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Photography Basics: What is Shutter Speed (The Perfect Handbook!)

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Knowing what is shutter speed, could be one of the most primary steps to learn photography. Shutter speed is a part of the exposure triangle that also includes ISO and Aperture (but more on that later). The final appearance of your photos depends greatly on how you set the shutter speed on your camera, besides other factors.It is actually a very simple concept that once understood, will make the difference between ‘just another photo’ and ‘ the shot.’

What is Shutter Speed and How to Benefit From Using it Correctly

To put it in simple terms, shutter speed is the length of time for which the shutter remains open; or the length of time for which the image sensor is exposed to or ‘sees’ the image that you are trying to capture. The shutter opens when the button is clicked and closes when it is released.

Photographs are taken in between these actions. How fast or slowly the shutter closes determines its speed.

shutter open
What is shutter speed: Open camera shutter

How is Shutter Speed Measured?

Shutter speed in photography is measured either in seconds or fractions of seconds. Your camera will have the following speeds – 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/15, 1/8, 1 second, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, etc. A shutter speed of 1/500 means that the shutter remains open for only 1/500th of a second. As you can see, the speed usually doubles as you go up and higher denominators indicate faster speeds.

Different camera models offer different shutter speeds, although the ones mentioned above are found in most cameras. Some newer DSLR professional models even offer speeds as high as 1/4000 or 1/8000. When buying a camera, check for the shutter speeds that it offers, and then choose the one that is most suited to your requirements.

Shutter Speed and Photography

A higher shutter speed is used to freeze an image, and a lower shutter speed is used when trying to capture a ‘motion blur’ to show that the image is moving.

With a faster shutter speed, you can freeze moving objects like birds, cars, sports games, running water, a crowded market place, etc. The photo is captured as a still picture. Although it is clear that the subject must be in motion, there is no blur to indicate the same. Here’s an example.

faster shutter speed
Image captured with a faster shutter speed Source

A slower shutter speed is used for photographing landscapes like flowing rivers, dim environments, for giving special effects to the photo, and basically for any image where the photographer wants to project a sense of motion to the viewer. Look at the photograph below. The blurry red and white lines clearly indicate moving cars in an otherwise still landscape.

slow shutter speed
Image captured with a slower shutter speed Source

How to Use Shutter Speed?

Before choosing a shutter speed, decide whether you want a still or frozen image, or whether you want to project some amount of movement in the picture. For a still image, you should use a faster shutter speed like 1/250 or 1/500. To give the image a blur effect, you should use a slower shutter speed like 1/60 or lower.

For a shutter speed that is lower than 1/60, consider using a tripod or some other image stabilization option to avoid ‘camera shake.’ New cameras increasingly come with image stabilization features. If you don’t possess a tripod, then you can use any stable surface like a rock or tree branch to place your camera for better support.

It would help to know the correct technique for minimizing camera shake, you can read the article How Holding a Camera Right Can Make All the Difference , to know more.

using tripod for shutter speed
Using a tripod or some other image stabilization option to avoid ‘camera shake.’

Shutter Speed and Time of Day

If you are taking photos in a dark environment or at night, then remember that the camera shutter needs to be open for a longer time as there is no natural light to act as an aid, and hence the photos will turn out black.

Similarly, for daylight photography, the camera shutter should be kept open for a very short amount of time. Otherwise the photos will turn out white due to overexposure to natural light.

The Bulb Mode for Night Photography

Cameras have a ‘B’ or Bulb mode that helps capture an image by keeping the button pressed for a continuous span of time. To open the shutter, you need to keep the button pressed down. The shutter will close once you release the button. For as long as the shutter is open, it will keep capturing the image that it is focused on.

The Bulb mode is popularly used for starlight photography. As stars are very far away from the earth, their light isn’t enough to illuminate the objects in the surroundings.

In areas that don’t have surrounding light to aid in taking photos, like forests, rural areas, mountainous regions, etc. you cannot use a slow shutter speed (like 30 seconds). Hence, the Bulb mode is used here, as it allows the photographer to keep the shutter open for as long as is needed.

Here’s an example of Bulb mode photography.

bulb mode shutter
Bulb mode photography Source

If you are trying to capture an image that is moving faster than your fastest shutter speed, then you can try using the camera flash for freezing the image. Experiment with different settings to get better images.

Finding and Setting the Shutter Speed

In most cameras, shutter speed and aperture are set automatically, when the device is in Auto mode. If the camera is in Aperture Priority mode, then you need to manually set the aperture while the shutter speed is set automatically. There is also a Shutter Priority mode, allowing you to adjust the shutter speed, while the camera sets the aperture.

Manual mode allows you to set both the aperture and shutter speed by yourself, although the Auto mode is recommended as the camera can set the both the values more accurately.

Now that you know what is shutter speed, finding it on the camera is not difficult. In DSLRs that have a top panel, it is located at the top left corner. If you are using the viewfinder, you can find it at the bottom left corner of the screen. If you are having trouble finding the shutter speed, then turn on ‘Aperture Priority’ mode and note down the numbers in the display.

Now point the camera to a really dark area and after some time, switch it to a really bright area. The number that changes on the display is the shutter speed.

Shutter speeds are sometimes displayed in whole numbers and not fractions. So 1/500 will show 500 and so on.

shutter speeds
Different shutter speeds Source

Shutter Speed and Focal Length

If you are using a long camera lens, consider a faster shutter speed to reduce the effect of camera shake. It should ideally be more than the focal length. For a 30mm lens, shoot at 1/50 or higher and so on. Otherwise, there is always the tripod or image stabilization feature.

The Exposure Triangle

Shutter speed is a part of the exposure triangle, which is important in understanding exposure in photography. ISO and Aperture are the other two elements of the exposure triangle. ISO measures the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. Aperture is the size of the lens’s opening when the shutter is opened. Understanding what is shutter speed, ISO and Aperture is vital to your ability to capture brilliant photographs.

To know more about what is shutter speed and its connection to Exposure Triangle, read: Photography Exposure Triangle – 3 Elements For Great Photos!

Remember that most of the camera’s shutter speed settings are on automatic mode. However, if you decide to set it to Manual mode, then you will need to play around with various settings and speeds to find the right ones for the best shots. Don’t worry, it gets easier with practice and experimentation.

You will be well on your way to taking amazing photos. Now that you know what is shutter speed, share your techniques and findings with us!

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