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If you’re interested in taking photos, shutter speed is one of the fundamental concepts that you should learn first. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a film camera or a digital, the information is the same for both.
Once you understand how shutter speed works, you’ll have better control of your camera and a greater ability to translate your vision to the final image.
We’ve also included some techniques / shooting situations where you can utilize your knowledge of shutter speed to achieve interesting, creative results.
What is Shutter Speed?
In the simplest terms, shutter speed is the amount of time that a camera’s shutter is open, exposing the film (or digital sensor) to light.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or fractions of a second. For everyday photography, you’ll be using mostly fractional shutter speeds.
An example of a fractional shutter speed would be 1/50, meaning one fiftieth of a second. On the flip side, if you see a shutter speed marked 2 or 2″, that would indicate two full seconds.
Most cameras have shutter speeds that go as fast as 1/2000 and as slow as 30 seconds.
We’ll use the terms “fast” and “short” interchangeably – a fast shutter speed means the shutter is open for a short amount of time.
Likewise, “slow” and “long” are interchangeable – a slow shutter speed means the shutter is open for a long amount of time.
How Does Shutter Speed Affect Exposure?
Shutter speed works together with the aperture and ISO to determine the exposure of an image.
Exposure is the measure of how visible a photo is – a good exposure is one where you can see all of the details in the image, even the brightest and darkest parts.
An overexposed image is one where you cannot see parts of the image (or the entire image) because it’s too bright. And you probably guessed it – an underexposed image is one that is too dark.
So, the amount of time that the camera’s shutter is open (AKA the shutter speed) helps determine how bright or dark your image will be (AKA the exposure).
A slower shutter speed means the shutter is open longer and therefore lets more light in. The longer/slower the shutter speed, the brighter your image will be.
Meanwhile, a faster shutter speed means that the shutter will be open for shorter, letting in less light. The shorter/faster the shutter speed, the darker your image will be.
Shutter speed is only one piece of the puzzle, though – aperture and ISO also help determine the overall exposure of the image.
Each of these three settings (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) all do the same thing – determine how much light is being recorded when you take a photo.
The key to photography is understanding how to balance these three settings to create the best exposure possible.
While shutter speed directly affects the exposure of an image, it can completely change the look of your image in another way – by changing how motion is captured.
Long / Slow Shutter Speed
Many times, the shutter speed is the first setting that you’ll adjust to get a good exposure.
There are a lot of shutter speeds available on most cameras, so you have plenty of flexibility to change the brightness of your photo just by adjusting this setting.
Especially for still subjects, most of the available shutter speeds will work fine.
The biggest constraint is that if the shutter speed is slow enough, it can pick up the micro movements in your hands, leading to a blurry photo.
Avoiding Camera Shake
The general rule of thumb is that for a steady, handheld photo, the slowest shutter speed should be no less than the fractional equivalent of the focal length. Don’t worry, it sounds more complicated than it really is…
If you are using a 50mm lens, this just means that you should not use a shutter speed any longer than 1/50.
If you’re using a 28mm lens, the slowest shutter speed should be 1/30 (because there is no 1/28 shutter speed, so you use the closest).
Remember, you don’t have to use the shutter speed that is the exact equivalent of the focal length – this is just a maximum.
Beginners may prefer to increase the shutter speed a few stops above the suggested speed to ensure steady images.
When Should You Use a Slow / Long Shutter Speed?
There are situations where a slow shutter speed has nothing to do with exposure, instead it can be a stylistic choice.
A longer shutter speed collects more light because the shutter is open longer, but it also captures more motion. This can significantly change the final image.
Especially when you’re taking photos of moving subjects, you’ll really have control over how you want the motion to be displayed in your image.
There are certain instances where using a slower shutter speed to blur the motion can add much more depth to the story you’re trying to tell with your photo.
The shutter speed is somewhat subjective when it relates to moving subjects. This just means that there’s no universal setting that’s considered a “slow” vs “fast” shutter speed.
The speed your subject is moving will have just as much impact on the level of motion blur produced in the final image.
It can be difficult to achieve precise levels of motion blur when you’re first starting in photography. But as you get more comfortable adjusting the settings of your camera, you’ll start to be better at estimating the relationship between the shutter speed and the speed of a moving subject.
Some of the most interesting uses of a slow shutter speed are those that find the balance of some motion blur, while other parts of the scene are still.
A great example of this technique is in landscape photographs with moving water in the scene – the shutter speed is slow enough for the water to produce a motion blur, while the other parts of the scene are completely still.
Let’s look at some sample photos to illustrate the ideas discussed above – here are examples of photos taken with a slow shutter speed.
Fast / Short Shutter Speed
There are just as many situations where you want to reduce any noticeable motion blur and keep everything as sharp as possible.
A faster shutter speed will help you accomplish these things, capturing an extremely short, precise moment in time without any visible motion.
The difficulty with using fast shutter speeds is that they don’t let much light into the camera, so using a faster speed can make it hard to get a good exposure.
When Should You Use a Fast / Short Shutter Speed?
Many genres of photography rely on the use of fast shutter speeds – sports, wildlife, and street photography to name a few.
The goal of all three of these types of photography is the same: to capture an extremely short, specific moment in time.
Especially in situations where the subject is moving quickly, a short shutter speed can produce interesting photos that really give you the power to freeze time.
You may want to use a faster shutter speed when you’re taking any type of candid photos – if your subject doesn’t know exactly when they’re getting their photo taken, there’s a good chance that they’ll be moving when you snap the shot.
You can greatly improve your chances of getting a sharp image by keeping your shutter speed a few stops higher than you would select for a still subject.
To really understand when to use a faster shutter speed, it helps to look at some examples.