The shutter speed is the most important camera setting you must master to take great photographs. None of the other fundamental settings have nearly as much of a direct impact on the final outcome.
Apply the wrong shutter speed, and your image is unfixable.
Luckily, learning the shutter speed is relatively straightforward. If you keep reading, I’ll show you precisely what it is, how you use it, and why it will make you a better photographer.
Let’s jump straight into it:
- What is Shutter Speed?
- Understanding the Shutter Speed Values
- Shutter Speed and Exposure
- Shutter Speed and Motion Blur
- What is the Best Shutte Speed?
- How to Adjust Shutter Speed
- How to Calculate the Exposure Time
- Why is the Shutter Speed Important?
- Creative Use of the Shutter Speed
- Shutter Speed Examples
What is Shutter Speed?
The shutter speed is the first component of the Exposure Triangle, a fundamental concept that shows the relationship between the three camera settings that determines the exposure (brightness) of a photo.
In simple terms, the shutter speed is the duration of time the shutter is open and exposing the camera sensor to light. The longer the shutter speed (exposure time), the more light reaches the sensor.
How much light is needed to create a photo depends on multiple factors, such as the time of day and the aperture and ISO values.
Understanding the Shutter Speed Values
Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. Most digital cameras let you choose an exposure time of between 1/4000th to 30 seconds. However, this varies slightly depending on the model.
In addition to the preset shutter speeds, it’s also common for cameras to have a Time or Bulb Mode. This function allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you desire.
Now, back to the shutter speed values. It’s essential to understand what these different numbers mean. I’ll repeat this a few times throughout the article so that you remember it the next time you’re out photographing:
A larger denominator, such as 1/1000, is a quicker shutter speed that allows less light to reach the sensor than a lower denominator, such as 1/10. In other words, the quick exposure time result in a darker photo, while a long exposure leads to a brighter one.
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 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, whether it’s a person walking or water flowing. It becomes blurred.
Shutter Speed and Exposure
Understanding the relationship between shutter speed and image brightness is more complex than a simple cause-and-effect statement. To fully comprehend the impact of different shutter speeds, it’s important to understand how the Exposure Triangle works.
Simply put, it’s a term that refers to the relationship between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO; the three camera settings that affect the brightness of a photo.
In addition to the aperture and ISO, you also need to consider the time of day. For example, a quick shutter speed of 1/1000 might give you the perfect image during the daytime, but it will be completely black at night.
By balancing the three camera settings of the Exposure Triangle and evaluating the available light outside, you will find the shutter speed that works best for the given scene. Remember that you have more wiggle room with the shutter speed than the other settings.
Shutter Speed and Motion Blur
The shutter speed doesn’t only affect the exposure of an image; it also impacts motion blur. This is a significant factor that you need to understand. Failing to do so can have a hugely negative impact on the image.
Motion blur is also an element that can work in your favor. In fact, this is a big reason why the shutter speed is the most creative camera setting.
Let me explain more:
Use a Quick Exposure Time to Freeze Motion
Quick shutter speeds are by far the most common. The camera’s automatic functions often prefer these, and they don’t require 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 action depends on the subject you photograph.
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.
Using a Slow Shutter Speed to Blur Motion
You don’t always 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 used to create a dreamy and often unreal rendition of the landscape.
The exact definition of a slow shutter speed is vague. However, most landscape photographers agree that a long exposure begins when you can no longer 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 you need to mount your camera on a tripod 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.
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 with 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 understand better how this essential camera setting works. It will also result in amazing images.
What is the Best Shutter Speed?
I know we all love it when there’s one correct answer, but unfortunately, that’s not the case when choosing the best shutter speed.
This is one of the creative decisions you, as the photographer, need to make. That’s why it’s such a vital camera setting to learn. There’s no right or wrong, just your vision of the landscape in front of you.
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 photographing quickly moving subjects that you want to remain sharp. This is my preferred option when photographing wildlife, people, or scenes when I don’t have a tripod available. Just make sure that you balance the Exposure Triangle.
- 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 increasing the ISO. Keep in mind that a tripod is essential to use slow shutter speeds.
Most importantly, I urge you not to use the same shutter speed for 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 could say I use one shutter speed for most images, but that’s not the case. My favorite photos all have different values. Ranging from 1/5000th of a second to 5 or 10 minutes!
How to Adjust the Shutter Speed in Your Camera
You can change the shutter speed in your camera in a couple of different ways. Your choice depends on how comfortable you’re with your camera and what you photograph.
Note: Most cameras don’t show the fractions of a second when selecting the shutter speed. That means a shutter speed of 1/500 is shown as 500, and 1/20 is shown as 20. If you are using slow shutter speeds that are longer than a second, these are shown as follows: 1 second = 1″, 2.5 seconds = 2.5″
The first method is to use Manual Mode (M). This is a fully manual shooting mode where you need to adjust the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. I use this mode for all my photography, but some photographers prefer a semi-automatic mode instead.
Where the shutter speed dial is located will depend on your camera. Most cameras allow you to change the shutter speed using the main dial. It can also be adjusted by using the touchscreen in other models.
Shutter Priority (S or Tv)
Shutter Priority Mode is the second way to change the shutter speed. When using this mode, you manually adjust the shutter speed while the camera calculates the aperture (and ISO if you choose)
In this mode, you only need to use the main dial to set your desired shutter speed. The camera will take care of the rest.
How to Calculate the Correct Exposure Time
So, how do you calculate the ideal shutter speed?
As I’ve already mentioned, there’s no “correct” exposure time, so your choice is purely based on your creative vision.
Are you going to freeze motion or blur motion? Is there no movement within the scene at all? How bright is it outside?
Personally, I start by adjusting the aperture and ISO. In most cases, I use an aperture between f/7.1 and f/11, and an ISO of 100. Based on these two values, I find the shutter speed that gives me a good exposure (i.e., that avoids over- or under-exposing the image)
This shutter speed might need to be faster or quicker for what I have in mind. Let’s say I’m given a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second. However, I’m not using a tripod and want to photograph a tree in the wind. I need a quicker shutter speed, such as 1/500th of a second, to freeze the leaves and avoid camera shaking.
Based on the chart above, 1/500th is three stops faster than 1/60th. That means I need to increase the ISO or widen the aperture with three stops. You can also choose to change both settings (for example, increase ISO by two stops and widen aperture by one)
By doing this, I have achieved the ideal shutter speed for the scene I’m photographing. This shows just how important it is to understand the Exposure Triangle.
Why is the Shutter Speed Important?
When teaching photography exposure, I emphasize the importance of shutter speed in capturing your artistic vision. Although aperture and ISO are also vital, shutter speed stands out.
But let’s take one step back and see what the shutter speed does to a photo:
- It affects the exposure (level of brightness)
- It affects blur (blurring or freezing moving elements)
- It affects camera shake (unintentional and intentional)
The shutter speed is such a crucial aspect of photography because it allows you to control the visual outcome of your images and adapt to various shooting scenarios, whether you want to freeze action, convey motion, or achieve proper exposure in different lighting conditions.
Creative Use of the Shutter Speed
I’ve repeatedly mentioned that the shutter speed is the most creative of the fundamental camera settings. What exactly do I mean by this?
Since the shutter speed affects motion within a photo, it opens many doors for the creative photographer. You will see that it reveals a whole new world of possibilities.
You may have seen images where the water looks silk-like, and the clouds are blurred across the sky. This is not a “fake” photo but a technique called Long Exposure Photography, which takes advantage of slow shutter speeds.
Or have you seen photos of waves crashing and creating almost alien-like shapes? This is made by using a quick shutter speed that freezes motion.
Even a slight change in the shutter speed can completely change the outcome of an image. What looks dull with a quick exposure time can look magical with a long one, and vice versa.
Different Shutter Speed Examples
Here are a few images that show what different shutter speeds can result in:
Mastering the shutter speed is crucial for capturing stunning photographs as it directly and significantly impacts the final image. Whether you freeze action with quick shutter speeds or create dreamy landscapes with slow shutter speeds, the possibilities for artistic expression are endless.
By experimenting with different shutter speeds and creatively utilizing motion, you can elevate your photography to new heights. Embrace the versatility of the shutter speed, and let it unlock a world of possibilities for your captivating images.
So, keep exploring and experimenting, and soon you’ll discover your unique vision, resulting in genuinely mesmerizing and unforgettable photographs.
In my in-depth article, Introduction to the Fundamentals of Landscape Photography, I’ve gathered all the essential information about how to start creating images 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!
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