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An Introduction to Shutter Speed: A Beginner’s Guide

Photo of a fast moving ATV with splashes.

Shutter speed is a photographer’s best friend. It can freeze action or create motion blur, making your images look smooth or like they’re from the future!

The shutter speed you choose will depend on a couple of things: 

  • what kind of photo you want to take
  • what kind of lighting conditions you’re shooting in
  • what effect you want to achieve.

Continue reading and you’ll learn all you need to know about shutter speed and how it affects your camera’s exposure.

What Is Shutter Speed in Photography?

Shutter Speed Definition

Shutter speed (also known as exposure time) is a photography term that refers to the length of time that a camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. It determines how much light can reach the camera’s sensor and affects how motion is captured in the image.

What Does Shutter Speed Do?

First, shutter speed is vital in changing exposure – alongside ISO and aperture. Secondly, you can use shutter speed to freeze action or blur it out to convey something intentionally (I’m going to dive further into motion blur further down in this article).

So, shutter speed is the time the gate (or shutter) remains open, allowing light to hit the camera sensor and create a photograph. It’s measured in seconds or fractions of a second, with faster shutter speeds expressed as smaller fractions (e.g., 1/1000th of a second) and slower speeds as larger fractions (e.g., 1/10th of a second).

The distance between these time frames is called an exposure stop.

Male running in a snow. High shutter speed example
ISO 100, f/5.0, 1/1000s

What Does the Shutter Speed Control?

A fast shutter speed means:

  • Less light entering the camera
  • The shutter is open for a short time (high-speed shutter)
  • A darker image
  • Freezing motion more effectively
  • To capture the action, events, sports

A slow shutter speed means:

  • More light entering the camera
  • The shutter is open for a longer time
  • A brighter image
  • Increased risk of motion blur
  • To capture the movement as a smooth blur & to capture more light

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Choosing a Shutter Speed

I always prefer to take some time to think about what shutter speed to use beforehand – and I’ve come to the conclusion that choosing the right setting is all about balance!

To set the ideal shutter speed, you’d have to consider the following factors:

The subject: A fast-moving subject like a car or sports athlete will require a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (around 1/1000s), while a slower-moving subject like a portrait of a person requires a slower shutter speed (around 1/100s).

Highlighting a subject using shutter speed is about how much movement you want to show.

Portrait photo of a young woman next to the brick wall with art on the left side

Lighting conditions: In low-light situations, you may need to use a slower shutter speed to allow more light to reach the camera’s sensor, while in bright conditions, a faster shutter speed may be necessary to prevent overexposure.

The lens: The longer the lens focal length, the more prone the image is to camera shake, so a faster shutter speed is necessary to prevent blur. Also, some lenses have “image stabilization” incorporated, and they combat unwanted shakiness more than regular lenses.

How to Change the Shutter Speed in Your Camera

Camera shutter speed dial

Setting the shutter speed can be done in two ways:

  • through the camera’s internal settings
  • by physically rotating a shutter speed dial located on the top of the camera body.

Back in the day, photographers used shutter speeds by physically uncovering and covering the camera lens to let light in for a specific time. But things have advanced quite a lot since then.

There are a few modes you can choose from when considering shutter speed:

Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter priority dial on a camera
Shutter Speed priority mode

In this mode, you choose the shutter speed setting, and the camera automatically selects the appropriate aperture to achieve the correct exposure. This mode is useful when you want to control the motion blur in your image, for example, when photographing sports or wildlife.

To set the shutter speed setting in this mode, look for the “Tv” or “S” mode on your camera’s mode dial. Then, use the control dial to adjust the shutter speed.

Manual Mode

Manual camera mode
Manual mode

In this mode, you have complete control over both the shutter speed and aperture. This mode is useful when you want complete creative control over your image or when shooting in tricky lighting conditions.

To set the shutter speed in manual mode, look for the “M” mode on your camera’s dial. Then, use the control dials to adjust the shutter speed and aperture to achieve the desired exposure

Shutter Speed and Motion Blur

Motion blur happens when there is movement when the sensor is exposed to the scene. The longer the sensor is exposed, the more motion blur you’ll see in the final image.

Motion blur example

Think of it like a painting: if you move your hand quickly while painting, you’ll get a blur on the canvas. But if you move your hand slowly, you’ll get a more defined stroke.

Let’s say you’re trying to photograph a bird in flight. Using a fast shutter speed, like 1/1000 of a second, you’ll freeze the bird’s motion and get a sharp image. But if you use a slower shutter speed, like 1/20 of a second, the bird’s wings will be blurry, and you’ll see more motion in the image.

Another important thing to consider is how steady your camera is during the exposure – that way, you can avoid camera shake. Of course, the solution is simple: using a tripod can help keep your camera stable for longer exposures.

Long exposure photography with tripod

When deciding your shutter speed, you must also consider how much light is available. If you’re using a fast shutter speed, you’ll need bright conditions, a high ISO, or a wider aperture to let enough light in. Thus, this becomes a balancing act between motion blur and exposure.

Choosing the Right Shutter Speed for Different Photography Scenarios

​​Choosing the right shutter speed for your photos is as important as choosing the right lens. That being said, here are some shutter speed examples, depending on the desired result:

When to Use a Fast Shutter Speed Photography

  • During a bright day: Fast shutter speeds can be used during a sunny day when there is a lot of light, as they can help to prevent overexposure and capture sharp, detailed images
  • During sports: A fast shutter speed for sports photography can freeze the action and capture sharp images of moving subjects, such as athletes or runners. A shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second or faster is often used to freeze fast-paced action.
  • In portrait and fashion photography: In a portrait, shutter speed is slowed to capture natural-looking images. In contrast, fast shutter speed photos can freeze motion, such as a model’s hair or clothing in windy conditions.
  • Bird photography often requires fast shutter speeds to capture sharp images of birds in flight.
  • In street photography: to capture candid moments and freeze action in fast-paced environments, such as a cyclist riding by or a person running across the street.
  • In landscape photography, you can use fast shutter speeds to capture fast-moving elements such as waves and waterfalls or freeze motion in windy conditions.
Offroad ATV in forest with fast shutter speed

When to Use a Slow Shutter Speed:

  • Night photography: When shooting in low light conditions, a slow shutter speed can help capture more light without raising your ISO and getting a lot of noise in your image. Aside from capturing more light, a slow shutter speed for night photography can create long exposure shots with blurred lights and motion.
  • Landscape photography when capturing water or a waterfall: To capture the movement of water in a waterfall or a stream, you can use a slow shutter speed to create a smooth, silky effect.
  • To remove people: When photographing a crowded area or a busy street, a slow shutter speed can help to remove the people from the scene. Using a tripod and a long exposure time, any moving object (such as people) will appear as a blur or disappear altogether, leaving only the stationary objects in the frame.
Night photography waterfall and stars

Creative Ways to Use Slow Shutter Speed Photography

Rotating your camera while using a slow shutter speed can produce stunning, abstract images that give your pictures a sense of motion and fluidity. This technique can create unique and surreal images, such as light trails, abstract landscapes or cityscapes, and even portraits or concert shots.

Light painting: Use a slow shutter speed to capture a dark scene, then use a flashlight, sparkler, or another light source to “paint” light into the image. This can create unique and abstract slow shutter speed photos.

Light painting with long exposure

Panning photography: Panning is a technique that involves following a moving subject with your camera while using a slow shutter speed to create a motion blur in the background. This technique is often used in sports and action photography to convey a sense of speed and movement.

Ultra-long exposures for capturing star trails: Using a slow shutter speed of several minutes or more, you can catch the motion of the stars in the night sky as they move across the frame. This creates a beautiful effect known as star trails. To achieve this, you’ll need to find a location away from light pollution and use a tripod to keep your camera steady.

Silky water: Use a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of water, such as a waterfall, river, or even waves crashing on the beach. This will create a silky, smooth effect on the water.

Photo of a silky waterfall

Ghosting: Slow shutter speed photos can capture people or objects moving through the frame. If they move quickly enough, they may appear as ghost-like figures in the final image.

Zoom blur: Use a slow shutter speed and zoom your lens during the exposure to create a blur effect that draws the viewer’s eye to the center of the image.

Multiple exposures: Take multiple shots of the same scene using a slow shutter speed, then combine them in post-processing to create a unique and layered image.

Shutter Speed FAQs:

How Do I Set the Perfect Shutter Speed?

There’s no such thing as a perfect shutter speed. 

The desired shutter speed is determined by the specific situation and desired effect you want to achieve. A fast shutter speed generally freezes motion, while a slow shutter speed creates motion blur.

When choosing, you must consider factors such as the subject, lighting conditions, and lens you’re using.

What Shutter Speed Is Too Fast?

No specific shutter speed is too fast; it depends on the situation and desired effect. 

However, using a shutter speed faster than the camera’s sync speed (the maximum shutter speed that can be used with flash) may result in an underexposed image, as the flash will not have enough time to illuminate the subject properly.

A camera can typically reach the highest shutter speed (also called the fastest shutter speed) of 1/8000th of a second – and even more in some models.

Photo of a fast moving ATV with splashes.

How Low Is Too Low for Shutter Speed?

The maximum length of time you can keep your camera’s shutter open without needing a remote shutter release is generally limited to 30 seconds, varying according to your camera’s specifications. So this is the lowest shutter speed.

Using a shutter speed that is too slow for the subject’s movement or the camera’s stability may result in motion blur or camera shake, respectively.

A good rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that is at least equal to the focal length of the lens (e.g. if using a 50mm lens, use a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second or faster).

Shutter Speed PRO Tips

  • Pick a lens with shutter speed in mind: some lenses have a special technology called “image stabilization” or “vibration reduction” built into them. This technology helps photographers take clear pictures even when holding the camera and using a slow shutter speed, even while moving.
  • As a general rule of thumb, it is recommended to use a shutter speed that is at least equal to the reciprocal of your focal length. If you use a 200mm lens, the reciprocal of that would be 1/200 (or 0.005), so you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/200th of a second or faster.
  • Place more emphasis on shutter speed when using a flash: Flash sync speed refers to the fastest shutter speed at which a camera can synchronize with a flash unit. This means that the flash will fire at the exact moment the shutter is fully open, allowing for proper exposure and illumination of the subject.
A young woman taking photos of a steak. Food photography with flash
  • If you use a shutter speed faster than the flash sync speed, you might end up with a dark band in your photo where the shutter was still closing when the flash went off. However, some cameras have a flash mode called high-speed sync that lets you use faster shutter speeds with your flash. This mode makes the flash fire multiple times during the exposure to ensure that at least one of the flashes goes off when both parts of the shutter are open.
  • When calculating your shutter speed, consider the speed of your subject: The faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed you will need to freeze the motion. For example, a hummingbird flaps its wings about 80 times a second – to freeze that, you need a shutter speed in the thousandths.

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What is Shutter Speed in Photography: Conclusion

As you may have noticed, shutter speed can be a much more complex topic than it seems at first glance. After reading this article, you should have a better grasp on how shutter speed can work for and against you as a photographer.

But don’t forget to take note of its interplay with Aperture and ISO. Knowing how each functions individually isn’t enough – you should know when to use them together and how they work synergistically to create a better photo.

Always practice; if you don’t know where to start, check out my other hands-on articles.

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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.

Discover Why 2,367 Photographers Love This Free eBook!

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

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