What is shutter speed?
The essence of photography lies in capturing light, and shutter speed is simply the amount of time a camera opens itself up to let that light in. From a tiny fraction of a second to the over eight hours it took Nicéphore Niépce to make the world’s first fixed photograph in 1826, shutter speeds can vary widely and can be used to create a number of visual effects. Intentionally or not, you’ve probably run into the consequences of different shutter speeds, whether with a motion blurred night photo with a long exposure, or a perfectly frozen action shot taken with a fast shutter speed.
Shutter speed is one of three fundamental settings a camera uses to create a photograph and control exposure, with the other two being the lens aperture and ISO sensitivity. When shooting manually, you’ll have to balance each to create an exposure that works for any given scene. Because shutter speed controls how long light enters your camera, it is directly correlated to how bright or dark your photo turns out. Assuming other settings and lighting conditions are kept the same, an image with a faster shutter speed will be darker than one with a slower shutter speed – as the longer the shutter is open, the more light will enter the camera to make the image brighter. The best way to understand this is to put it into practice and try different shutter speeds for yourself.
Adjusting shutter speed
Most dedicated cameras allow you to manually control shutter speed. When learning shutter speed, the best place to start is often with Shutter Priority mode, usually labeled with an ‘S’ or ‘Tv’ (timed value) on your mode dial. This mode allows you to select your shutter speed while your camera figures out the rest. Changing shutter speed in Shutter Priority mode is usually as simple as scrolling the main navigation or setting dial on your camera to the left or right before taking a picture. Observe your camera’s screen or see if you can spot a shutter speed display inside your viewfinder as you make adjustments.
Photographs most commonly use shutter speeds that last only a fraction of second, so you’re likely to see your camera default to a shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/250 (representing the exact fraction of a second exposure). Because fractions of a second make up the majority of shutter speeds, your camera may simply display 125 or 250, omitting the fraction, and longer exposures noted in seconds may look like 1” or 30” for one second and 30 second exposures, respectively. When controlling shutter speed on your own, you can often select between an exposure as fast as 1/8000 to as long as 30 seconds. Experimenting with shutter speeds on both ends of this spectrum can open up new creative and compositional opportunities.
Fast shutter speeds
A fast shutter speed is best known for freezing action. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to use a shutter speed of at least 1/250 to keep your image sharp and minimize motion blur. However, the faster you or your subject is moving, the faster you’ll want to dial up your shutter speed to 1/1000 or higher if you want to maintain a sharp look. Because fast shutter speeds only allow light into your camera for a very short period of time, they require more ambient light to get a well balanced exposure. As such, it’s often easiest to experiment with fast shutter speeds outside in bright afternoon light. Without diving too deep into other settings, you can also ensure brighter lighting conditions by using a wide aperture and a higher ISO, or even a flash.
Slow shutter speeds
Slow shutter speeds, also called long exposures, allow you to draw attention to movement through motion blur. This streaking blur is caused by a subject changing position while the shutter is open, so the longer the shutter speed, the more time you or the subject has to move. Additionally, a subject moving quickly through your frame will be more prone to motion blur than one that is moving slowly. Generally, motion will become obvious at shutter speeds of 1/60 and slower, but you’ll likely need to take a few test shots to get things just right. Oftentimes you’ll want to keep your camera steady, so only the moving parts within your scene blur and the rest of your composition remains sharp.
Stabilizing your shot
In order to make the most of longer shutter speeds you’ll want to stabilize your camera. A steady, handheld grip with elbows tucked in toward your body will only be good for stabilizing shots 1/30 or faster, although with a little practice you can get away with slightly slower shutter speeds with this technique. As you venture into slower and slower shutter speeds you’ll need some additional help to keep things steady.
If you’re in a pinch or do not want to carry additional gear, you can improvise and try to stabilize your camera on a surface or with whatever objects you may have at your disposal. A bench, fencepost, books, or flat rock may just do the job – just be careful, as you do not want your camera to wobble or, worse, fall. Whenever you are stabilizing your camera for a long exposure it’s good practice to use a timer delay for your shot, as even the push of the shutter button can move the camera and cause undesired blurriness.
A tripod is the most common way to stabilize a camera while utilizing a slow shutter speed. Tripods come in a manner of sizes, materials, and budgets. If you’re just looking to try one out, keep it simple, check the storage closet, or see what your friends might have on hand. The bottom of your camera likely has a screw in tripod mount – this is usually a universal fit across most makes and models of cameras. Once attached, experiment with adjusting the legs or tilting the camera into portrait mode. You’ll want to get a hang of your equipment before heading out to shoot.
Common subjects for showcasing long exposures include waterfalls, twilight traffic, and the night sky. Once you’re set up, it’s easy to experiment with different shutter speeds to see the different effects – rushing water will turn into a soft mist, car lights will trace streaks of light across your frame, and stars will shine brighter and even show evidence of moving across the sky. Once you start shooting long exposures you’ll see the possibility for compositions everywhere that motion presents itself, from a windswept field to a busy train station.
Panning is a slow shutter technique in which you track a moving subject to keep it sharp(ish) within your frame while blurring the world around it. This will create an effect that emphasizes speed and a sense of movement through space. To give it a try, start with a shutter speed of around 1/60 or 1/30 and use your viewfinder to lock focus into a moving subject like a car or bike and follow it, trying to keep it in the same position within the frame as you click the shutter. You’ll want to use a steady swiveling motion, keeping your feet firmly planted and moving above the hips. Adjust the speed of your swivel to match your subject. A slower shutter speed will create more background blur, but will also make it more difficult to keep your moving subject sharp, so do your best to strike a balance and make use of autofocus if you have the option.
Painting with light
Manipulating your own sources of light during a long exposure is another creative approach to using slow shutter speeds. Often called light painting, you can set a 30 second exposure and use a flashlight, or any other source of light, to trace streaks and effectively draw with light. When painting with light, make sure you’re in a relatively dark environment with minimal outside sources of light. You’ll also want to ensure that the light you’re ‘painting’ with is facing the camera. This is another technique that benefits from a tripod and a delayed timer so that you can get into position with your light before the exposure begins. Have fun and experiment with any source of light you can get your hands on.
There are no hard set rules when it comes to photography and letting your creativity flow is sometimes the best route forward. Just as the world can sometimes feel completely blurred and unclear, so too can your photographs. Intentionally moving your camera with a slow shutter - up, down, or side to side – can create abstract photos that blur the line between reality and imagination. Try streaking lights in multiple directions or intentionally emphasize horizontal or vertical lines for a more subtle, painterly look. You can also try creating additional softness by intentionally keeping your image out of focus.
Fast action silhouettes
Creating a silhouette with a fast shutter speed can creatively isolate a peak action moment while accentuating shape and form. To compose a silhouette you’ll need a clean, bright background relative to a subject in the foreground – a sunset sky or light colored wall can make the perfect backdrop. Try getting low and frame your subject against the light while intentionally underexposing the image with a fast shutter speed of 1/500 or faster. You’ll also want to ensure sharp focus on your subject so their outline appears crisp and clear. Try to capture a decisive moment or interaction.
Shutter speeds, from fast to slow, are a simple yet powerful tool for photographers. You can iterate and explore new creative compositions using their fundamental attributes and qualities. The best way to master shutter speed, like all aspects of photography, is to practice and learn from mistakes. Step out of your comfort zone, take some creative risks, and see what you come home with – we’d love to see what you make.