and a slower shutter speed will allow more light to enter.
If you adjust the shutter speed, you can help to achieve a properly exposed image, avoiding underexposure or overexposure.
In order to achieve a well-exposed image, you need to balance the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
They all work together and if you adjust one, you’ll need to adjust the others.
If you increase your ISO setting it will make your camera more sensitive to light:
This will allow for a faster shutter speed and smaller aperture in a low-light situation such as concert or night photography.
Understanding the relationship between shutter speed and the exposure triangle is crucial to achieving a well-exposed image.
Why is Shutter Speed Important?
The importance of shutter speed can be seen within all niches of photography; from portrait photography to sports photography, to landscape photography.
1. Exposure Control
Exposure control is one of the most important reasons why shutter speed is important in photography.
The longer the shutter speed, the more light enters your camera, and the brighter the image will be.
The shorter the shutter speed, the less light enters your camera, and the darker the image will be.
By adjusting the shutter speed as well as aperture and ISO, you can achieve a properly exposed image.
2. Motion Control
Another crucial reason shutter speed is important in photography is because of motion control.
Using a fast shutter speed is ideal for capturing sharp and clear images of fast-moving subjects such as athletes, wildlife, or cars.
On the other hand:
A slow shutter speed can produce a motion blur effect that conveys a sense of movement or dynamism in your images.
When using shutter speed, just be wary of camera shake which is a result of a blurred or shaky image.
To avoid this, be sure to use a tripod or stabilizer.
3. Creative Effects
The third reason shutter speed is important in photography is because of the creative effects you can achieve.
I touched a bit on this in the previous section.
Shutter speed can be used creatively to achieve different effects that can add a unique and artistic touch to your images.
Some creative techniques that you can achieve with shutter speed include light trails, panning, and long exposures.
Light trails are created by using a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of lights, such as cars, trains, or fireworks.
By using a slow shutter speed, the camera captures the light as it moves through the scene, creating a trail of light that adds a dynamic and dramatic effect to your images.
Panning is another creative technique that involves following a moving subject with your camera while using a slow shutter speed.
By matching the speed of your subject and keeping it in focus, you can create a sharp subject against a blurred background which can convey a sense of motion and speed.
This technique is perfect when you are trying to capture runners, cyclists, cars, or anything else that is fast-moving.
Long exposures are created by using a slow shutter speed while capturing a scene over a prolonged period, typically several seconds or minutes.
Light trails, mentioned earlier, are an example of a long exposure image.
Other long-exposure images you can create include blurred water effects such as with the oceans, rivers, or waterfalls, star trails, nightscapes, etc.
How to Choose the Right Shutter Speed?
When it comes to photography and choosing the right exposure settings, there are lots of variables to take into account.
With that being said, here are my ten tips and questions you can ask yourself in order to choose the best shutter speed for your specific setting.
1. In-Motion or Static Subject
The first question is, what’s my subject? Is it in motion or static?
When considering this question, you’re essentially assessing whether the main focus of your photo is something that’s moving or something that’s stationary.
Subject in Motion:
If your subject is in motion, such as a running athlete, a flying bird, or a car on a road, you’ll need to use a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze the motion.
This means selecting a quicker shutter speed (e.g., 1/500 or faster) to capture the subject sharply without any blur.
A fast shutter speed will help you capture the subject at a specific moment in time, emphasizing its movement.
Since cars are in motion, I can either choose to freeze their motion with a fast shutter speed:
Or create a motion blur effect with a slower shutter speed:
On the other hand, if your subject is static, like a landscape, a building, or a portrait of a person posing, you have more flexibility in choosing your shutter speed.
You can opt for a slower shutter speed (e.g., 1/30 or slower) without worrying about motion blur, as long as you’re using a tripod or stabilizing your camera.
A slower shutter speed in this case allows more light to enter the camera and can result in a well-exposed image with more details.
If I wanted to photograph a building, since it’s a static subject, I can get away with using a slower shutter speed:
Just make sure to use a tripod, a stabilized surface, or have a stabilized photography stance.
2. Freeze Motion or Capture Motion Blur
The second question is, do you want to freeze the motion or capture motion blur?
The decision between freezing motion and capturing motion blur is a crucial creative choice in photography.
It revolves around how you want to portray movement in your images.
When you want to freeze motion, you use a fast shutter speed.
This means the camera’s shutter opens and closes very quickly, capturing a split-second moment in sharp detail.
This technique is great for capturing fast-moving subjects like sports, action shots, or anything that you want to show in a frozen, dynamic state.
A fast shutter speed eliminates motion blur, making the subject appear clear and crisp:
Capturing Motion Blur:
If you’re aiming to convey a sense of movement or dynamism in your photo, you’ll intentionally use a slower shutter speed.
With a slow shutter speed, the camera’s sensor remains exposed to light for a longer duration.
Moving elements in the scene will create streaks or blurs across the image.
This technique is often used in scenarios like waterfalls, car headlights at night, or a person walking.
The resulting blur can add a sense of energy and motion to the photograph, making it more visually interesting and conveying the passage of time:
Freezing motion with a fast shutter speed creates sharp and static images and using a slower shutter speed to capture motion blur adds a dynamic and artistic element to your photos.
Your choice depends on your creative intent and the story you want your photograph to tell.
3. Light in the Scene
The third question is, how much light is available? Is the scene well-lit or low-light?
Understanding the available light in a scene is fundamental in photography.
The amount of light available directly impacts how you’ll set your camera settings, including shutter speed.
In a well-lit scene, there’s an abundance of natural or artificial light.
This could be daylight flooding through a window, bright outdoor sunlight, or a well-lit room.
In such situations, you have the flexibility to use faster shutter speeds without worrying too much about the image being too dark.
This is because the ample light allows the camera’s sensor to capture a well-exposed image even with a faster shutter speed:
When a scene is low-light, it means there’s not enough light available for the camera to capture a well-exposed image with a quick shutter speed.
This often happens indoors at night or in environments with poor lighting conditions.
To compensate, you have a few options:
- Open Aperture: You can open up the camera’s aperture (lower f-number) to allow more light to reach the sensor.
- Slower Shutter Speed: You can use a slower shutter speed, allowing the sensor to gather more light over a longer duration. However, this might introduce motion blur if not stabilized.
- Increase ISO: You can raise the ISO setting, which makes the sensor more sensitive to light, but it may introduce noise or graininess to the image.
For example, this image was captured in a low-light scene.
Using a slower shutter speed allowed me to allow more light in to the camera sensor, letting me use a lower ISO setting.
Using a faster shutter speed made me open up my aperture more and use a higher ISO setting:
4. Using a Tripod or Handheld
The fourth question is, are you using a tripod, or are you photographing handheld?
The choice between using a tripod or holding the camera by hand has a significant impact on the sharpness and clarity of your photographs.
Using a Tripod:
A tripod is a stable support for your camera.
When you use a tripod, you eliminate the risk of camera shake caused by your hands trembling:
This is especially important when you’re using slower shutter speeds to capture low-light scenes or when you want to achieve certain effects like long exposure shots of waterfalls.
With a tripod, you can use longer shutter speeds without introducing unwanted blur into your images.
Holding the camera by hand gives you more flexibility and mobility, but it also introduces the potential for camera shake.
When shooting handheld, the natural movement of your body can result in slight vibrations that, at slower shutter speeds, can lead to blurry images.
If you’re using a slower shutter speed or aiming for maximum sharpness, a tripod is essential to avoid camera shake.
If you need to move quickly or capture spontaneous moments, shooting handheld might be necessary, but you’ll need to choose an appropriate shutter speed and possibly rely on image stabilization technology to help mitigate shake.
5. Focal Length
The fifth question is, what’s your focal length?
Understanding the concept of focal length and the reciprocal rule is important when determining the right shutter speed for your shot.
Focal length refers to the distance between the camera’s lens and its image sensor when the lens is focused at infinity.
It determines the field of view and magnification of your images.
Lenses with shorter focal lengths (wide-angle) capture a wider scene, while lenses with longer focal lengths (telephoto) bring distant subjects closer:
The reciprocal rule is a guideline for selecting an appropriate shutter speed based on the focal length of your lens.
It suggests that your shutter speed should be at least the reciprocal of the focal length to minimize camera shake.
If you’re using a 50mm lens, the reciprocal would be 1/50.
So, you’d aim to use a shutter speed of 1/50 second or faster to reduce the chances of blur from camera movement while shooting handheld:
For me personally, I like to use 2x the focal length.
So for example, if I’m shooting with a 50mm lens, then I like to have my shutter speed set to at least 1/100s:
The reason for this rule is that longer focal lengths magnify the effects of camera shake.
What this means:
A longer lens (higher focal length) requires a faster shutter speed to compensate for potential blur caused by small movements during handheld shooting.
However, with advancements in image stabilization technology, some modern lenses and cameras can effectively counteract these effects.
This means you would be able to use slightly slower shutter speeds without introducing noticeable blur.
6. Still Life, Landscape, Action, or Low-Light Image
The sixth question is, are you capturing a still life, landscape, action, or low-light image?
The type of scene you’re capturing plays a significant role in determining the appropriate shutter speed for your photograph.
Different types of scenes require different shutter speed settings to achieve the desired outcome:
When capturing still-life subjects, such as objects on a table or arrangements in a studio, you generally have more control over the environment.
This allows you to use longer shutter speeds without worrying about motion blur.
You can take advantage of a tripod and use slower shutter speeds to capture more light and detail in your shot.
Landscape photography often involves capturing stationary scenes like mountains, seascapes, or forests.
Here, you have the flexibility to use slower shutter speeds, especially if you’re using a tripod.
Slower shutter speeds can help you capture the overall scene with more depth and detail.
As long as there are no moving elements like trees swaying in the wind.
When photographing action scenes, such as sports or fast-moving subjects, you’ll need faster shutter speeds to freeze the motion.
This prevents blurring and ensures sharpness, allowing you to capture the subject in a dynamic and high-energy state.
Shutter speeds like 1/500 second or higher are common for action shots.
In low-light situations, such as indoor settings or night photography, you’ll need to balance the desire for a well-exposed image with the risk of introducing camera shake.
You might need to use slower shutter speeds, but using a tripod or image stabilization is essential to avoid blurriness.
Additionally, you can use wider apertures and higher ISO settings to gather more light.
7. Emphasize or Minimize Background Details
The seventh question is, do you want to emphasize or minimize background details?
This question is crucial in determining the right shutter speed because it is directly tied to your choice of aperture and the resulting depth of field in the photograph.
The interplay of these factors has a significant impact on the visual storytelling of your image.
Aperture and Depth of Field:
Aperture refers to the size of the opening in the camera lens through which light enters. It’s measured in f-stops.
A smaller f-number (e.g., f/1.8) indicates a larger aperture opening, while a larger f-number (e.g., f/16) indicates a smaller aperture opening.
The aperture setting directly affects the depth of field, which is the area of the image that appears sharp and in focus.
Emphasizing Background Details:
If you want to showcase the background details along with the subject, you’d choose a smaller aperture (higher f-number).
This creates a deep depth of field, where both the subject and the background are in focus.
To achieve a proper exposure with a smaller aperture, you need more light, which often requires a slower shutter speed.
This allows the camera’s sensor to collect enough light to create a well-exposed image without making it too bright.
Minimizing Background Details:
Conversely, if you aim to separate the subject from the background and create a pleasing blur (bokeh) in the background, you’d opt for a larger aperture (lower f-number).
This results in a shallow depth of field, with the subject sharp and the background blurred.
To avoid overexposing the image due to the larger aperture allowing more light, you might need a faster shutter speed to limit the amount of light hitting the sensor:
when you’re deciding whether to emphasize or minimize background details, you’re essentially determining your aperture settings.
This decision has a direct influence on how much light reaches the sensor, which then impacts your exposure.
Your shutter speed comes into play to help you achieve the proper exposure based on your chosen aperture.
By understanding the relationship between these settings, you can effectively control the visual narrative of your photograph.
8. Indoors or Outdoors
The eighth question is, are you photographing indoors or outdoors?
This question is pivotal when determining the right shutter speed because it directly affects the available light and lighting conditions, which in turn impact your exposure settings, including shutter speed.
Indoors Lighting Conditions:
Indoor environments typically have lower light levels compared to outdoors.
This is especially true when shooting in spaces with limited natural light or dim artificial lighting.
In low-light indoor scenarios, achieving a proper exposure often requires longer shutter speeds to allow enough light to reach the camera’s sensor.
However, using slow shutter speeds introduces the risk of camera shake and motion blur.
So, you might need to use a tripod, increase your ISO, or open up your aperture to gather more light without sacrificing sharpness.
Outdoors Lighting Conditions:
Outdoor settings generally provide more abundant natural light.
Depending on the weather, time of day, and other factors, you might have various lighting conditions ranging from bright sunlight to overcast skies.
In well-lit outdoor scenes, you have the flexibility to use faster shutter speeds without compromising exposure.
Faster shutter speeds can be useful for freezing motion in action shots or for achieving a proper exposure in situations where too much light could overexpose the image.
9. External Lighting, Flash, or Natural Light
The ninth question is, are you using any external lighting, flash, or natural light?
This question is critical in determining the right shutter speed because it directly affects the amount and quality of light available to illuminate your scene.
The type of lighting you’re using has a significant impact on how you set your camera settings, including shutter speed.
When shooting with natural light, your available light source is the sun or ambient light in the environment.
Depending on factors like the time of day and weather conditions, the amount and quality of natural light can vary.
In well-lit situations, you might use faster shutter speeds to control exposure without introducing blur.
In lower light conditions, you might opt for slower shutter speeds, but you’ll need to consider camera stabilization to prevent camera shake.
If you’re using external lighting sources like studio lights or continuous lighting, you have more control over the light intensity and direction.
This allows you to adjust your shutter speed based on the amount of light provided by these sources.
You might use slower shutter speeds to gather more light or faster speeds to freeze motion, depending on your creative intent.
Flash photography introduces an additional burst of light that illuminates the scene.
The flash duration is very brief, so you can use faster shutter speeds without worrying about motion blur caused by the flash itself.
Using shutter speed with a speedlight (also known as a flash) involves a combination of settings and techniques to balance ambient light (existing light) with the light from the flash.
And while this can be discussed in a whole separate guide, you’ll need to know certain terms such as flash sync speed.
Flash sync speed is the fastest shutter speed you can use while ensuring the entire frame is exposed evenly, and high-speed sync, which allows you to use a shutter speed faster than your camera’s sync speed while using flash.
The type of lighting you’re using affects the intensity, direction, and duration of light hitting your scene.
This, in turn, determines how you set your camera’s shutter speed to achieve the right exposure and creative outcome.
Understanding your lighting sources helps you make informed decisions about shutter speed and other exposure settings for optimal results.
10. Capturing Fine Details
The tenth question is, how important is capturing fine details in the scene?
When you’re shooting a scene, the shutter speed determines how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to light.
If the shutter is open for a longer duration, any movement, whether from the subject, the camera, or both, can result in motion blur.
This blur can cause fine details in your image to become smudged or indistinct, reducing the overall quality and sharpness of the photo.
In situations where capturing fine details is crucial, such as in macro photography, architectural photography, or capturing intricate textures, using a higher shutter speed becomes essential.
A higher shutter speed significantly reduces the chances of motion blur caused by factors like camera shake.
If you’re photographing a flower close-up and you want to capture the delicate texture of its petals, using a higher shutter speed will help prevent the subtle swaying of the flower due to wind or even your own hand movements from introducing blur.
In this image, if you look closely at the fine details on the flower on the right, it is more blurry because of the slower shutter speed.
There’s a trade-off with using higher shutter speeds.
The faster the shutter speed, the less light reaches the sensor, which might require you to adjust other settings like aperture and ISO to maintain proper exposure.
Additionally, in certain situations, you might intentionally want to introduce motion blur for creative purposes.
Understanding the importance of capturing fine details and its relationship to shutter speed empowers you to make informed decisions when striving for clarity and sharpness in your images.
Common Shutter Speed Values
There are several common shutter speed values that photographers use to achieve the desired effects in their photographs.
These values are common shutter speed values that I often find helpful to remember to have as a starting base when I am in a certain photographic situation.
These are not “hard-set” values and please only use these as reference points and remember that your aperture and ISO values also influence exposure.
Fast Shutter Speeds
These are faster shutter speeds used to freeze motion:
- 1/500 sec
- 1/1000 sec
- 1/2000 sec
- 1/4000 sec
- 1/8000 sec (commonly the fastest speed in many cameras)
Moderate Shutter Speeds
These are moderate shutter speeds used for general-purpose and to balance motion and stillness:
- 1/60 sec
- 1/125 sec
- 1/250 sec
Slow Shutter Speeds
These are slow shutter speeds often used in low-light scenes or to capture motion blur:
- 1/30 sec
- 1/15 sec
- 1/8 sec
- 1/4 sec
- 1/2 sec
Very Slow Shutter Speeds
These are very slow shutter speeds typically used for creative effects like light trails or night photography:
- 1 sec
- 2 sec
- 5 sec
- 10 sec
- 15 sec
- 30 sec
Bulb Mode (B)
This is not a fixed value but a mode where the shutter remains open as long as the shutter button is held down, allowing for very long exposures (often used for astrophotography or very low-light conditions).
In conclusion, I hope you enjoyed this guide on shutter speed in photography.
I recommend you play around and experiment with your shutter speeds and follow the tips provided in this guide so you can better understand it yourself.
Good luck and happy photographing!
What are the uses of high shutter speeds?
High shutter speeds are useful for freezing motion in fast-moving subjects such as sports events or wildlife photography.
What are the uses of slower shutter speeds?
Slower shutter speeds are useful for creating motion blur in images, which can convey a sense of movement or create artistic effects such as light trails.
What is the rule for shutter speed?
The general rule for shutter speed is that it should be set to a value that is at least the inverse of the lens focal length to avoid camera shake. For example, if using a 50mm lens, the bare minimum shutters peed should be 1/50 or faster.
Nate Torres is a portrait photographer servicing the Orange County and Los Angeles areas. He specializes in portraits of individuals, couples, groups and headshots. Nate Torres is also a photography writer and content creator and educates other photographers on portrait photography, composition, editing, gear, and business. You can find his content on his personal website, social media, and YouTube Channel, as well as on blogs such as Fstoppers, Photofocus, and Imaginated. Being a former SEO consultant, Nate also teaches other photographers how to use SEO to grow their own photography business on his educational blog, Shutter SEO.