Shutter Speed Explained for the Beginning Photographer

Last Updated January 15, 2021 by . First Published in 2015.

Introduction to Photography Series
  1. Photography for Beginners - Complete Tutorial Series
  2. Shutter Speed Explained for the Beginning Photographer
  3. Aperture and Depth of Field in Photography Explained
  4. What is the Exposure Triangle? Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed
  5. How to Understand Camera Lenses and Focal Length
  6. Photography Composition Rules That Will Improve Your Photos
  7. Camera Metering Modes Demystified - Which One To Use and When
  8. Camera Shooting and Exposure Modes Explained
  9. Complete Guide to Flash Photography
  10. Why You Need A Tripod for Photography
  11. White Balance Settings Explained
  12. Understanding Camera Histograms in Photography
  13. Master These 10 Camera Settings For Your Best Photos
  14. What is RAW in Photography and Why You Should Shoot in RAW
  15. The Complete Guide to Macro Photography
  16. Essential Landscape Photography Tips for Breathtaking Photos

What Does Shutter Speed Do?

When your camera takes a photo, it opens the shutter to expose the imaging sensor (or film) to light. How long it opens the shutter for, and therefore how much light the sensor receives, is determined by the shutter speed. The term shutter dates back to film cameras, where there was a physical shutter covering the film. Nowadays it refers to when the sensor starts recording light. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is captured.

How is Shutter Speed Measured?

Shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds to seconds. Typical shutter speeds range from 30 seconds through to 1/8000 seconds. Some cameras also feature a "bulb" setting which keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter button is depressed. Traditional SLR cameras often used a shutter release cable which locks the shutter open indefinitely. This is typically used in very dark situations, such as astrophotography, or for when you need to capture a lot of motion in a timelapse.

Shutter speed is written as a fraction of a second, so when we write 1/4 that is quarter of a second and 1/200 is one two-hundredth of a second. The higher the number the shorter the duration the shutter is open for.

Shutter speeds are given in specific increments which are double or half the previous. For example, 1/125 is half the speed of 1/250 and 1/500 is twice as fast as 1/250.

What are Fast and Slow Shutter Speeds?

You may come across shutter speeds being described as fast or slow. When we say a shutter speed is fast we are saying that the shutter is open for a very short amount of time. Slow shutter speeds on the other hand are when the shutter is open for a long time. This can have a drastic affect on the final image recorded. This is particularly true for the way we capture motion within a photo.

How Shutter Speed Affects Movement

The longer the shutter speed (slow shutter speed), the more likely you are to introduce vibration and motion blur to an image, however, you can capture the motion of objects. The faster the shutter speed, the less blur and motion blur will be captured. With a fast shutter setting, you will "freeze" an object's motion. An example of this can be seen below.

You can control the way in which movement is captured in your pictures by getting to grips with your cameras full range of shutter speeds. Shutter speed works hand in hand with aperture and ISO to balance the perfect exposure. You can create dramatic effects by either freezing action or blurring motion by controlling shutter speed.

This effect is used quite often in advertisements of cars and motorbikes, where a sense of speed and motion is communicated to the viewer by intentionally blurring the moving wheels.

Shutter speed can also be used to freeze motion. If you use especially fast shutter speeds, you can eliminate motion even from fast-moving objects, like birds in flight, water drops, helicopters in flight, cars and motorbikes.

Controlling exposure is a fine balance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. This balance is called the exposure triangle which we will come to later on.

If you are shooting handheld without a tripod you'll need a fast enough shutter speed to make sure camera shake doesn't cause blurred photos.

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A good rule of thumb for the slowest shutter speed for handheld is to use a shutter speed that's faster than the focal length of the lens, so for example, if you were using a 200mm lens, the minimum shutter speed you should use is 1/250 seconds.

Keep an eye on the shutter speed in the viewfinder and widen the aperture if necessary. In low light, you may need to increase the ISO or use a tripod.

How to Set Shutter Speed

Almost all cameras handle shutter speeds automatically by default. When the camera is set to "Auto" or "A" mode. The shutter speed is selected by the camera without your input (along with every other setting). To change the shutter speed yourself you will need to select a semi-automatic or manual camera mode. These are typically called Shutter Priority (Tv for Time value) or just simply "S" on some cameras. You can also use the semi-automatic program mode, P, where the camera will allow you to change the shutter and it will adjust the rest of the settings. You will then get the option to select a shutter speed.

Shutter speed is generally shown in the LCD display if you have one, the viewfinder and on the live view window.

The final setting you can use is the full manual. In this mode, you have to set everything, shutter speed, aperture, ISO. I would suggest for now that you not use this until you fully understand the exposure triangle.

How to Set Shutter Speed in Canon dSLR

On Canon dSLR cameras shutter speed can be selected using the adjustment wheel depending on the camera shooting mode selected.

In Shutter Priority mode, the adjustment wheel directly changes the shutter speed. In full manual shutter speed is changed using the adjustment wheel whilst holding the AE-Lock button. In program mode shutter speed changes along with aperture as you move the adjustment wheel. It will increase one and decrease the other to maintain the correct exposure. This relation is explained in the exposure triangle relationship.

How to Set Shutter Speed on Android

On Android phones you can set the shutter speed only in Pro mode. To access the camera pro mode tap on "more" on the mode section list. From the menu that pops up select Pro. This mode will put the Android camera into full manual mode, however you can set each exposure and focus setting to auto and only adjust the shutter speed. Tap the icon for aperture and shutter speed and the camera app will show a sliding control which you can slide to set shutter speed from auto to any value you wish.

How to Set Shutter Speed on iPhone

Unfortunately, iOS doesn't offer manual controls in the default Camera app so you'll need to install a third-party app. There are many camera apps available on the App Store with some of the popular ones being VSCO, Halide Mark II and ProCamera+.

What is Bulb Mode?

Bulb mode is a special shutter speed mode which allows for super-slow shutter speeds. The shutter will be open for as long as the shutter is depressed. Bulb mode can usually be accessed by selecting "B" on the mode dial, or on "M" and selecting bulb on the shutter speed selection. On modern DSLRs, this may cause camera shake as you will need to hold the button in. For this reason you should use the self-timer mode, or you can use a remote shutter release cable which is either a manual switch or a more advanced timer device.

Bulb mode is much simpler than it sounds, but the small matter of knowing how long to hold the shutter open for puts people off using it. If you were shooting a landscape with a 10-stop ND filter, then the exposure chart supplied with the filter, or a downloadable smartphone app will give you an idea. Otherwise, it's a bit of trial and error.

For photographing star trails or time-lapse night scenes you may be interested in the article "How to take long exposures on a Canon dSLR".

Examples of Shutter Speeds

Shutter SpeedUsage
1/4000Freezing really fast moving objects such as a tennis ball, football.
1/2000Freezing the flight of birds without blurring the wings.
1/1000Freezing very fast moving objects, such as moving vehicles.
1/500Freezing fast moving people, such as runners and cyclists.
1/250A great speed for freezing your still subject, without having to think too much about focal length and how that affects the motion blur. Great for portrait photography.
1/125You won't typically want to go much slower than this if you're shooting hand-held, otherwise, you will likely capture motion blur from your hands.
1/60Again, this is a great speed for panning photography, and handheld photography in low light.
1/30This is about as slow as you will want to go while capturing panning photography, as much slower and your photo will become too much of a blur.
1/15Mounted on a tripod, at this speed you can capture sight movement from moving objects. Think people walking, cars moving in traffic, water blurring slightly.
1/8Capturing motion blur in water.
1/4Blurred movement in a scene. Not so little that it appears accidental, but not so much that it's hard to tell what's going on.
1/2More motion blur, only much stronger than before. Think of water starting to appear like mist.
1 SecondTwilight photography. The sun may not be completely gone, but there's not enough light to make up the exposure you're looking for. You may incorporate a flash, and you're more than likely using a tripod.
> 1 SecondThis is where night photography starts to come into play. You can play with different speeds and capture awesome night time photos.
BulbThis is used for exposures longer than 30 seconds, where you can manually control the exposure time with the shutter release. This is used for astrophotography where you may want to capture some stars. You may also use this mode for slow sync flash where you want to have immediate control of the shutter speed.
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