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Accurate control over shutter speed can make or break a shot, so use this guide to take control over your shutter speed.
Introduction to Photography Series
  1. Introduction to Photography
  2. Understanding Shutter Speeds
  3. Understanding Aperture and Depth of Field
  4. Exposure Triangle: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO
  5. How to Understand Focal Length and Lenses
  6. Composition Rules That Will Improve Your Photos
  7. Metering Modes and Exposure Settings Demystified
  8. Understanding Camera Shooting and Exposure Modes
  9. Flash Photography
  10. Why You Need A Tripod for Photography
  11. White Balance Explained
  12. Understanding Histograms
  13. Master These 10 Camera Settings For Your Best Photos
  14. A Beginners Guide to Start Shooting in RAW

What is Shutter Speed?

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.

Typical shutter speed rating varies 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 given 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.

Shutter Speed and Movement

The longer the 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.

Slow shutter speeds blur motion and capture the impression of movement.

Slow shutter speeds blur motion and capture the impression of movement.

Fast shutter speeds freeze motion and create a very static looking image

Fast shutter speeds freeze motion and create a very static looking image

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.

Japfest 2007

Japfest 2007

Photo by Tim Trott on Flickr. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Water Drops Frozen

Water Drops Frozen

Photo by Tim Trott on Flickr. All Rights Reserved.

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.

A good rule of thumb 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.

Here the camera setting LCD displays the shutter speed of 1/125 second.

Here the camera setting LCD displays the shutter speed of 1/125 second.

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.

Using Bulb mode for Super-Slow Shutter Speeds

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

Camera Settings Dial

Camera Settings Dial

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".

The Sky at Night

The Sky at Night

Example Use 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.
Tutorial Series

This post is part of the series Introduction to Photography. Use the links below to advance to the next tutorial in the couse, or go back and see the previous in the tutorial series.

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