Table of Contents
- 1 What is shutter speed?
- 2 How is it measured?
- 3 What does it mean for your pictures?
- 4 Shutter speed & focal length
- 5 Fast shutter speed photography
- 6 Slow shutter speed photography
- 7 Quick shutter speed cheatsheet
Mastering these three features is the first step to creating technically correct photographs. The first of the bunch – shutter speed – is probably the one you’re most familiar with. But do you know the ins and outs of shutter speed and how to utilize it to its full potential?
What is shutter speed?
For starters, it’s important to know a little bit about the internal mechanisms that make your camera work.
One of the most important pieces of your camera is its shutter, which is basically a curtain in front of the sensor. The shutter remains closed until you hit the shutter release button. Once you hit the release, your shutter will open, allowing light to hit the sensor and record the picture you see in front of you.
Shutter speed is simply the amount of time that the shutter stays open to allow light into your camera’s sensor. The longer it is open, the more light is allowed in and the more movement is recorded. Some people refer to shutter speed as “exposure time,” with a fast shutter speed being a short exposure and a slow shutter speed being a long exposure.
How is it measured?
Shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds or full seconds, depending on the speed you choose. Most DSLRs have a range of 1/4000 seconds (extremely fast) to over 1 second (very slow). On your camera settings, you should see it displayed as 1/500 (for example), which is read as “one five-hundredth of a second.” If you’re using a very slow shutter speed above 1 second, it will be displayed as 1″ with the quotation mark designating a full second.
What does it mean for your pictures?
So, how does shutter speed work, and how does it affect your pictures? The shutter speed you choose will have a few direct effects on your overall final result.
Most people associate a camera’s shutter speed with the amount of motion blur caught in a picture. The longer the shutter stays open, the more movement your camera is “recording.” Depending on how you use it, this can work for you or against you.
Used purposefully, motion blur can add to the creativity of your image. For instance, some photographers use a slow shutter speed to create the effect of a “milky” waterfall. Others use a long exposure to capture the moving headlights of traffic.
Motion blur can be used purposefully to portray the movement of your subjects, but keep in mind that your camera will also record any movement on your end (known as camera shake.) If you’re shooting handheld in low light, a slow shutter will capture any camera shake and leave you with a blurry image. If you can, use a tripod or find a solid surface to set your camera on.
If you’re trying to freeze fast motion for a crisp action shot, you’ll need to eliminate motion blur; stick with a fast shutter speed. Just keep in mind that a fast shutter speed will limit the amount of light coming in.
Along with movement, the shutter speed has a direct effect on the amount of light let into the camera. Essentially, a faster shutter speed only lets in a small amount of light while a long shutter speed allows the sensor to take in more light. If you’re shooting in an area with plenty of light (say, an outside sports event on a sunny day), you should be able to capture plenty of light even with a fast shutter speed.
However, if you don’t have a lot of light to work with, a fast shutter speed can result in an underexposed image. To help combat this, you can increase your ISO.
Shutter speed & focal length
The length of your lens has a direct impact on the amount of camera shake you’re susceptible to when shooting handheld. A general “rule” used by many photographers is that your shutter speed should be at least equal to your focal length. For example, if you are shooting handheld with a 50mm lens, you should set your shutter speed at 1/50th or higher.
Of course, as with any rule, there’s some wiggle room here. Many lenses today are equipped with built-in mechanisms to combat camera shake, so you might be able to shoot at a slower shutter speed. If you’re following the golden rule and find that you’re still getting camera shake, try a faster shutter speed. Experiment to figure out what works best for you.
Shutter priority mode
If you’re shooting in a situation where you want full control over your shutter speed without shooting fully manual, try shutter priority mode (‘S’ on Nikon and Sony cameras; ‘Tv’ on Canon cameras.) In this mode, you manually select your shutter speed and the camera selects your aperture for you based on the amount of available light. This will help you to correctly balance your exposure and avoid being over or underexposed. You still have control over your ISO, so you can adjust it according to the amount of light available.
Fast shutter speed photography
To capture fast movement, a fast shutter speed is essential. During the fraction of a second that the shutter is open, your camera can take a fast-moving athlete, vehicle or animal and freeze them in time.
Who might use fast shutter speed photography?
- Sports photographers: As you might imagine, sports photographers are often required to shoot at fast shutter speeds. Capturing an athlete at their peak speed usually requires a shutter speed of at least 1/500th (this is often referred to as the “sweet spot” of shutter speeds for most sports photography.) Some high speed sports, such as car or motorcycle racing, are best captured with shutter speeds of 1/1000th or faster.
- Nature photographers: Nature photographers often need fast shutter speeds to freeze very fast motion, like a bird flying or a bee hovering above a flower. Birds in flight can typically be captured at around 1/2000th, while the ultra-fast wings of a hummingbird or bee need a speed of 1/4000th or so.
Tips for shooting with fast shutter speeds
- Seek out good lighting: One of the biggest problems people have when using fast shutter speeds is underexposure. Because only a minimal amount of light can reach the sensor during the time the shutter is open, you want to shoot in an area that is well lit. Shooting outside on a sunny day while there’s plenty of light should allow you to shoot at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion.
- Balance with your ISO/aperture: Unfortunately, weather doesn’t always cooperate and it’s not always practical to shoot outdoors. Many sports events take place inside or in less than ideal lighting conditions. In this case, you can compensate for low light by boosting your ISO. You can also increase your aperture, creating a bigger opening for the light to come through to the sensor.
- Invest in the right camera: If you’re planning to use high shutter speeds for a significant portion of your work, you’ll want to invest in a camera with fast shutter speed capabilities. This means not only a camera that can reach a high shutter speed, but one with high ISO capabilities to compensate for low light situations.
Some cameras have the ability to reach shutter speeds as fast as 1/8000th and ISO settings of well over 25000.
Slow shutter speed photography
Used correctly, a slow shutter speed can help you add beautiful creative flair to your photos. Because the shutter is open for so long, more motion and light is captured and recorded by the sensor. This makes slow shutter speeds ideal for creative night photography.
Who is using slow shutter speed photography?
- Creative photographers: Slow shutter speeds are often used by photographers looking to add a creative twist to their photos. Chances are you’ve seen photos of waterfalls where the water is blurred and looks almost “milky.” This effect is created by using a long exposure (slow shutter speed.) By allowing the shutter to stay open longer, the sensor is capturing and recording the motion of the water over time.
- Firework and star photographers: Taking pictures of fireworks is also best done with a slow shutter speed of about 1/2 second or slower. This allows the sensor to read the motion of the fireworks from takeoff to explosion, creating a beautiful image.Star photographers also use slow shutter speeds to allow their cameras to “soak up” as much light as possible even in the darkest conditions. However, this requires use of a tripod to eliminate camera shake. Some photographers use extremely long exposures to capture the movement of stars over time, creating a stunning “time lapse” effect.
Panning technique explained
Slow shutter speeds are also ideal for a technique called “panning.” Panning a subject leaves your subject sharp and in focus while blurring the background, allowing you to freeze your subject while still conveying motion.
Panning is achieved by “following” the subject with your lens while your shutter is open. To do this, lock your camera on your subject and get them in focus. Then, as they move by you, press the shutter speed and continue to follow them with your lens, moving from your hips.
This is a technique that takes practice, practice and more practice. Experiment with different shutter speeds – from a slow 1/15th to a slightly faster 1/125th – to see what works best for you. The speed you choose will depend on the speed and closeness of your subject; slower subjects need a slower shutter speed to convey movement, while further subjects will require a slower shutter speed than one close to you.
Tips for slow shutter speed photography
- Use a tripod: Shooting with slow shutter speeds can be tricky. It’s easy to accidentally capture camera shake if you’re not careful – invest in a tripod to eliminate handheld shake.This is essential for super slow speeds like 1 second or higher.
- Invest in the right camera: Most DSLRs on the market today will do a fine job at slow shutter speeds when used correctly. Check out our post for my top 5 cameras for slow shutter speed photography. For other gear choices, check out my ultimate guide to photography gear for beginners or if you want to shoot & print pictures instantly check out my list of best polaroid cameras.
Quick shutter speed cheatsheet
1/4000 sec: Freeze extremely fast movement (think hummingbird wings, bumblebees flying)
1/2000 sec: Freeze birds in flight
1/1000 sec: Freeze motorcycles, cars and other fast vehicles
1/500 sec: Freeze mountain bikes, runners and athletes – this is often referred to as a “sweet spot” for sports photography
1/250 sec: Freeze slow-moving animals or people walking
1/125 sec: Pan motorcycles, cars and other fast vehicles
1/60 sec: Panning mountain bikes close to the camera
1/30 sec: Panning fast-moving cyclists at a distance
1/15 sec: Panning runners, kids or moving animals
1/8 sec: Blur fast moving water close to the camera
1/4 sec: Blur people walking
1/2 sec: Blur slow moving water
1 sec or slower: “Milky” water effect