Photography Basics – Shutter Speed in Photography

One of the most important buttons on a camera is the one pressed when taking a photo, it is called a shutter release, that sound it makes when pressed and released is a kind of a wall separating the sensor and the light that opens and closes. 

That didn’t sound very comprehensive right? Let’s dive into the subject and we will cover:

–   What’s a shutter speed

–   Shutter speed impact on exposure

–   How to set up shutter speed on your camera

–   Different use of shutter speed

At the end of this article you should be able to control the quality of your photos using the mastery of this setting of your camera. 

What is shutter speed?

The shutter speed is the amount of time the camera shutter opens and closes to expose the camera sensor to the light and record an image. 

This speed time as you may understand has an impact on the amount of light in your pictures, therefore understanding this feature helps you control the quality and exposure in your images.

The longer the shutter speed more bright will be your images, and shorter the shutter speed less brightness in your images. So depending on the settings on the ISO and aperture, one of the settings which impacts the exposure is the shutter speed.

Shutter speed fractions and measurements

If you are new to photography and never played much with shutter speed all you see in your camera is a form of fraction as value of the shutter speed. This is how shutter speed is measured. It is measured in seconds or less than a second. So when it displays 1/125 that means it the shutter only exposes the camera sensor one hundred twenty fifth of a second to the light and so on. 

Most DSLR cameras reach the fastest of 1/8000 shutter speed, and the slowest in most cameras is 30 seconds (written 30”). 

Setting up the shutter speed

You can set up a camera shutter speed through two main ways: through manual mode or Shutter priority mode. 

If you don’t shoot manual you can set up your shutter speed by choosing the shutter priority mode shown on canon as TV. (I will be using Canon illustration for simplicity, please check your camera manual for more details on how to set up different modes)

By choosing TV mode, you allow the camera to prioritize shutter speed settings you set and automatically adjust the aperture accordingly to create the best shot it can, the ISO can still be adjusted in TV mode. To set up the Shutter priority mode choose TV mode and choose your shutter speed by using either the front wheel or the top wheel.

On the other hand, shooting manual gives you the ability to control all the three settings on your camera. If you are learning photography at first it’s not a good idea if you are asked to shoot an event to start by shooting manual, because the camera really relies on what’s set up as values in the ISO, Aperture and shutter speed. So the moment you mess up the settings or the scene lights or movements change you need to adjust accordingly otherwise your shots will be either blurry or brighter.

Shutter speed impact on exposure

As I have said the shutter speed impacts the exposure of the image. the longer the shutter speed the brighter will be the image and the opposite is true as well.

One of the things which surprised me on DSLR was the ability to capture enough light to make even a dark scene like a night more bright, this was an amazing realization and one of the aspects which attracted me in photography. 

So with all the excitement I went to test this technique at night and set my camera for a slow shutter speed, I managed to bring the brightness in the scene and it was as if I added more lights on the road but I had another surprise, my photos were blurry, I didn’t understand why. The longer the shutter speed the less tolerant to movement is your camera aka camera shakes, that’s why people use tripods…

There are lower shutter speeds you can’t use without a tripod, the closer to a second and above you cannot take pictures with your bare hands without shaking the camera.

One interesting situation is that people might need to use a slow shutter speed on a bright day, why? to capture certain scenes like clouds in a more dramatic way, smoothened. But since a slow shutter speed will brighten even more the scene, then comes a need to buy another accessory, the ND filters. 

Neutral density filters are glasses that can be placed in front of a camera lens to reduce the light that comes into it. Therefore it reduces the light so that you can play with the slow shutter speed from where the ND filter reached.

Examples of shutter speed and its different use

As we saw the shutter speed has various impacts on your images. The faster the shutter speed the sharper and less light will be in your image(darker), and the slower; more light and more blurry the image will be. 

But all these extremes have their use depending on situations.

Motion blur

Shutter speed impacts the motion blur on the image, which can create a smoothing effect of an image like a water landscape or waterfall,  you need a longer shutter speed but to compensate with the brightness of the image you need to set a lower ISO. 

For example the image below is a perfect use of a motion blur created by slower shutter speed. This setting can be a terrible mistake for your kid birthday party but it’s of perfect use for a speeding car, it conveys the sense of speed by looking at it. 

You can also use a motion blur effect on people, again to show the feel of the kind of motion and movement of the picture. Remember photography is most importantly documenting a moment, so that people looking at it can imagine and daydream about the situation even after so many years.

In this image you can see the motion of dancing, the focus is the motion, no pressure of getting her face right, it’s about the feel of the type of dance being performed.

Long exposure

Long exposure is a well known term in photography but it simply means a long (slow) shutter speed. So you over expose the sensor to light for a specific purpose of creature motion blur and more light into your photo.  This technique is mostly used for some dramatic landscape photography like waterfalls, lakes (to smooth the water), night photography especially cityscape, and astrophotography.

On another hand, fast shutter speed is mostly used in event photography like weddings or family pictures, mostly because your family members don’t care about your creativity in motion blur, they want their faces sharp and good looking. So I would suggest not going lower than 1/160 of a second even if the subjects are not moving so much. I prefer the shutter speed to be the right one even if the picture is a little darker than having the best shot blurry.

Another situation where fast shutter speed is used is in sport photography, they mostly use a shutter speed of around 1/1000 of a second or more to freeze the motion. As opposed to blur the motion, some sports with fast movements of playing, you can’t afford to use slower shutter speed, the images won’t make any sense. 

As you can see there is no right or wrong shutter speed, like all art, photography is about what you want to convey and present to your viewers. Be creative!

Go and try out different shutter speeds and enjoy the magic of photography.