helicopter shot at a slow shutter speed

What is the camera shutter?

Before explaining shutter speed, you should be aware of what the camera shutter is. The shutter sits in front of the camera sensor and stays closed until the camera fires. The shutter opens and fully exposes the whole camera sensor to the light that has travelled through the lens and then when the sensor has collected the light the shutter closes.

What is shutter speed?

Simply put, shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open. In that time the camera sensor is exposed to the light. The time the shutter is open for can have dramatic effects on the style and feel of your photo. Shutter speed also plays a part in the exposure of the picture.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds; in fact, most are measured in fractions of seconds. Be warned the slower the shutter speed; the more likely your picture will be affected by camera shake. As you start using shutter speeds below 1/60th of a second, you will need to use a tripod. Shutter speed can range from 1/5000 (incredibly fast) to as long as 30 seconds. Fast shutter speeds will help eliminate camera shake and are excellent for action shots. Slower shutter speeds are useful in low light conditions and can be used to capture special effects, such as motion blur.

When using shutter speed to adjust exposure, you will also have to consider how much motion is happening in the scene.

How is shutter speed measured?

Shutter speed is measured in seconds and fractions of a second. Depending on your digital camera, shutter speed can range from a lightning fast 1/5000 to a snail-like 30 seconds. Shutter speed will usually double with each setting. i.e 1/1000, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125. It doesn’t work exactly like doubling as you go through all the settings but its close enough to use as a rule of thumb. As the shutter speed doubles, the amount of light let into the sensor also doubles. 

Some cameras will also have a bulb option which allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you want.

helicopter shot at a high shutter speed
how shutter speed can ‘freeze’ a moving object

How does shutter speed affect exposure?

By setting a slower shutter speed, the shutter is open longer and lets in more light, making the picture brighter. A faster shutter speed closes the shutter quicker and lets less light in, making the image darker.

Shutter speed makes up one side of the exposure triangle. You can also use aperture and ISO with shutter speed to get the right exposure for your photos. Using the exposure triangle can help you achieve your desired exposure and make use of some of the creative effects shutter speed allows.

Motion blur

Photograph a moving subject with a slow shutter speed and the image will be blurred. If you are shooting a moving car, the shutter stays open as the vehicle moves across the frame. This causes a blurry streak. You can avoid motion blur by using fast shutter speed.

Motion blur can be used as a creative aspect of photography. It can be used to convey movement in a scene. It can also illustrate speed in action shots. By using the manual settings, over automatic, on a digital camera, you as the photographer gain artistic control of your photos.

Camera shake

garden pond photo ruined by camera shake
how camera shake can ruin a photo

Camera shake happens when you are holding your camera. Any slight movement, even the slightest tremble of your hands, will show up in your pictures as a lack of sharpness or even worse, as blurriness. If you can’t use a tripod the best way to avoid camera shake is using a faster shutter speed.

Setting and finding shutter speed

When using your digital camera’s automatic setting, the shutter speed will is selected by the camera. If you want to control shutter speed yourself, then there are usually two options on most cameras.

Firstly, you can put your camera into ‘Shutter Priority’ mode. In this mode, you control the shutter speed, and the camera selects the best aperture to complement your shutter speed.

Secondly, you can select ‘Manual’ mode. Here you control both shutter speed and aperture.

Using ‘Shutter Priority’ mode and ‘Aperture Priority’ mode is helpful in learning how shutter speed and aperture affect exposure, and the look and feel of your photos. By using one of these settings, you can focus on just one parameter and help you learn the best way to handle that setting in your photographs.

Exposure triangle

Thinking about shutter speed in isolation from the other two elements of the exposure triangle will result in an under or overexposed photo. As you change shutter speed, you’ll need to change one or both of the other elements to compensate for it.

For example, if you speed up your shutter speed one stop, you’re letting less light into your camera sensor. To counterbalance this, you’ll need to increase your aperture. The other option would be to choose a lower ISO rating.

Which shutter speed should I use

Choosing a shutter speed will depend on the type of scene you are photographing. If there is a lot of movement in the scene then to keep the subjects sharp, you will need to use a fast shutter speed. This will freeze the action and avoid any motion blur.

If you are shooting at night, you will need to use a slow shutter speed to let more light into the camera sensor.

The look and feel of the photo will also be a factor in choosing the shutter speed. As you adjust shutter speed, you will change the exposure of the photo and the look and feel of the picture. Shutter speed will let you make artistic decisions about your photo. You might want to add some blur to a fast-moving subject. Or by slowing shutter speed down, you can add a soft effect to moving water. Speed up the shutter speed, and you can dramatically change the appearance of the water. 

These two photos show how changing shutter speed changes the appearance of the water fountain.

fountain at chicago river walk shot at show shutter speed
Shutter speed 1/5 sec
fountain on chicago river walk shot at fast shutter speed
Shutter speed 1/1250 sec

When is shutter speed important?

Shutter speed allows you to control how the motion in a scene is recorded. So when there is a lot of movement, like a game of football or at a motorsport event, selecting the right shutter speed is essential. If your shutter speed is too slow the subject will be blurry because the shutter speed is open for too long. The faster the shutter speed, the more you will ‘freeze’ the action and the sharper the subject will be.

At sporting events, you need a fast shutter speed, but other occasions can require a slow shutter speed. At night or in low light you can use a slow shutter speed for long exposure shots. Click here for more tips on long exposure.

shutter speed 1/2500 secs

How shutter speed works in video

In photography shutter speed is used to control how the movement of a scene or the motion of a subject are recorded. When recording video the camera shutter works differently to photography. The mechanical shutter used in photography stays open, and an electronic shutter is in use.

When recording video the shutter speed is determined by the frame rate you select. For example, if you choose 24 frames per second (fps), then the shutter speed will be double, meaning it will be 1/50 of a second.

If your camera allows you to change the fps rate, then your shutter will be adjusted to be double the frame rate.

Can shutter speed be too fast

In certain situations, yes it can be. If there isn’t much light then having your shutter speed too fast will mean the photo will be too dark. The longer the shutter speed is open, the more light is let into the camera. You will need to use a slower shutter speed in low light conditions.

Are shutter speed and iso the same?

Shutter speed and ISO are two parts of the exposure triangle. While they both affect the exposure of your photo, they are two different settings. Shutter speed controls how long the camera shutter stays open. ISO is the sensitivity of your camera sensor. Both are similar as when they are doubled you will effectively double the level of exposure.

Understanding shutter speed key points

  • The shutter speed setting on your camera controls the speed your camera’s shutter opens and closes.
  • The faster the shutter speed, the less light is let into the camera setting, and the slower the shutter speed, the more light let in.
  • Choosing the best shutter speed will depend on the lighting conditions and the scene you are photographing. In low light, you will need to use slower shutter speeds. In scenes of action or moving subjects, you will need a faster shutter speed. Shutter speed can be used for artistic purposes. You can use it to create a blur to your images. Adjusting shutter speed can significantly change the appearance of a scene or a subject.

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