Understanding shutter speed is fundamental to become an expert photographer. How does shutter speed work, how does it affect exposure, and how to take advantage of it to produce creative effects?
Learning how to set the shutter speed in your camera will take you out of automatic mode and dramatically improve your photography. Together with ISO and Aperture, shutter speed it’s part of the exposure triangle. It not only affects the brightness of your picture but it also lets you add an artistic touch by either introducing motion blur or by “freezing” action.
In this simple guide, I’ll explain everything you need to know about shutter speed and how to use it.
What is Shutter Speed?
Shutter speed is the length of time your camera shutter remains open to let the light come in, hit the camera sensor to record the image.
The shutter will fire immediately when you press the shutter button (or shutter release) and will close immediately after the sensor has collected the light.
It is also called exposure time and it’s measured in seconds or fractions of it. A 1/2 second exposure means a half a second speed and 10″ is 10 seconds, which is considered a very slow shutter speed and it’s normally used to produce motion blur.
At 1/1000th of a second you will freeze motion instead. Modern cameras such as the amazing Sony a6000 (you can buy it on Amazon for less the $500) can handle speeds of 1/4000th. Most expensive cameras get to 1/8000th of a second or 1/32000th of a second on the faster-hand side. While 60 seconds is the longest available speed, mostly used for long exposures and night photography.
How to Choose the Optimal Shutter Speed in Your Camera
In auto shooting mode, your camera will set it for you. Sometimes it will get it right some others instead it won’t. You can start shooting in automatic mode and see the different values your camera sets in different environments.
So you’ll have a rough idea of how it changes in different environments and light conditions.
Though, I highly recommend you to get away from Auto mode as soon as possible and start to experiment with different manual settings and shutter speeds. You can either use Manual mode or you can start with Shutter Priority mode, which I recommend. Here’s my Ultimate Beginners Guide to Camera Settings if you want to discover more about your camera menu and functionalities outside auto mode.
When you use Shutter Priority mode your camera will decide the aperture based on the Shutter speed. You can set the ISO or let the camera automatically set it for you.
Shutter Speed and Exposure
Shutter speed it has an impact on the Exposure. In fact it’s part of the Exposure Triangle together with Aperture and ISO.
To correctly expose your pictures, you’ll need to consider if lowering or increasing the exposure time. Depending on the light conditions of the environment you’re shooting in and the in-motion elements in your scene you’ll set your shutter speed.
In low light conditions, if you’re forced to lower the speed to get more light into the sensor, you won’t be able to handhold your camera since the image will be shaky and blurry. In those cases, you either need a good camera in-body stabilization or a tripod.
As I said, it’s also known as Exposure time. The longer the exposure time the more your image will be blurred if the subject is in motion. For action sports photography such as soccer photography or surf photography, for example, you want a fast exposure to freezing the image.
In low light conditions if your camera is not steady on a tripod and your shutter speed is slow your image will be blurry and shaky.
Shutter speed can be used to obtain some amazing creative effects. One is called “Long Exposure”. The Long Exposure technique is pretty common among photographers since it allows you to create dreamy images, like the one above.
Using a very slow exposure, hence a Long Exposure time objects in-motion such as water will produce a misty smooth effect in your image. You will need a tripod for this otherwise the static elements in your picture will be shaky and blurred.
Make to use an aperture value that won’t make the image be too overexposed since a slow shutter speed will let in more light resulting in a brighter photo.
For an in-depth guide on how to use this technique, read my articles Tips to Improve Your Long Exposure Photography.
When photographing moving subjects you can decide the effect you want to obtain and use the settings you’ve learned to achieve it. For misty water or motion blur, use a long exposure time. To freeze action use faster shutter speed.
By mastering this important element of photography you are able to decide the effect you want to obtain and choose the right setting in your camera depending on the situation.
Make sure you always find the right balance in your exposure triangle. Shutter speed itself is not enough and you also need to know how to set the proper aperture and ISO.
You might also be interested in The best tips if you’re starting in photography.
Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.