What You Need To Know About Shutter Speed

Understanding The Basics Of Shutter Speed in Photography is crucial to ensure you can freeze subjects in motion, make creative effects and create balanced exposures. In this article, we cover the basics of shutter speed to improve your ability as a photographer.What You Need To Know About Shutter Speed

1. What Is Shutter Speed?

A shutter is a series of fine interlocking metal slats positioned just in front of the sensor or film of a camera. Shutter speed refers to the length of time this “curtain” remains open, exposing the sensor or film to light.

The speed of a camera’s shutter is a fundamental function in the exposure triangle and correlates directly to the outcome of a photograph. Short shutter speeds will freeze motion better but let less light into the sensor or film. On the other hand, long shutter speeds will create motion blur and introduce more light to the sensor or film.

2. How Is Shutter Speed Measured?

Measured in seconds and fractions of a second, the shutter speeds of a camera will follow a sequence like this: 

  • 5″
  • 2″
  • 1″
  • 1/2
  • 1/4
  • 1/8
  • 1/15
  • 1/30
  • 1/60
  • 1/125
  • 1/250

Most modern system cameras can handle shutter speeds of around 1/4000th of a second at the fastest end of the spectrum. While the most common limit a shutter can remain open is 30 seconds. 

The distance between each is known as a “stop”. And increasing or decreasing each will result in the time the shutter remains open by twice or half as much. 

Understanding shutter speeds in stops will help you calculate a balanced exposure when used with the other two elements of the exposure triangle. 

3. Fast, Slow And Long Shutter Speeds

3.1. Fast Shutter Speeds

Generally speaking, fast shutter speeds are those above 1/60 and are used to freeze motion. The shutter speed needed to avoid motion blur will vary depending on the subject. For example, a flying bird will require a higher shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second or higher. On the other hand, to freeze the motion of a slower moving subject like a person walking will be lower at around 1/125 of a second.

3.2. Slow Shutter Speeds

As a guide, slow shutter speeds fall in the range of 1/60 – 1″. Less effective at freezing motion, these speeds are often required when shooting in low light conditions. Slow shutter speeds are more effective when shooting stationary scenes such as landscapes and still life because they allow for low ISO settings. A low ISO setting increases image quality by reducing noise in an image.

3.3. Long Shutter Speeds

Long shutter speeds are around the 1″ mark and below and are most commonly used to capture motion in a photograph. Think of images you have seen showing the long streaks or car lights following city roads or the blurry water of a waterfall. However, as we know, long shutter speeds also increase the brightness of a photograph because of the prolonged exposure time. This relationship means capturing the effect of a blurry waterfall in daylight will require an ND filter. These accessories act like sunglasses for the camera, limiting the amount of light entering through its lens.

4. When To Use Long Shutter Speeds

The primary function of a fast shutter speed is to freeze the motion of a subject. Furthermore, fast shutter speeds are required on bright sunny days to ensure a photograph isn’t overexposed.

5. When To Use Slow Shutter Speeds

The most common reason for using slow shutter speeds will be to compensate for the lack of light in an environment. In addition, when using narrow apertures, slower shutter speeds will also be required.

6. How To Set The Shutter Speed

Taking a camera out of full auto mode and using manual functions enables you to have more creative flexibility in your photography. Cameras enable shutter speeds to be set manually in two different settings:

6.1. Manual Mode

Most cameras enable full manual mode by either selecting “M” on a top dial or through an LCD screen. In full auto mode, all three elements of the exposure triangle are manually set. This function is best suited for scenarios where you can think through each setting to achieve the best exposure.

6.2. Shutter Priority Mode

In most cases selecting the letter “S” on either a top dial or LCD screen will enable shutter priority mode. This mode lets the photographer set the shutter speed manually while leaving the best ISO and aperture settings for the camera to calculate. This mode is best suited for situations with subjects that are moving at various speeds.

7. 4 Creative Shutter Speed Effects

7.1. Burst Mode

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Burst mode is useful when shooting things like wildlife and sports photography. This function enables you to capture multiple images while holding down the shutter button of your camera. For the best results, try using shutter speeds of 1/1000 or higher.

7.2. Long Exposure

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Using long shutter speeds is effective when shooting things like moving water or cars moving along roads in a cityscape. In the former, the exact shutter speed will vary depending on the amount of light in a scene and the length you wish the light streaks to be. The latter may require the use of an ND filter to ensure correct exposure. This accessory is necessary because a long shutter speed used during the day will result in an overexposed image.

7.3. Light Painting

What Is Shutter Speed? What You Need To Know: Light Painting

Light painting is a method that allows for something to be written or drawn in a composition by using a torch or other lighting device and moving it in front of a camera with a long shutter speed. This effect is a lot of fun and can result in some creative outcomes.

7.4. Panned Image

Panned image

Panned images give the illusion of a subject moving at speed. Think of a car surrounded by blurry lines moving in a single direction caused by the scenery behind it. To achieve this effect, use a long shutter speed and pan with the subject in motion.

8. Conclusion

Understanding shutter speeds and their outcomes are one of the fundamental concepts of photography. Not only do they enable you to freeze subjects in motion which are vital for sharp photographs. This element also lets a photographer begin getting highly creative with their imagery beyond what the other parts of the exposure triangle permit.

As always, practice makes perfect. And now you have a better understanding of shutter speed, try setting yourself the assignment of getting into the field and practising different shutter speeds.

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David Davis
David Davishttps://shuttergang.com
Hi, My name is Dave, and I am passionate about photography. I am currently travelling to document the world's most interesting people and places. I have started this blog to share these incredible sights and experiences with you, including all the knowledge I gain as a photographer/videographer along the way. If you share a passion for street, documentary, and travel photography, join the mailing list and stay up to date with the latest posts and resources direct from the field.

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