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6 Exercises to Master Shutter Speed in Photography for Beginners

Photo of a bike shot with high shutter speed. Shutter speed exercises for beginner photographers.

Mastering shutter speed is crucial for any photographer looking to elevate their craft. Shutter speed not only affects the brightness of your photos but also controls the appearance of motion.

In this guide, I’ll share six simple exercises tailored for beginners to help you understand shutter speed in photography and its creative potential.

Photography Exercises for a Deeper Understanding of Shutter Speed in Photography

1. The Impact of Shutter Speed on Exposure

This practical shutter speed exercise is designed to demonstrate the direct influence of shutter speed adjustments on the exposure level of your photos. 

By methodically changing the shutter speed while keeping other settings constant (aperture and ISO), you’ll see how it affects the amount of light captured and the resulting image brightness.

Instructions: 

  1. Choose a subject in a controlled lighting environment to ensure consistent light throughout the exercise. Indoors with artificial lighting works well for this.
  2. Mount your camera on a tripod to eliminate any movement that could affect the sharpness of your images. You don’t need to invest heavily in a tripod for this exercise; a basic, affordable tripod, such as those available on Amazon for around $20, will suffice.
  3. Set your camera to Manual mode. Choose an aperture setting that will remain constant throughout the exercise such as f/2.8, and set your ISO to a fixed value as well, such as ISO 200. This isolates shutter speed as the only variable affecting exposure.
  4. Start with a relatively fast shutter speed, such as 1/500th of a second, and take a photo of your subject. Note the exposure and the look of the image.
  5. Gradually decrease the shutter speed, moving to slower speeds like 1/250th, 1/125th, 1/60th, and so on, taking a photo at each step. Ensure you’re adjusting only the shutter speed and keeping the aperture and ISO constant.
  6. Observe and compare the images. Notice how the exposure changes as the shutter speed decreases (slows down), allowing more light to hit the camera sensor for a longer period, resulting in a brighter image.

Goal:

To gain a clear understanding of how shutter speed affects exposure, reinforcing the concept that slower shutter speeds increase exposure (brighter images) and faster shutter speeds decrease exposure (darker images).

Requirements:

A digital camera capable of Manual mode, a tripod, and a consistent light source.

Duration:

Dedicate about 1 hour to this exercise, allowing sufficient time to experiment with various shutter speeds and to review and compare the resulting images.

Here are three photos I took of a doll souvenir, using the natural light from a window to the right of the souvenir:

Notice how the second and third photos are underexposed (too dark). This is because the shutter speed was increased, from 1/100 sec to 1/2000 sec. The higher the shutter speed, the less light reaches the camera sensor, resulting in darker photos. To compensate, you must adjust the other two settings: aperture and ISO.

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2. Discovering Shutter Priority Mode with Traffic Photography

For this shutter speed exercise, you’ll need to find a spot with active car traffic. This exercise perfectly explains the intricate balance between shutter speed, motion capture, and exposure. 

Shutter Priority mode, often denoted as “S” or “Tv” (Time value) on your camera dial, allows you to select the shutter speed manually while the camera automatically adjusts the aperture to ensure correct exposure.

Shutter priority dial on a camera
Shutter Speed priority mode

A tripod can be incredibly useful in this exercise, particularly when experimenting with slower shutter speeds to capture the captivating light trails created by moving vehicles. If you don’t have a tripod, you can purchase an affordable yet reasonably good camera tripod from Amazon Basics.

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  • Instructions: Secure a location that overlooks busy traffic and set up your camera on a tripod. This will provide the stability needed for clear shots, especially in low-light conditions or when using slow shutter speeds. Switch your camera to Shutter Priority mode — look for “S” on the mode dial for Nikon, Sony, and other brands, or “Tv” for Canon. Start with a fast shutter speed, such as 1/500th of a second, to freeze the motion of the cars. Then, gradually decrease the shutter speed to capture the elongated light streaks of passing vehicles, creating those beautiful light trails. Pay attention to how the camera’s aperture adjusts with each change in shutter speed to maintain proper exposure.
  • Goal: To learn how shutter speed affects the depiction of motion in your photos and to observe the automatic adjustments your camera makes in Shutter Priority mode.
  • Requirements: A digital camera with Shutter Priority mode, a safe vantage point over busy traffic, and a camera tripod for stability during long exposures.
  • Duration: Allocate about 1 hour to this exercise, allowing you to experiment with a range of shutter speeds and observe the varying effects on your images, from frozen moments to mesmerizing light trails.

Here are a few photos that I took for this shutter speed exercise:

Notice how in the second photo, I had to set my aperture to the minimum value (f/2.8) and increase the ISO to 10,000 to achieve a properly exposed photo. It is slightly underexposed, but I opted not to increase the ISO further to avoid excessive graininess, which high ISO values can introduce.

Sidenote: I recommend doing this exercise in the evening to achieve a beautiful effect from car light trails.

3. Freezing Motion with Dynamic Subjects

This shutter speed exercise delves into the art of freezing motion to capture sharp, dynamic images that convey the energy and excitement of the moment. 

Whether it’s the joyous leap of a friend or the dramatic splash of water, mastering a fast shutter speed will allow you to preserve these fleeting moments in stunning clarity.

Instructions

  1. Choose a location that offers good lighting conditions. Bright, natural light works best for achieving fast shutter speeds without compromising on image quality.
  2. Position your camera on a tripod. For added creativity and to enhance the illusion of levitation, set up your camera to shoot from a lower angle. Positioning the camera to shoot upwards towards your subject can make the jump appear more dramatic and the subject seem as if they’re floating.
  3. Switch your camera to Shutter Priority mode, commonly marked as “S” or “Tv” on the mode dial. Start with a shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second to ensure the motion is frozen. You might need to go faster depending on the light and the speed of the jump.
  4. Coordinate with your jumper to time their leaps. Use a signal or count down to ensure you’re both in sync. Capture multiple shots during each jump to maximize your chances of getting the perfect ‘frozen’ moment.
  5. After each series of jumps, review your images. If your subject isn’t perfectly sharp, increase the shutter speed. Adjust your position or camera angle as needed to enhance the levitating effect.

Goal

To master the technique of freezing motion with high shutter speeds, capturing subjects in sharp detail and adding a creative twist by experimenting with camera angles.

Requirements

A digital camera with Shutter Priority mode, a tripod, and a willing subject.

Duration

Set aside 1-2 hours for this exercise, allowing time to experiment with different angles, shutter speeds, and jumps.

Photo of a young woman jumping
f/2.0, 1/800sec, ISO 100

4. Conveying Motion through Motion Blur

Master the technique of motion blur to bring a dynamic sense of speed to your images. Focusing on moving cars, this exercise will teach you how to use slower shutter speeds and the panning technique to create a sharp subject against a blurred background, effectively conveying movement in your photos.

Instructions:

  1. Find a visually appealing spot in the city adjacent to a road where cars pass by regularly. Ensure you’re positioned safely away from traffic.
  2. Hold your camera securely in your hands. Shutter Priority mode (“S” or “Tv”) will be essential for this exercise. Begin with a shutter speed that’s slow enough to blur the background yet allows you enough control to keep the moving car in focus, such as 1/30th of a second. Adjust based on the lighting conditions and the speed of the cars.
  3. Choose a car as it approaches and focus on it. As the car moves past you, smoothly move (or ‘pan’) your camera to follow the car’s trajectory. The key is to maintain a consistent speed with the moving car. Press the shutter button while you’re moving the camera, and continue the panning motion even after the photo is taken to ensure a smooth capture.

Panning Tips:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart to provide a stable base. Twist your upper body rather than moving your arms to ensure a smoother panning motion.
  2. Practice the motion of panning before taking your shot to ensure it’s smooth and consistent.
  3. Continuous shooting mode can be helpful as it allows you to take multiple shots as the car passes, increasing your chances of capturing a clear image with the desired motion blur effect.
  4. It might take several attempts to synchronize your panning speed with the car’s speed perfectly, so patience and practice are key.
Play Video about YouTube video thumbnail on how to take panning photos in photography
  • Goal: To adeptly use the panning technique to capture moving subjects clearly while creating a beautifully blurred background that conveys motion.
  • Requirements: A digital camera with Shutter Priority mode and a location near a road with moving cars.
  • Duration: Spend 1-2 hours on this exercise, giving yourself plenty of time to practice panning and to experiment with different shutter speeds.
motion blur shutter speed exercise car
f/4.5, 1/60s, ISO 100

5. Water in Motion

This exercise aims to showcase the tranquil beauty of moving water, be it the gentle flow of a river, the cascading tumble of a waterfall, or the rhythmic advance and retreat of ocean waves. Using slow shutter speeds, you’ll learn to transform the dynamic motion of water into a smooth, silky visual experience, highlighting the ethereal quality of water in motion.

Instructions: 

  1. Select a scene featuring moving water. This could be a river with a steady flow, a waterfall, or the waves at a beach. The key is to find water that’s moving consistently over or past obstacles, as this creates the most visually appealing effects.
  2. A tripod is crucial for this exercise due to the slow shutter speeds required. Set up your tripod to ensure your camera is stable and frame your shot, focusing on the area of water you want to capture with the motion blur effect.
  3. Switch your camera to Shutter Priority mode (“S” or “Tv”) and start with a slow shutter speed, such as 1/4th of a second. Depending on the light and the speed of the water, you may need to go slower, potentially several seconds, to achieve the desired silky effect.
  4. If you find the image is overexposed due to the slow shutter speed, consider using a lower ISO, a smaller aperture (higher f-number), or a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens.
  5. Take multiple shots, adjusting the shutter speed as necessary to refine the smoothness of the water’s motion. Review your photos in between shots to check the blur effect and exposure.

Goal 

To capture the movement of water in a way that it appears smooth and silky, showcasing the peaceful and ethereal nature of moving water.

Requirements

A digital camera with Shutter Priority mode, a tripod for stability during long exposures, and a scene with moving water.

Duration

Allocate 1-2 hours for this exercise to allow ample time for setup, experimentation with different shutter speeds, and adjustments based on the lighting conditions and the speed of the water.

Photo of a smooth waterfall taken with slow shutter speed
f/13.0, 1/8sec, ISO 100

6. Night Sky and Star Trails: Capturing the Cosmos

This exercise focuses on the technical aspects of capturing star trails, which are the continuous paths that stars appear to make in the sky due to Earth’s rotation. You’ll practice using long exposures to photograph the night sky, turning the stars into long light streaks.

Instructions: 

  1. Find a dark location away from city lights to avoid light pollution. A clear night is essential for clear star visibility.
  2. Secure your camera on a tripod to prevent any movement during the long exposure times required for star trails.
  3. Aim your camera towards a part of the sky that has clear visibility and interesting star patterns. Including the North Star in your frame can result in circular trails.
  4. Switch your camera to Manual mode. Use a wide aperture (the lowest f-number your lens supports, e.g. f/2.8) to allow as much light as possible to hit the sensor. Set the ISO between 800 and 1600 to start, balancing light sensitivity and noise.
  5. Long exposure times are necessary for capturing star trails. This could mean exposure from several minutes up to a few hours. If your camera has a Bulb mode, use it for exposures longer than 30 seconds. A remote shutter release or the camera’s built-in timer can help avoid camera shaking when starting and ending the exposure.
  6. Conduct a test shot first with a higher ISO and a shorter exposure (about 30 seconds) to check the focus and framing. Then adjust for the actual long exposure shot.
  7. If possible, review the shots on your camera to make any necessary adjustments to your setup or settings. Star trail photography often requires some trial and error to get the desired results.

Goal

To learn and apply the techniques needed for long exposure photography to capture star trails, understanding the settings and patience required.

Requirements

A digital camera capable of manual mode and long exposures, a tripod, and optionally, a remote shutter release.

Duration

This activity could span several hours, factoring in setup, test shots, and the long exposures needed for capturing star trails.

Night start photography example
f/7.1, 1312sec, ISO 400

Learning Shutter Speed Through Guided Photography Exercises: Conclusion

Mastering shutter speed is essential for any photographer looking to expand their creative horizons. Through the exercises outlined in this article, you’ve gained hands-on experience with freezing motion, capturing the fluidity of water, and even tracing the celestial paths of stars. Each technique opens up new possibilities for storytelling and artistic expression in your photography.

As you continue to experiment and refine your skills, remember that the true essence of photography lies in how you use these technical tools to convey emotion and capture moments. Keep exploring the capabilities of shutter speed to elevate your work and share your unique vision with the world.

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

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