What is Shutter Speed? Everything You Need to Know

What is Shutter Speed?

The textbook shutter speed definition 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 afterwards.

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 above 1/200.

Oh and fun fact, the button to shoot is called the shutter. Just wanted to put it out there.

bulb mode
Photo by Frank Cone

Why is Shutter Speed Important?

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 the 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.

Taking photos of fast-moving objects such as a skydiving bird or vehicles speeding in your neighbourhood 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 (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.

shutter speed
Photo by Skitterphoto

How to Change Shutter Speed?

Normally, your camera will automatically choose the shutter speed for you. The camera’s automatic mode will choose all of the settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) without your input/help.

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 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.

shutter speed fast
Photo by Sourav Mishra

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 long shutter speed. Long shutter speeds have durations around a second and above.

Slow and long shutter speeds are great for landscape photography. Naturally, photos that are taken at low-light settings need an abundance of exposure.

The exposure will most likely originate from both aperture and shutter speed. ISO is not a part of exposure, which we will discuss further in this article.

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.

To give you a reference of how the motion blur increases throughout the long shutter speed I made a little list:

1/60

This speed is optimal for panning photography in lowlight conditions.

1/30

This speed is the lowest you can go with panning photography. Moving your
camera at this speed will introduce too much blur.

1/15

Starting from this speed and onward, you should start using a tripod for your
camera. Movement will start to blur ever so slightly.

1/8

This shutter speed will start to capture the motion blur in the water.

1/4

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.

1/2

A more intense motion blur, making flowing water appear as if it’s a mist.

1 second

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
help.

Above 1 second

Longer shutter speeds above 1 second will start reigning into night
photography.

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.

slow aperture
Photo by Skitterphoto

What is a Fast Shutter Speed?

Fast shutter speed is often known by 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 its function:

1/250

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.

1/500

Starts freezing fast moving civilians, cyclists, and runners.

1/1000

Does a great job at shooting fast-moving cars, motorcycles, and other
vehicles.

1/2000

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
speed.

1/4000

Perfect at capturing high speed objects. A bursting water balloon, a soccer
ball flying mid-air, and those similar to it.

fast shutter speed
Photo by Garvin St. Villier

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 at certain situations but always adjust on the go.

What is the Best Shutter Speed to Use?

I’m sorry to break your bubble, but 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, the 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 the 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 that 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.

Meaning, 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 the 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.

normal shutter speed
Photo by Jonas Von Werne

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 display the number or it uses a quote (“).

The straight/typewriter/ASCII quotation marks (“) serves 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.

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.

Final Remarks

To recap upon “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.
  • 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 go 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 affects 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.

Good luck!

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