shutter speed

What is Shutter Speed? Stupid-simple Beginner’s Guide

To capture the images that you dream of, you’ll ultimately need to get a grasp of how to control the camera manually. This seems daunting, but once you break down the three key components that you need, it’s not too bad! The pieces of the puzzle are ISO, aperture, and… shutter speed. 

Shutter speed mishaps tend to be the main reason that new camera enthusiasts are disappointed in their images. If you set the wrong shutter speed, then your images will either be blurry or they will be too dark. Get it just right and you can catch a snowboarder frozen in mid air! Here is how shutter speed works. 

What is Shutter Speed? 

In layman terms, shutter speed is how fast your camera can take a picture. In your settings or on the camera screen, this is denoted by 1/-insert number here-. This simply refers to how long the shutter in your camera is open. Shutter speed ranges from 1/8 all the way to 1/8000. 

The shutter is like a door, it opens and shuts (hence the name). Every time it opens and closes, a picture is taken. The larger the number after the 1/—, such as 1/1000, the faster the shutter moves. The smaller the number, the longer the shutter remains open because it is moving slower. 

Fast shutters capture photographs more quickly than slow shutters. Keeping your shutter moving quickly is what freezes action! When the shutter is slow, motion begins to blur because the doors don’t close quickly. When the motion blurs and the shutter is slow, this is called a long exposure. We will talk more about long exposures later in the article. 

Because the shutter is like a door, it has an unintentional purpose of controlling how much light hits the sensor. The shutter is located right between the lens and the aperture, which is the hole that leads to the sensor. The faster it moves, the less time light has to hit the sensor, and as such, your photographs will be darker. The slower the shutter moves, the more light hits the sensor, and the brighter your image will be. 

Shutter Speed and the Exposure Equation 

As mentioned in the introduction, in order to use your camera to its fullest potential, you need to grasp how to manually control the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. These three factors make up the exposure triangle or exposure equation. 

Exposure is the amount of light that reaches your camera. Too much light and your image will be too bright. Too little, and it’ll be too dark. Controlling your exposure is how you bring out the vividness of your shot or the moodiness of a solemn moment. 

Exposure is a formula: ISO + shutter speed + aperture = exposure. 

Like a mathematical formula, if one variable is changed, the rest are affected by the change. 

Here is their correlation, broken down in the simplest of explanations: 

The ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the camera is to light (but the less noise the photograph has). The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light (but the more noise the photograph has). Noise are the obnoxious little specks you see in photographs. 

The aperture controls how much light does (or doesn’t) hit your sensor. The lower the aperture number, the more light the camera lets in. The higher the aperture number, the less light the camera lets in. The lower the aperture number, the shallower the depth of field. The larger the aperture number, the deeper the depth of field. 

Finally, the shutter speed. The higher the shutter speed number, the darker the image. The lower the shutter speed number, the lighter the image. Fast freezes action and slow causes motion blur. 

Together, these three components keep balancing each other out to create the perfect exposure for your photograph!

The aperture and the shutter speed affect how much light is able to reach the sensor and the ISO controls what happens to the light when it touches the sensor. This is why a fast shutter speed causes a darker image, because if you imagine a shutter as a door that opens and closes, the faster you open and close the door the less time light has to fill a room. Therefore, the light has less time to reach the sensor, and as such, everything is darker!

How To Control Shutter Speed 

As a general view, on the majority of cameras you can control shutter speed by setting your camera to either Manual Mode or Shutter Priority Mode. 

Depending on the camera brand, Shutter Priority may be defined by an S in the menu dial or Tv (such as Canon) in the menu dial. Shutter Priority mode is when all you adjust is the shutter speed and the camera automatically adjusts the aperture and ISO accordingly in order to reach its definition of perfect exposure. It’s generally not recommended to rely on this form of automatic mode because the camera’s sensor is not always accurate and does not always make the right decisions. 

In Manual Mode, you control all of the variables yourself. Nearly all cameras have a dial that you spin in order to change the shutter speed, turning to the right (increasing the number) raises the speed and turning to the left (decreasing the number) slows it down. 

Freezing Action and Speeding Everything Up

Many people find freezing the action to be the most eye-catching aspect of photography. To be on the safe side of motion being frozen no matter what, going higher than 1/4000 is recommended, with 1/8000 being the maximum. Many sport photographers shoot at 1/8000. 

But that being said, lighting may not always be ideal and you’ll often need to go to a somewhat lower shutter speed in order to maintain proper exposure. The shutter speed you need to freeze action depends on how fast your subject is moving. 

Here is a general chart:

1/125-1/150 is great to snap a person walking leisurely. 

1/500-1/1000 seconds will capture a person running or jogging. 

1/500-1/2000 seconds will freeze an animal running. 

1/800-1/2000 seconds will photograph faster movements, such as a bird flying. 

1/500-1/8000 seconds is great for anything faster, such as a car racing on a track or horses galloping at the Kentucky Derby. 

Equally, anything about 1/125 allows you to photograph handheld and not need a tripod. 

Long Exposures and Slowing It All Down

Long exposures are when the shutter is open for a long period of time. This is used to blur movement or obscure elements and create a more artistic-looking image. If you’ve ever seen a photograph of a freeway with light trails or a waterfall with water that looks silky smooth, those are achieved with long exposures! 

Long exposures are also used to capture astrophotography and the night sky. Photographers place the camera on a tripod and let the shutter stay open for a very long period of time, perfectly still. The result are a thousand stars and sometimes even galaxies immortalized in a photograph. 

Long exposures are achieved with shutter speeds of the following: 

Landscape (making water look silky): Around 1/60

Speed light trails: Around 1/10” – 1/15”

Night sky: Around 1/20”

The longer the shutter is open, the lighter the image will be. That is why other than landscapes, you rarely see long exposures done during the daytime. 

So, how do landscape photographers do it? It might seem impossible given the fact that a slow shutter speed equals a very light image, but there is a solution! You can put a Neutral Density, or ND, filter onto your lens. 

Neutral density filters darken the frame so that you can photograph in really bright conditions. If you like shooting with super wide apertures, like F/1.4, but have to contend with the bright afternoon sun, you’ll want to place a neutral density filter on your lens. This is because the wide aperture will still overexpose your frame even when using the fastest shutter speed and the least sensitive ISO because too much light is entering the lens. But with a neutral density filter, you have the ability to modify how much light enters your camera and make your frame much darker. 

Going back to long exposures, if you find that setting your shutter speed too slow makes the photograph too bright, a neutral density filter can aid with that by darkening the frame enough for your to keep the shutter wide open. This is how those landscape photographers do it. 

Shutter Speed and Image Stabilization

When shopping for lenses, you may notice a few acronyms attached to the lens name. Letters such as “IS” in Canon equipment, “VR“ in Nikon, “OSS“ in Sony, and so forth are all brand terms to the same feature: image stabilization. 

Image stabilization is a system inside of a lens that is intended to reduce blurring associated with the motion of a camera. This mechanical system will make sure that your hand shaking or something bumping into your lens won’t cause an image to blur! 

So, how does this pertain to shutter speed? Well, image stabilization is also really handy if you like to shoot in low light. Image stabilization allows you to shoot in darker conditions without motion blur because you can lower your shutter speed even more. Image stabilization will ensure that a slow shutter speed won’t be affected by your hand shaking or the wind blowing a camera while on a tripod. 

As such, if you photograph a lot of night portraits or in light that is not ideal, having a lens with image stabilization is a worthwhile investment. 

If you capture photographs in brightly lit situations, then you can save your money. A fast shutter speed will already stabilize an image and prevent motion blur, even if your hand shakes! 

Shutter Speed and Frames-Per-Second

Every camera has something called FPS, or Frames-Per-Second. What this discloses is how many pictures a camera can snap per second of shooting. To access this feature to its maximum potential, you have to go to the menu of your camera and set it to either “Burst Mode” or “High Speed Continuous Shooting” (depending on your camera brand). Your camera will then fire off as many photographs as it is capable of taking per second. 

This relates directly to shutter speed, and can actually aid you in using slower shutter speeds. 

To capture the fastest FPS, set your shutter speed to something fast. This lets you photograph every sequence of an action, such as a dog chasing after a ball. 

If you have to use a slower shutter speed due to low light but still want to freeze the action, set the speed to something higher than 1/50 and then make sure your camera is in Burst Mode / High Speed Continuous Shooting. If you keep firing off and taking advantage of the FPS, at least one of the images will be perfectly still with no motion blur solely because of how fast the camera is able to take photographs! 

Shutter Speed and Aperture

Shutter speed doesn’t always have to be about the motion in your shot. You can also use shutter speed to help you shoot at the aperture that you want. This technique is used by landscape, still life, and portrait photographers all the time. 

If you’re using wide open apertures in brighter light, raise the shutter speed all the way to its maximum of 1/8000 in order to darken the shot enough to counteract the wide open aperture which lets the sensor get a lot of light. 

Or, if you want to shoot with a deeper depth of field and a narrow aperture, slow your shutter speed down to contend with the sensor getting less light due to the narrow aperture. 

Shutter Speed with Strobes and Other Artificial Light 

Now, everything we have been chatting about has to do with natural light. What if you’re a photographer looking to get into the photo studio? Your shutter speed rules may change a bit here. 

If you use continuous light (photography lights that stay on), your shutter speed can remain the same as you shooting outdoors because continuous light is meant to mimic natural light. 

If you use strobes, flashes, or speedlites- that’s a different story. These lights burst a very bright light in synchrony with your camera shutter. They are usually attached to the hot shoe (the silver metal component at the very top of your camera) and communicate with your camera through that, or they can be attached to a tripod and communicate with your camera via a remote control or wireless unit. When you click the shutter button the flash goes off. 

That being said, your shutter speed can actually be faster than the light from the flash. If you make your shutter too fast, you will get only half of the frame lit up or none at all! The light will travel slower than you photograph it! As such, you will become limited on your shutter speed, often to a speed of 1/250 or so to make sure the whole image is illuminated. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, accidentally setting your camera to a slow shutter speed or one that is too fast is often the reason for a lot of photography frustration! Understanding how to control your shutter speed will fix many common problems, and help you capture those “wow” captures of frozen movement! 

Remember, once more, the larger the number after the 1/— the more your action will freeze but the darker your photo will look, and vice versa. You’re able to adjust ISO and Aperture accordingly when you keep this in mind! 

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