The shutter speed is arguably the most important of the fundamental settings in landscape photography. Understanding how it works will take you one step closer to leaving Automatic Shooting Modes behind and become a better photographer.

It’s easy to think that the shutter speed is a difficult camera setting to learn. After all, it’s the most important and the one that allows for most creative freedom.

Luckily, that’s not the case!

Learning the shutter speed is actually quite straight forward. It might take a little bit of trial and error but I promise it won’t take long before you’ve got the hang of it!

What is shutter speed?

In very simple terms, the shutter speed refers to the amount of time the shutter is open and exposed to light.

I often make a comparison between your camera and a window with curtains when explaining the shutter speed: the shutter speed decides the amount of light that is let into the room (the room = the camera sensor). The longer the curtains (curtains = shutter) are open, the more light enters the room.

Shutter speed in landscape photography
The 1/160th of a second shutter speed was just enough to keep the people in the distance sharp.

The shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. A larger denominator such as 1/1000 is a quicker shutter speed than a lower denominator such as 1/10. The large denominator allows less light to reach the sensor.

Most digital cameras let you choose an exposure time of up to 30 seconds. The quickest shutter speed varies between models. Many cameras also have a Time or Bulb Mode. This function allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you want.

Further Reading: Introduction to Bulb Mode

So, what does it mean that the shutter lets in light?

This is where things quickly get technical and overwhelming. I recommend watching this video from John Hess about The Science of Camera Sensors for those interested in the technical information.

I aim to keep this article less technical and easier to understand for photographers of all levels, so I’ll keep it simple and say that the amount of time the shutter is open is the amount of time your camera can see.

Everything that happens while the shutter is open, is registered by the camera.

That is why you can see motion in an image, either it’s a person walking or water flowing. It becomes blurred.

Let’s look a little closer at the different looks you can achieve by adjusting the shutter speed.

Using the shutter speed to freeze or blur motion

I’ve briefly mentioned that the shutter speed is the fundamental camera setting that allows for the most creative freedom. What I mean about this is that adjusting the shutter speed, even just a little, can have a huge impact on an image’s outcome.

This is a factor that photographers can take advantage of. Use the shutter speed correctly and you’ll see a huge improvement in your landscape photography.

Use a quick shutter speed to freeze motion

Quick shutter speeds are by far the most used. These are often preferred by the camera’s automatic functions and don’t require the use of any additional equipment.

A quick shutter speed, such as 1/1000th of a second, is used to freeze motion. The exact shutter speed used to freeze motion depends on the subject you’re photographing.

For example, the needed shutter speed to freeze the wings of a flying bird might be 1/2000th of a second while to freeze water in a slowly moving river it is only 1/200th of a second.

Quick shutter speed in photography
A quick shutter speed of 1/800th of a second was used to freeze the waves in this image

Using a slow shutter speed to blur motion

It’s not always you want to freeze the motion in a photo. In fact, many landscape photographers prefer using a slow shutter speed when photographing moving elements.

This technique is called Long Exposure Photography. It’s a technique that’s used to create a dreamy and often unreal rendition of the landscape.

The exact definition of a slow shutter speed is somewhat vague. However, most landscape photographers tend to agree that a long exposure begins when you no longer can capture a sharp handheld image. Depending on the camera and lens, this is somewhere in the ballpark of 1/20th of a second (this is quickly changing as technology improves)

That means that you need to mount your camera on a tripod in order to blur moving elements using a slow shutter speed. This makes it possible to create blur while keeping stationary subjects razor-sharp. After all, you only want to blur the moving elements.

Slow shutter speed in photography
A shutter speed of 1 second was used to give a slight blur to the waterfall in this image

One of the exciting parts about using a slow shutter speed is seeing how much an image changes when you lengthen the exposure time. An image that has a shutter speed of 1/20th of a second looks completely different than one with a shutter speed of 20 seconds.

Purchasing a few Neutral Density filters to force even slower shutter speeds is a great way to get a better understanding of how this essential camera setting works. It will also result in amazing images.

How to choose the best shutter speed for landscape photography

I know that we all love it when there’s one correct answer but unfortunately that’s not the case when it comes to choosing the best shutter speed for landscape photography.

This is one of the creative decisions you as the photographer need to make. That’s why it’s such an important camera setting to learn. There’s no right or wrong; just your vision of the landscape in front of you.

Shutter speed in landscape photography
The quicker a subject moves, the quicker shutter speed you need to freeze the motion. The 0.5 second shutter speed used here might not have created much motion in a more stationary photo.

There are, however, a few guidelines I can give you to make the decision a little easier in the beginning:

  • Quick shutter speeds are best for when you’re photographing quickly moving subjects that you want to remain sharp. This is my preferred option when photographing animals or people, or scenes when I don’t have a tripod available. Just make sure that you don’t increase the ISO more than necessary.
  • Slow shutter speeds are good when there are moving elements in the frame that you want to blur. It also allows more light to reach the sensor without having to increase the ISO. Keep in mind that a tripod is essential to use slow shutter speeds.

Most importantly, I urge you not to stick to the same shutter speed for each and every photo. Be creative. Experiment! It might not always work out but I assure you that you’ll get your fair share of stunning results.

I wish I could say that I use one shutter speed for most my images but that’s not the case. My favorite images all have different values. Ranging from 1/5000th of a second to 5 or 10 minutes!

Learn more about the fundamentals of photography

I’ve mentioned a few times that there’s a relation between the shutter speed and the ISO. There’s also a third camera setting involved in this equation, the aperture.

The connection between these three camera settings is known as The Exposure Triangle. This is perhaps the most important expression you’ll learn. It is essential to understand.

In my in-depth article, Introduction to the Fundamentals of Landscape Photography, I’ve gathered all the essential information about how to get started with creating images that you’re proud of. Here you’ll learn more about the connection between the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, the best file formats, color spaces, and other fundamentals!