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Shutter speed

Shutter speed not only freezes or blurs motion to tell a story but also plays a pivotal role in the symphony of settings that shape a photograph's final exposure.

What is shutter speed?

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.

Shutter on a camera.
Camera shutter

The duration of the shutter speed 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, the less time it takes to calculate it, 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 you set, 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.

You see: 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:

Cars frozen on road due to a fast shutter speed.
Faster shutter speed example

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. This creates a motion blur effect:

Cars blurred on road due to a slower shutter speed.
Slower shutter speed example

Shutter speed and the exposure triangle

It's very important that you first understand shutter speed's role within the exposure triangle. The exposure triangle is a concept in photography that represents the three elements that control exposure - aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Exposure triangle.
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. Therefore, 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.

For example, 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.

In summary, 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 is evident in all niches of photography, from portrait to sports to landscape.

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.

Conversely, 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.

Car frozen on road due to fast shutter speed.
Fast shutter speed for freeze frame look

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 results in 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 you can achieve with shutter speed include light trails, panning, and long exposures.

Light trails

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.

Light trails on the freeway.
Light trail photography


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.

Race car being panned on camera.
Panning photography

Long exposures

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, waterfalls, star trails, nightscapes, etc.

How to choose the right shutter speed?

When it comes to photography and choosing the right exposure settings, many variables must be taken 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.

For example, since cars are in motion, I can either choose to freeze their motion with a fast shutter speed:

Car in the road frozen due to a fast shutter speed.
Fast shutter speed

Or create a motion blur effect with a slower shutter speed:

Car in the road blurred due to a slow shutter speed.
Slow shutter speed

Static subject

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. For example, if I wanted to photograph a building, since it’s a static subject, I can get away with using a slower shutter speed:

Woman running in park blurred because running.
Slow shutter speed on static building

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.

Freezing motion

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:

Car in the road frozen due to a fast shutter speed.
Fast shutter speed

Capturing motion blur

If you want your photo to convey a sense of movement or dynamism, 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:

Car in the road blurred due to a slow shutter speed.
Slow shutter speed

In summary: 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.

Well-lit scene

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:

Man standing under streetlight.
Using faster shutter speed in well-lit scene

Low-light scene:

When a scene has 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:

Side by side image of a slow and fast shutter speed in a low-light setting.
Slow and fast shutter speed in low-light 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.

Graphic showing how focal length works.
How focal length works

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:

Graphic showing difference between longer and shorter focal lengths.
Longer vs. shorter focal lengths

Reciprocal rule

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.

For example: 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:

Graphic showing a reciprocal focal length rule.
Reciprocal focal length rule

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:

Graphic showing a reciprocal focal length rule times two.
Reciprocal focal length rule * 2

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:

Still life

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.

Aperture chart of different f-stops.
Aperture chart

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 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:

Emphasizing background details vs. minimizing background details.
Emphasizing background details vs. minimizing background details


When you decide whether to emphasize or minimize background details, you essentially determine 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.

Indoor 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 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.

Outdoor 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 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.

Natural light

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.

External lighting

If you're using external lighting sources, such as 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.

Using external lighting outside for photoshoot.
External lighting

Flash photography

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.

For example: 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.

Using speedlight for fitness photography.
Using a speedlight

While this can be discussed in a 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. High-speed sync allows you to use a shutter speed faster than your camera’s sync speed while using flash.

In summary:

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.

Graphic showing faster vs. slower shutter speeds.
Faster vs. slower shutter speed

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.

For example: 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.

Blurry yellow sunflower due to shutter speed.
Slow shutter speed - blurry
Sharp yellow sunflower due to shutter speed.
Fast shutter speed - sharp

Of course: 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.

However: 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 are common shutter speed values that I often find helpful to remember as a starting point when I am in a certain photographic situation. These are not "hard-set" values; please only use them as reference points. 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

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 experiment with your shutter speeds and follow the tips provided in this guide to better understand it yourself. Good luck and happy photographing!

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