Get the most out of your camera with this breakdown of shutter speed and its technical and creative influence on photography.
Words and Photography by Urth HQ
What is Shutter Speed?
Shutter speed is the second corner of the exposure triangle and simply defined, is the amount of time your film or digital camera’s sensor is exposed to light.
When we take photographs, we open the camera to the elements, allowing light to pour in and the framed image to be permanently captured. How long we leave the shutter open is what we refer to as shutter speed (also referred to as exposure time).
Think about a stage play and the red curtains. Once the curtain is drawn, you can see the actors and actresses on the stage. The shutter of a camera is exactly the same — a curtain is drawn, exposing the camera to the light passing through the lens, and then closed once the exposure is finished.
What Does Shutter Speed Do?
Much like aperture or ISO, shutter speed has both a technical application and a creative one.
The brightness of a photograph can be determined by how quick or slow your shutter speed is set to. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more light you’re allowing to pass through the lens and hence, the brighter the image.
But more interestingly, the speed of your shutter is capable of producing striking artistic effects without the need for post-production manipulation.
If exposing an image for a lengthy period of time, the image becomes susceptible to motion blur. This can be an undesired effect if you accidentally kick your tripod for instance, but if used deliberately, can be a dramatic and creative way to visually heighten other senses.
A camera pointed at a waterfall with a slow shutter speed, for example, will capture a beautiful blur of several seconds of falling water rather than an instant.
And alternatively, a fast shutter speed, such as 1/4000th of a second, will stop time precisely. Freeze a whale’s breach and suspend the millions of water droplets around it. Freeze a Formula One driver travelling at 300 kilometres per hour down the main straight.
In a nutshell, fast shutter speeds freeze action while slow shutter speeds create motion when photographing moving objects.
Check out this shutter speed chart below for a visual explanation.
“Fast shutter speeds freeze action while slow shutter speeds create motion.”
How to Adjust Shutter Speed
Setting or adjusting the shutter speed can be done in Manual Mode (M on your camera dial) and Shutter-Priority Mode (different between each camera manufacturer but most likely T or Tv on your camera). I know what you’re thinking… it should be S or Sv, right? But because shutter speed is measured in time values, it’s abbreviated as T or Tv.
It’s important your shutter speed dial is easily accessible and comfortable to use when shooting in Manual. If you dive deep into your camera menu settings you can actually designate which dials serve each function. Ensure your shutter speed dial is in the best position possible for a quick adjustment, it could be the difference between an image captured and an image missed. The dial closest to the trigger is most likely the dial you want controlling shutter speed, allowing easy movement between shutter speed and shutter release.
Familiarise yourself with your camera’s fastest and slowest speeds. Most cameras have a maximum speed of 1/4000th of a second while some professional set-ups reach 1/8000th of a second. As for the slowest speeds, most digital cameras these days will allow a 30 second exposure before the use of cable releases and remote triggers is needed.
Like most camera settings, shutter speeds are measured in fractions. But fractions are only measured until the shutter speed reaches a full second. This is generally indicated with a quotation mark, i.e. 4” represents four seconds.
A final note about adjusting shutter speeds: when you first start experimenting with slower shutter speeds to blur a waterfall or smooth an ocean, you might notice that your photo is overexposed. You can compensate for the increase in light by adjusting your aperture and ISO settings, but you many also need to use an ND filter, which blocks light from entering your lens. More on that here.
What Fast Shutter Speed Looks Like
You can tell if a photograph was taken with a fast shutter speed if you can’t see any blur around an object that would typically move quickly, like a car or a bird.
What Slow Shutter Speed Looks Like
Slow shutter speed photographs will almost always include a degree of blur. Whether it’s the blur of a car moving through the street, or waves lapping at the shore, opening the lens for an extended period of time exposes your camera’s sensor to the inevitable motion in front of it.
Fast & Slow Shutter Speeds
Take a look at the below shutter speed example and see the effect of using different shutter speeds on the same scene.
What Shutter Speed to Use
Before determining what shutter speed to use, you need to consider your intent. Are you trying to freeze time or are you trying to show the passage of time? There’s a generic set of principles and shutter speeds for each of the below categories, but these are just basic frameworks that can be altered in the name of experimentation.
SHUTTER SPEED FOR SPORTS
A fast shutter speed is typically required when shooting sport because the objective is to freeze action and show a fast-moving tennis ball about to ricochet off a player’s racquet. If the ball, the racquet and the player are all blurry and unrecognisable, then what’s the point?
For sports, and depending on what kind of sport, set your shutter speed to 1/250th of a second to begin with. Take a few shots and review the results. If you notice some blur, adjust the speed. For something super fast like motor racing, you may want to start at the fastest speeds your camera has available at 1/4000th of a second.
SHUTTER SPEED FOR PORTRAITS
The right shutter speed for portraits depends on the portrait subject’s ability to sit still and your ability to handhold a camera.
As a general rule of thumb, when trying to avoid any motion blur in portraiture, we’d recommend setting your shutter to 1/125th of a second at a minimum speed, and adjusting your ISO and aperture settings to accommodate for further light.
SHUTTER SPEED FOR LOW LIGHT
In low light conditions such as night photography, you are going to firstly need a sturdy tripod so you can use low shutter speeds without getting any blur from hand holding the camera. You will then need a lengthy exposure time for the lack of light to really have an impact on your camera’s sensor.
If capturing stars and the Milky Way, try working backwards from 30” while ensuring your aperture and ISO are set accordingly to translate the available light into a stunning photograph.
SHUTTER SPEED FOR WATERFALLS
Waterfalls are the champions of slow shutter speed photography. The composition of these photographs often include a really sharp background of rocks and trees while motion is created from the falling water.
Set your shutter speed to 1” to begin with. See how much water movement is created before adding more seconds to the exposure.
The other hallmark of waterfall photography is a neutral density filter. Check out this article for the low-down on one of the most useful filters for outdoor photographers.
SHUTTER SPEED FOR STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
Street photography is an interesting environment for shutter speed experimentation. Freezing the action of passersby is often the objective, in which case you’ll need a quick shutter speed like 1/250th of a second. But there are also great examples of photographer’s using slower shutter speeds to create blur and a sense of movement within the frame. To do that, you’ll need to set your shutter speed at around 1/8th of a second
Whether eliminating motion or creating it, shutter speed is a tool each photographer should aim to master. If you’ve never tried motion blur or other shutter speed photography techniques, make your next walk around the block a pilot study in how speed influences an image.