Course Content

Total learning: 7 lessons / 3 quizzes

Shutter speed

Click-clack or click ………………. clack…

That sound when you take a photograph? That is the sound of the shutter in your camera. How fast your shutter opens and closes again after you’ve pressed the button on top of the camera (also known as the shutter release) determines the shutter speed.

What is shutter speed?

With shutter speed, you determine how long you are letting the light in. When you are not making a photograph, the light is blocked by a metal slider, this is called shutter-curtain. When the photograph is being made the curtain slides away so the light can fall on the sensor. When the photograph has been made, the curtain slides back so the light no longer hits the sensor and the photograph has been made. When you are in an environment with a lot of light, your shutter speed mostly will be short, but when you are in an environment with little light, normally your shutter speed will belong. When your shutter speed becomes too long, you can no longer photograph freehand.

Most shutter speeds are shown as fractions of seconds, for example, 1/500th.

Display

Your camera probably displays this as 500 to save on space. When your shutter speed becomes slower than 1 second, this is mostly indicated with an “. For example 2” would be 2 seconds.


Photograph by Ahmad Odeh

What does shutter speed do?

The shutter speed has two effects: With a longer shutter speed your brightness will go up but with a longer shutter speed but you will also introduce more movement. This movement might result in an image that is not sharp. If this is desirable or not is up to you! Often photographers want to freeze the moment, but a bit of movement might give the photograph some life. In this lesson, you will learn all about this and what you can do to achieve the effect you desire. There are a lot of fun things you can do with longer shutter speed!

Shutter speed and exposure

The faster your shutter speed becomes, the darker your image gets. You could compare this with a glass that is being filled. The longer you leave the tap open, the more water (or beer) can pass through to fill the glass. A fuller glass would mean a brighter exposure. In this comparison, the width of the tap would be the aperture.

 Photo by Bence Boros

The longer you have your shutter open, the brighter your photograph will become, the shorter your shutter is open, the darker your photograph will become.

However, shutter speed is not the only variable that influences the exposure of your photograph. With ISO and aperture, you can also influence exposure. You will learn more about these subjects in the other lessons.

example motionblur and exposure 1 second
example motionblur and exposure 1/20th
example motion blur and exposure 2000th of a second

Shutter speed and movement

The faster your shutter speed is, the less movement appears in your photograph. Just a small fraction of time will be frozen/captured. When you use a longer shutter speed you capture movement. There are two kinds of blurs. Firstly, one is caused by you as a photographer, by shaking your camera, in this course I’ll call it a camera blur. Secondly, the other is caused by the movement of your subject, this we call motion blur.

Motionblur example 1 second
Motionblur example 1/20th
Motionblur example 2000th of a second

I want to “freeze” my photographs

As described above there are two different kinds of motion blur; blur by shaking your camera and blur by the movement of your subject. So for both of those blurs, you need to determine separately what your minimum shutter speed should be. After you’ve determined this, you need to use the fastest shutter speed.

Camera movement

Firstly, to avoid camera movement you can use the following rule-of-thumb: You take the number of millimetres of your lens (how far you have zoomed in at the moment of taking the photograph) en use that as minimum shutter speed. To demonstrate this with an example; You are zoomed in at 200 mm, so your minimum shutter speed should be 1/200th. My personal advice would be to put your shutter speed one step faster, just to have a margin. With this rule of thumb, you should be able to avoid camera blur.

Image stabilisation

However, when your object-glass has image stabilisation, the previously explained rule-of-thumb does not apply. Very simply put, when image stabilisation is activated, the shaking of your hand is compensated by weight in your lens (or camera body). This can, in modern stabilisation, give you up to 4 photography stops so you can use longer shutter speed. To illustrate how much difference this can make, take a look at the scheme below:

1/8000 – 1/4000 – 1/2000 – 1/1000 – 1/500 – 1/250 – 1/125 – 1/60 – 1/30 – 1/15 – 1/8 – 1/4 – 1/2 – 1 seconde – 2″ – 4″ – 8″ – 15″ – 30″

For example, when you would use an objective-glass of 200 millimetres you’d go from a shutter speed of around 1/250th to about 1/15th. That’s a huge difference! But do keep in mind, image stabilisation will not help you to reduce motion blur from your subject. And when you use a tripod, image stabilisation will not do a lot for you either. In fact, it’s better to shut image stabilisation off when your camera is on a tripod, it might even work counter-productive.

Image stabilisation

Camera manufacturers use different names for image stabilisation. Some examples of how they might be called:

Canon: Image Stabilization (IS), Nikon: Vibration Reduction (VR), Sigma: Optical Stabilizer (OS), Tamron: Vibration Compensation (VC).

The motion of your subject

Secondly, you might encounter fast-moving subjects (like a bird of prey in flight, a race car driving by or a horse in full gallop), when you’d photograph at 1/250th you wouldn’t be bothered by camera blur from the movement of your hands but there would be movement in the subject itself during the exposure. In these cases, you would need a faster shutter speed to completely freeze the movements.

For example, the birds of prey I display below have been photographed at 1/1000th and even that was not fast enough to freeze all motion. Not all motion is bad of course, personally, I like the motion at the wings, it gives some liveliness to this shot. But there will be enough people who would prefer to have seen this photography completely frozen.

So if I would have liked the wings frozen, I should have used a faster shutter speed. Probably 1/2000th or even 1/4000th.

flying bird of prey Photograph by Merel Bormans
flying owl Photography by Merel Bormans

Tell me, how to set the shutter speed

After learning all this about shutter speed you, of course, want to be able to select the shutter speed yourself. There are two modes in which you can do so, being the manual mode and shutter speed-priority-mode. Shutter speed-priority-mode is usually written as S or Tv. Manual mode is usually written as M.

Often you can switch modes on the camera mode dial button on the top button of your camera. When your camera is in the M or S/Tv mode you can usually change the shutter speed with the round turning wheel near your thumb. Some cameras have a dedicated wheel on the front of the camera. Read the manual or look on the internet to see how you can change these settings for your camera.

If your camera has an LCD on top, the shutter speed will often be displayed there. It might also be displayed on the LCD on the back and if you look through the viewfinder. In the viewfinder, you will most likely see the shutter speed in the middle of the bottom or on the side of the bottom.

What can you do with longer shutter speed?

There are a lot of creative things you can do while using long shutter speed. Below some examples.

Panning

Panning is when you use longer shutter speed and move your camera along with the subject you are photographing. This creates the illusion of a LOT of movement. You are focussing on the subject and that subject is relatively sharp and there is a lot of motion blur in the background.

 Photo by Paolo Candelo

start rails

Go out in the night, find a dark spot and shoot star trails!

 Photo by Andrew Preble
 Photo by Joe Leahy

water streams

 

You can smooth out water, this gives a very nice effect

 Photo by Robin Lopez
 Photo by Matthew Schwart
 Photo by Trevor Cole

light painting

At night you can “paint” with light.

 Photo by Avery Morrow
 Photo by Simon Zhu

Conclusion

With shutter speed, you can influence the exposure of your photograph. By picking a longer shutter speed (as long as you are faster than 1 second, this is a lower value) the photograph gets lighter. So if you pick a shorter shutter speed (as long as you are faster than 1 second, this is a higher value) the photograph gets darker.

Shutter speed does not only have an effect on exposure, but you can also choose whether the movement will be made visible or becomes frozen on a photograph by choosing a faster or slower shutter speed. Longer shutter speed could get you to make unsharp photographs, but it can also unchain some creativity!

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