What is Shutter Speed in Photography

As a beginning photographer, one of the first things you’ll learn when getting your camera out of Automatic Mode and manually adjusting your camera is the “exposure triangle”. It is a concept that combines the three most important settings in photography — aperture, ISO, and shutter speed — to properly expose a photograph and achieve your desired artistic result.

What is the meaning of shutter speed?

This guide will explain everything you need to know about shutter speed and how you can use it to achieve your photographic goals.

What is shutter speed?

The definition of shutter speed is simply the duration your camera’s shutter is open. It’s defined by the length of time that your camera’s digital sensor (or film, if you’re using a film camera) is exposed to the light that passes through your lens.

When you press your camera’s shutter release button, you signal the shutter to open for a defined amount of time. When that time is over, the shutter will immediately close.

Shutter speed is used to properly expose a photo and also to freeze motion or portray subjects in motion.

bird photography
Photo by John Duncan on Unsplash

How is shutter speed measured?

As we mentioned above, shutter speed is a length of time. Shutter speeds are usually very fast — most often measured in fractions of a second. However, there are times when you’ll want to keep your shutter open for several seconds or even minutes!

We’ll go into more detail on that further below!

Common shutter speed values

The common shutter speeds built into many cameras will double from one to the next. For example, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, and so on.

Remember, these are fractions of a second, so 1/500th of a second is a much faster shutter speed than 1/8th of a second.

How does shutter speed affect your photographs?

To understand how changing your shutter speed setting will affect your photographs, it helps to look at the exposure triangle

exposure triangle
The exposure triangle

These three elements of the triangle work together to lighten or darken your image. If you adjust one of them, the other two are also affected.

In the case of shutter speed, a slower shutter speed produces a lighter photograph, whereas a faster shutter speed results in a darker image. What’s more, your shutter speed will also determine if anything that’s in motion is blurry or in focus. 

Let’s explore these concepts further: 

How shutter speed affects exposure

As we’ve mentioned above, playing with your shutter speed values can result in lighter or darker images. If your photo is overexposed, you can speed up your shutter speed to darken your image

shutter speed photography example
Shutter speed values

How shutter speed affects things in motion

Have you ever taken a photograph of something that was moving and the photo turned out too blurry? Or, have you ever wondered how photographers can capture images of silky smooth waterfalls and streams or long light trails from headlights of cars on the road?

Shutter speed is the setting that controls how anything in motion will appear when you shoot it. Use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion in place. Conversely, use a slow shutter speed (or a long exposure) to create intentional blur. 

Your camera’s sensor will capture everything that moves while the shutter is open, so if you don’t want motion blur, use a fast shutter speed.

In the examples below, the leaves and stem in focus are sharp in the shot with the faster shutter speed. Look at the photo with the very slow shutter speed and you’ll notice that everything is blurry. 

shutter speed photography example
Shutter speeds

What shutter speed should I use and when?

Now that you have an idea of how shutter speed affects your images, here’s a basic guide for what shutter speed to choose in what situation.

Keep in mind, though, that these are just guidelines — not rules — and that things like lighting and your lens’s focal length will also come into play. More on that below.

  • Sports, birds, cars: 1/1000 and up;
  • Children: 1/500;
  • People portraits: 1/60 – 1/125;
  • Landscapes: 15-30 seconds (only if you’re using a tripod).
shutter speed photography example
Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

When choosing what shutter speed to use, ask yourself:

  • Is the subject in motion? If it is, do you want to capture the motion or freeze it? Remember, a fast shutter will freeze motion, a slow shutter will allow for motion blur.
  • Is there plenty of light? Fast shutter speed will result in a darker image. If your subject isn’t moving you can use a slower shutter speed to properly expose your shot.
  • Are you using a tripod? If you’ve got your camera on a tripod and you aren’t trying to capture motion, you can use any shutter speed you need to properly expose your photograph without worrying about camera shake.
  • What is the focal length of your lens? 

One important thing to consider when choosing your shutter speed is the focal length of the lens you’re using, especially if it doesn’t come with image stabilization or anti-shake. A lens with a longer focal length will accentuate the issue.

So, the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed you’ll need. A good rule of thumb is to never choose a shutter speed that’s faster than your lens focal length.

For example, if you have a 50mm lens, choose a shutter speed of 1/60 or faster. If you’re using a 300mm lens, though, you’ll want to use a shutter speed of at least 1/320. 

Example Scenario: Bird in Flight

We mentioned above that if you’re photographing something in motion, you’ll need to choose a very fast shutter speed if you want to freeze that motion in place. To compensate for the fast shutter, you’ll need to use a wide aperture and a high ISO so that your image will be properly exposed. 

This tack sharp eagle in flight was photographed with a 100-400mm lens at 400mm. 

ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/4000

shutter speed photography example
Photo by Andy Morffew

Example Scenario: Long Exposure Waterfall

As we’ve discussed, when you use a slow shutter speed, anything in your photo in motion in your photograph will be blurry in the direction they were moving. However, you can photograph objects in motion with artistic intention, like the photo of the light trails above or the waterfall image below.

Long-exposures can be used to bring your photos to the next level. They can add a sense of speed or create a feeling of calm, depending on your subject. 

In this example, the photographer was using a tripod and a 17-40mm lens at 40mm to capture the scene. Since the shutter would be open for a long time, he needed to set the camera to a narrow aperture and a high ISO to limit the amount of light from those two settings to properly expose the image.

The result is this inviting image of a silky smooth waterfall. 

ISO 100, f/14, 25 seconds

shutter speed photography example
Photo by Haroon Mughal

Example Scenario: Portrait of Family with Kids

When shooting portraits, you can usually get away with a slower shutter speed, around 1/60 — that is unless you’re shooting a family with unpredictable children or pets.

In that case, it’s usually a good idea to speed your shutter up so you can be sure you won’t end up with blurry portraits if they take off in the middle of a shoot! Remember to always take your lens focal length into account, too. 

The photo of the active family below was shot with a 70-200mm lens at 115mm. While it was a bright, sunny day, they were under the shade of a tree and the photographer used a fast shutter, so the ISO is bumped up to 400 and the aperture is f/5.6 to allow for the proper exposure.

ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/400

shutter speed photography example
Photo by Justin Schuck

How to set the shutter speed on your camera

The exact method of changing your shutter speed varies slightly from camera to camera, but the general instructions are the same. First, you’ll need to set your camera to Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Program Mode.

If you’re using an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can access your shutter speed through a menu. There, you’ll be able to select the value you want. Remember, it will usually be indicated by a fraction.

If you’re using a prosumer or higher-end camera, you more than likely can access your shutter with a button on the top or back of the camera or by spinning one of the wheels to quickly change it. If one doesn’t already exist, you probably have the option to customize a button for that purpose if you desire.

Check your camera’s manual for the exact instructions on the easiest way to change your shutter speed as, since you’ve just learned, this is a setting you’ll want to change often depending on what you photograph.

What is Bulb Mode

Most cameras have a shutter speed limit of 30 seconds. If you are experimenting with long exposure photography, you may find yourself frustrated by this limit.

However, there’s a way around it — bulb mode. Bulb mode simply allows you to keep your shutter open for as long as you press the shutter release button, whether it be 1 minute, 4 minutes, or 30 minutes.

shutter speed photography example
Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

The way to access bulb mode varies from camera to camera. On some cameras, you can simply turn your mode dial to the letter B.

If your camera doesn’t have that option, set it to Manual, then set your shutter speed as long as it will go — then keep going. After that, it should show the letter “B” for bulb mode.

If you plan on using bulb mode, it’s a good idea that you also use a shutter release cable or remote, since touching the camera while your shutter is open will introduce camera shake and cause your image to be blurry.

What is Shutter Priority Mode?

Shutter priority is a semi-automatic setting in your camera that will allow you to set the shutter speed you want and then your camera will automatically choose the aperture and ISO to properly expose the image.

This is a great setting for beginners who aren’t yet familiar with how aperture and ISO affect exposure, but they want to use shutter speed to freeze motion. 

Shutter priority is also useful for a photographer who is shooting sports or birds in flight and doesn’t have time to constantly adjust aperture and ISO for changing light conditions. 

Most cameras can be set to Shutter Priority Mode by turning the dial to “S” or “Tv,” depending on the brand of camera.

shutter speed photography example
Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

Final words

It may not seem like it when you’re first starting, but knowing what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings to use for any given scene you want to photograph will eventually become second nature.

The easiest way to master these is to take your camera out and practice!

Try setting your camera to shutter priority mode and just go take photos. Try shooting something in motion at different shutter speeds. See how the change affects your photograph? If you photographed objects that were moving, did you freeze the motion, or do your images have blur?

Did you get the results you were expecting? Now, put your camera in manual mode and shoot images at different shutter speeds. See how your image gets lighter as you slow down your shutter speed?

Cristian Raiber

Leave a Comment