Melissa Gaston: Find The Light


Photography 101: Understanding Shutter Speed

Capture motion by picking the right shutter speed

The second element in the Exposure Triangle is shutter speed. Your shutter speed represents the amount of time that the camera’s shutter stays open when you’re taking a photograph. The longer the shutter speed is open, the more light reaches your camera's sensor.

While aperture affects how much of your photo is in focus around the subject, shutter speed affects blur.

Shutter speed is a wonderful tool in the creative photo-making process, as it lets you freeze water mid-drop or smooth it out into a milk-like flow. (Some of these effects, however, are a bit tricky if you’re not using a tripod.)

On your camera, shutter speeds are represented in seconds:

1/60 is equal to 1/60th of a second (which may be shown as 0”60 on your camera).

The number after the quotation mark is the denominator of the fraction of the second, and the number before the quotation mark represents number of full seconds that the shutter will be open.

(If you see “B” or “Bulb” mode, that means that the shutter will stay open for as long as you are holding down the shutter or the cable release.)

Generally speaking, most cameras have shutter speed settings that double the shutter speed with each “stop,” as follows:











½ a second is twice as fast as 1 second, etc.

Since shutter speed impacts blur, you need to make sure that you can hold the camera steady for the length of time that your shutter will be open. If you can’t, then you need to use a tripod, monopod, or some other form of stabilization.

The basic rule of thumb is that you can’t hand-hold a camera for a shutter speed of less than 1/60 of a second, OR the shutter speed that is represented by the following equation:

1/the focal length of your lens

If you are using 50mm lens, you may be able to hand-hold a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second. If you’re using your zoom lens out to 200mm, then you’d need to have a shutter speed that is no lower than 1/200th of a second.  Remember that these are guidelines. Some photographers may be able to successfully hand-hold at slightly slower speeds, while others (like me) may want to set their shutter speed a stop faster.

Tip for those of you using a point-and-shoot camera: many cameras offer the option of setting a minimum shutter speed in your settings. I’d recommend using this option and setting it to 1/60th of a second.  This way, even if you’re shooting in Automatic Mode, your camera will prevent you from taking a blurry picture.

Now that you know the basics about hand-holding and shutter speed, what happens at different shutter speeds?

Check out these guidelines for when to use different shutter speeds:

This is just a sampling—different cameras will have different shutter speeds available to the photographer.

Also, these are just guidelines and other exposure factors may influence your shutter speed. If you need to use a really fast shutter speed, then you may need to adjust your aperture or ISO in order to let more light into your sensor. 

For example, if you want to take pictures of your child while he or she is playing hockey, you’d probably want to start a shutter speed of 1/500. Unfortunately, most arenas aren’t as bright as you think they are, so you’ll probably have to increase your ISO pretty high (and get a grainier photo) in order to freeze that motion.  Before you crank the ISO up too high, however, try a test shot at a lower shutter speed (therefore letting more light in) to see if you can still get a sharp photograph. Depending on your camera, you can always choose a large aperture, as well, but that will impact your focus area.

You may want to also try showing motion instead of freezing it. To do this, you need to try panning. The goal is to keep your subject in focus, with the background blurred in a way that illustrates the motion. To do this, you focus on your subject and keep the subject (parallel to you) in the same location in the frame. Turn your body (not your arms) and move with the subject parallel to you for the duration of the shutter speed. Panning is hard, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right away!

If locking in your shutter speed is the most important element to your photograph, you can use Shutter Priority on your camera to set your shutter speed and let the camera do the work to determine the appropriate ISO and Aperture to properly expose your shot. Shutter priority is shown as Tv on some cameras (Canon) and Mode S on others (Nikon). Read your manual to determine how to find it on your camera. This function is also available on most point-and-shoots, so don’t think you’re left out if you aren’t shooting with a dSLR!

Happy shooting!

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Hero image by Nevit Dilmen.