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What is Shutter Speed?

If you’re ready to explore photography outside of the Auto and Program modes, you’ll quickly learn there are three essential settings in any great image. Those settings are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Together, they combine to create what we call the Exposure Triangle. And achieving the right balance between these three settings is a must to create a properly exposed image.

It’s also an easy way to improve your skills and expand your creative flexibility. In today’s post, we’ll cover the role shutter speed plays in photography. And we’ll discuss topics like what it is, and its history. But, we’ll also cover how it affects the image and some tips to capitalize on.

What is a camera shutter? 

So what exactly is shutter speed? Well, shutter speed is the measurement, in seconds, of how long the camera’s shutter remains open and exposed to the ambient light. But, before going into more depth, let’s first discuss what a camera shutter is and its history.

Every camera has some mechanism to expose its sensor or film to light over a set amount of time. But, this mechanism only does so when activated. Otherwise, it remains inactive and blocks all incoming light. However, the design of these mechanisms has varied over the years.

Initially, the first cameras debuted with a cap-styled mechanism, which exposed the sensor similar to how we attach a lens cap. The cap opens, exposing the sensor, then after a set time, closes. The result is our final exposure or the image we see. At first, this design wasn’t problematic due to the longer exposure times required at the time. But as camera technology advanced, we eventually saw the debut of the leaf shutter design, which automates the old cap-style mechanism.

Now, the two plates that create the leaf separate apart mechanically to expose the sensor. Interestingly, we still see some cameras with this design today, like the Fujifilm X100V. And this design is actually ideal for using flash photography, as they offer higher sync speeds and better central brightness. But, the downside is that they don’t operate as fast as the newer focal-plane shutter.

Speaking of which, most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras feature a focal-plane shutter. This design uses an outermost garage-like door and a second to follow called the curtain. And this two-door approach helps balance light across the sensor to create an even exposure. It also offers the fastest working speeds, often reaching 1/8000 of a second. But, it’s a design that adds considerable bulk to most cameras. And closing the shutter design also causes slap, which can shake the camera enough to ruin an image.

Finally, we have the newest and most recent design of the full-time electronic shutter. This design removes the physical shutter mechanism and any mechanical function altogether. Instead, the camera’s processor sends input to power its sensor for a specific amount of time, thus replicating the action of a physical shutter. But, instead, it only works electronically. There are two sub-designed electronic shutters. The signal either turns off the entire sensor, called a Global shutter.

Or it activates a row of pixels from left to right, then top to bottom, a design we call a Rolling Shutter. Either way, though, the benefit is that triggering the sensor electronically is extremely fast. And it’s also entirely silent and vibration-free. But, this design often exhibits a strange distortion effect where vertical lines slant while panning the camera. And this distortion creates jello-like videos and otherwise skewed lines in photos. Even so, it does remove any physical bulkiness, making the camera housing slim and low-profile in the process. And for this reason, it’s the go-to standard amongst smartphones and most compact cameras.

But, regardless of the design, the shutter unit’s point is to capture the scene onto the sensor by exposing it to incoming lighting.

What is shutter speed?

So now that we’ve covered what a camera shutter is and its history let’s talk in more detail about shutter speed. As mentioned briefly above, shutter speed, also known as exposure time, is the measurement of how long the camera’s shutter remains open, and exposed to light.

In many ways, you can compare shutter speed to opening window curtains, blinds, or even a garage door. And what hides behind these doors is the camera’s sensor. The analogy works like this, the longer the curtains are open, the more light enters the room.

While the shorter they’re open, the less light enters the room. The amount of time that elapses between opening and closing will directly affect the final image. Namely, it’ll change the resulting exposure, that is, the brightness or darkness of the photo and how motion is captured. Together, these two factors give us photographers power and precise control over how the camera captures an image. Thus, understanding how the shutter speed works is a crucial lesson to master photography. And it’s a must-know for new photographers.

How is shutter speed measured?

So if the shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter opens and closes, how exactly do we measure that time? Well, we measure it in either full seconds or fractions of a second, like a tenth or one-hundredth of a second. So a shutter speed of 1 second means the shutter stays open for a full second. While a faster speed like 1/100 means it’s only open for a hundredth of a second or 0.01 seconds. The length of this interval is what we photographers refer to as a “slow” or “fast” shutter speed.

Generally, large denominators like 1/500th or 1/1000th are classified as fast shutter speeds. And their fast opening and closing time or short intervals let only a tiny amount of light through the lens onto the sensor. And this shorter time can properly freeze action or motion in the photo, effectively stopping time. But, it does result in a darker image since the sensor has less time to capture light.

In contrast, smaller denominators like 1/50th or 1/5th are classified as slower shutter speeds. These longer intervals let the shutter open and close slower, which lets in more light during that time and results in a brighter photo. But, you can capitalize on this longer time frame to create long exposures or blur movement within the photo for a creative effect.

We use faster shutter speeds in most situations because we want crisp and sharp images with great detail. And values around 1/125 to 1/250 sec are go-to’s when shooting handheld, especially during the daytime. But we use longer speeds to gather as much light into the camera in low light scenes. Or we use them to create motion blur or to do a long exposure.

To help, here’s a chart with the most common speeds.

1” 1/2 sec 1/4 sec 1/8 sec 1/15 sec 1/30 sec 1/60 sec
1/125 sec 1/250 sec 1/500 sec 1/1000 sec 1/2000 sec 1/4000 sec 1/8000 sec

Note: These are not the only shutter speeds possible. Many cameras also let you adjust these values in 1/3 stop increments, like 1/150 and 1/200. And this functionality gives you more fine control over the exposure of the photo.

Most of today’s cameras offer a shutter speed range from 30 seconds to 1/4000. But, you can also find many models that provide a Bulb (B) or Time (T) Mode, letting you keep the shutter open indefinitely so long as the release is held or as long as the timer allows. And you can also find many cameras with speeds as fast as 1/8000 sec.

How Do You Change the Shutter Speed? 

Nearly all cameras offer this basic function to control exposure. But, each manufacturer does have a slightly different layout, and the process does vary slightly. Even so, below is how to access shutter speed on most cameras.

  1. Put your camera into the Manual (M), Time Value (Tv), or Shutter Speed Priority (S) Modes.
  2. Rotate the command dial (usually found around the grip) left and right to increase or decrease the speed.

Shutter Speed Tips 

Shutter Speed and Focal Length

When you’re shooting handheld, always be wary of the shutter speed you’re choosing. Why? Well, with a long shutter speed, you risk the camera capturing shake caused by your hands. And it’s sometimes enough to blur the image and reduce clarity. The problem, though, is that focal length directly affects the camera shake. So as a general rule of thumb, avoid setting the shutter speed slower than the lens’s focal length.

For example, say you’re using a 50mm lens, then the maximum shutter speed to select here should be 1/50th or, say, 1/200th for a 200mm lens. Using a slower value than this will likely result in blurry images unless you’re using balancing techniques like breath timing or bracing yourself. Otherwise, in these situations, consider using a tripod or enabling image stabilization on the camera or lens.

Note: when calculating this minimum shutter speed, you have to factor your camera’s crop factor into the equation. So, for example, if you have a cropped sensor Canon camera, you’ll have to multiply the lens’ focal length by 1.6x, then use that value as the minimum. This direct calculation only works like this for a full-frame camera, which has a crop factor of 1.0x.

Shutter Speed and Exposure

Thankfully the relationship between shutter speed and its effect on light is linear. So if you double the speed from 1/30th to 1/15th, you double the amount of incoming light, thus doubling the exposure and causing a +1 EV shift. But, if you half the speed from 1/30th to 1/60th, you half the amount of light, cutting the exposure in half and causing a -1 EV shift. Understanding this relationship is key, as it’s essential to get a well-exposed photo.

But, also keep in mind that shutter speed is only one of three components in the exposure triangle. And achieving proper exposure also depends on the aperture and ISO settings. So, it alone won’t always be enough to get the photo you want.  But, as a rule, select a shutter speed that gives you the appropriate amount of blur or freezes the subject, then adjust the aperture and ISO accordingly for proper exposure.

Recording Video

When it comes to choosing the right shutter speed for video, the choice is quite simple. With video, you can use any shutter speed you want since the physical shutter mechanism remains open the entire time. And, instead, the sensor itself is exposed electronically for a set amount of time. So now the speed you choose only becomes a means of brightening or darkening the video and controlling the exposure. But you can create different creative effects too.

Using a slow speed such as 1/50th or 1/60th sec gives your video a cinematic feel with natural-looking motion blur. But you can select an even slower speed and amplify that blur even more. At the same time, higher speeds accentuate motion and give a video a detailed and more precise feel. And these faster speeds are go-to’s for sports broadcasts when each delicate movement matters. Either way, though, you can use any shutter speed when filming a video. So the speed you choose depends on personal preference and how you want action conveyed in the video.

As a rule of thumb, though, select your shutter speed for video based on its frame rate. For example, if you’re recording at 30 FPS, you’d double that value and round to the nearest shutter speed increment. In this case, that would be 1/60th sec. Selecting the speed this way is a surefire way to produce videos with a cinematic feel and natural motion blur.

Avoiding Camera Shake

Whenever you take a picture handheld without a tripod, you risk camera shake introducing blur into the photo. Sadly, regardless of how steady you may try to be, none of us are truly perfectly still. And even slight movements can lead to blur bad enough to ruin an otherwise excellent photo. So in most situations, you’ll want a shutter speed that not only freezes any movement but also avoids camera shake in the process.

As mentioned above, there’s also a relationship between shutter speed and focal length. So keep that in mind. Thankfully, though, a shutter speed of 1/125 sec is sufficient to avoid camera shake in most situations and for most lenses. However, if you’re photographing a low light scene and you can’t increase the ISO or open the aperture, you’ll have to drag the shutter. So be ready to attach your camera to a tripod or steady your hands if that’s the case.

Creating Motion Blur

There are times when you’ll want to add motion blur intentionality for a creative effect. And instead of freezing the action, you may want to include a sense of motion to the subject. It’s also a great way to show movement within the frame, remove unwanted subjects, and increase exposure. In these situations, using a slow shutter speed like 1/5th sec will blur the motion of cars, animals, runners, and any movement across the image.

But beware, if there’s wind, you can also see ghosting from leaves or foliage moving throughout the image. So consider the subject matter closely. Another technique is intentionally panning the camera or moving it randomly while using a slow shutter, which has an interesting effect too.

One thing of note here is that if you double the camera’s distance to the subject, you’ll halve its speed through the frame. Thus, you can achieve the same amount of motion blur with half the shutter speed.

So say, the first distance is 10 feet, and the speed was 1/30th sec, but at 20 feet, it would be 1/60th sec. However, if the subject were to double its speed, you’d have to double the shutter speed to get the same blur. So now say a car goes from 10 mph to 20 mph, the shutter doubles from 1/60th sec to 1/30th sec. This relationship is also something to keep in mind if you want to properly capture motion blur.

Freezing Action

Sometimes you’ll want to “freeze” the subject’s action completely, so every detail is sharp and free of any motion blur. For example, say you’re taking a photo of a pitcher during a throw or a dancer in mid-air. So in these situations, you’ll want an appropriately fast shutter speed that freezes the action but also gives you enough room for a good exposure.

For most sports, a shutter speed of 1/1000th sec is sufficient and a good starting point. But, it’s important to understand that the best shutter speed varies based on the speed of the motion. So below is a chart of some other situations where a faster or slower speed is needed.

Shutter Speed Use
1/125 Capturing panning shots of cars, runners, athletes, etc.
1/250 Freezing normal human movements like walking, light jogging, kids playing or freezing slow moving wildlife
1/500 Freezing faster human movements like running or throwing
1/1000 Freezing fast action like moving cars or professional athletes playing sports
1/2000 Freezing birds in flight
1/4000 Freezing fast movement subjects like trains, race cars or motorcycles

Long Exposures

Besides capturing motion blur, you can use slow speeds for even greater blur. And long exposure photography and light painting rely heavily on these effects. Shutter speeds above 1 second (1″) are a go-to to create so much blur that it makes motion look artistic and gives images a unique feel. The only consideration for this form of photography is that you’ll want to use a sturdy tripod to avoid any camera movement ruining the image.

Use Neutral Density (ND) Filters 

If you plan on capturing long exposure images during the day, you’ll quickly realize there’s such a thing as having too much light. During the day, you can only narrow your aperture and reduce the ISO so much. But often, an aperture of f/22 and an ISO of 100 aren’t enough to properly expose a 5-second exposure. Thankfully, in comes the neutral density (ND) filter. An ND filter is a dark piece of glass that reduces the amount of light coming into the lens. And it can help you capture daytime long exposure images with shutter speeds as long as 5 minutes in length.

Closing Thoughts

There you have it. There’s a full breakdown of shutter speed and how it relates to photography. Now you’re armed with the knowledge to create smooth oceans, creamy skies, or capture sharp action shots. But, in the beginning, focus on getting sharp images and the speeds necessary to avoid camera shake.

Once you’ve mastered that for each of your lenses, move into freezing different types of action. From there, you can experiment with the more creative aspects of shutter speed. And you’ll soon realize that this exposure triangle element unlocks many creative effects.

About Devaun Lennox

Is an upcoming fashion and editorial photographer based in Las Vegas, NV. Launching into the scene in early 2017 and shooting, on average, 20 of the top local talents and faces monthly since then, he’s been able to...