What is shutter speed in photography?

The shutter

One of the most frequent questions I get is "what is shutter speed in photography and how do I us it?" The shutter is a mechanism inside your camera. You can think of the shutter as a curtain. When the curtain (shutter) is open, light is allowed into the room (camera).

Shutter speed

The shutter speed is how long time the shutter is open after you press the shutter button. The longer the shutter is open, the more light hits the image sensor. If you keep all the other settings on your camera the same, the photo gets brighter the longer shutter speed you use. Shutter speed is often referred to as exposure time.

By using different Shutter speeds you can create a number of varied looks to your photos.

Auto or Manual mode

If you use Auto mode, the camera will select the shutter speed for you based on the available light. A much better option is to set your camera in shutter priority mode. Camera manufacturers use different terms for the shutter speed setting, but the two most common are S and Tv.

Light and shutter speed

When the light is dim, you need a long shutter speed to get enough light on the camera sensor. In bright sunlight a short shutter speed is sufficient.

Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second

On your camera 1000 means 1/1000 of a second. 8 means 1/8 of a second. Shutter speeds of one second or longer are given as 1”, 2” etc. up to 30”.

what is shutter speed

The photo (above) of the waterfall in Iceland was shot at f5 and a shutter speed of 1/250. This relative fast shutter speed was enough to freeze the movement of the water

The image below was shot at f20 and a shutter speed of 1/10. The slow shutter speed blurred the moving water

what is shutter speed

Know your camera

What is the shortest possible shutter speed on my camera

The most advanced cameras have shutter speeds as fast as 1/8000. In most consumer level cameras, the fastest shutter speeds are in the range of 1/2000 - 1/4000.

What is the longest possible shutter speed on my camera

There is no limitation how long shutter speeds you can use. However if you shoot in any of the Auto modes, the longest shutter speed is 30s in most cameras. If your camera has Bulb (B) mode, the shutter can stay open as long as needed, up to several minutes. In Bulb mode, you must use a tripod and a remote shutter release.

Fast and short shutter speed

Both terms have the same meaning. Shutter speeds 1/500 or shorter are regarded as fast in photography. These shutter speeds are capable of freezing fast moving objects. A tripod is rarely necessary when you use these short shutter speeds.

The photo of the Seagull below was shot at 200mm f20. Because the bird was moving quite fast and I was hand-holding my camera I chose a shutter speed of 1/1000 to avoid motion blur and camera movement to damage the photo. To be able to shoot at these settings I had to increase the ISO to 400

seagull in flight
Slow and long shutter speed

Both terms are used to describe the longer shutter speeds. Shutter speeds of 1/15 and longer are referred to as slow. You should consider using a tripod at these shutter speeds.

To create the blurry effect the Oslo tram was shot at 20mm f9.0 and a slow shutter speed of 1/5

slow shutter speed
Normal shutter speed

Shutter speeds in the range of 1/30 to 1/250 are normal. A tripod is not necessary unless you use long telephoto lenses.

What if your photos are blurry?

Motion blur

The blink of an eye is 300-400 milliseconds or similar to a shutter speed of 1/3. In photography terms, 1/3 is considered a long time. Using long shutter speed is a problem when you have a moving subject. If you take a photo of anything moving using a “long shutter speed” the subject will be blurry. The longer shutter speeds, the more blurry the subject gets. How much blur also depends on how fast the subject moves. These fuzzy subjects in photos are referred to as “motion blur.”

Camera shake

Even with an entirely still subject you cannot use too long shutter speeds and handhold the camera. It is not possible to hold the camera completely still by your hands. The longer focal length you use, the longer shutter speed you need to be sure the image is pin sharp. A common rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed of at least 1/focal length. If you use a 300mm lens, the shutter speed must be 1/300s or faster. Blurry photos because the camera is not still is referred to as “camera shake”.

Correlation between focal length and camera shake

A slight movement of the camera will have a much bigger impact on your image if you use a 400mm lens compared to a 16mm at the same shutter speed (figure below). If you have never used a telephoto lens, you can think of this as when you use a binocular. The further away your subject is the bumpier it gets because you cannot hold the binocular still.

what is shutter speed
Vibration reduction

Many lenses and cameras have built-in Vibration Reduction (VR). Typically with a 250mm lens, the rule of thumb mentioned earlier in this article suggests a shutter speed of 1/250. With VR you can shoot hand-held with a shutter speed as slow as 1/15 and still get acceptable sharp images. All this depend on you camera technique and how still you can hold your camera.

How do you decide which shutter speed to use

  • it depends on the subject - is it moving or not?
  • it depends on the available light - is it bright or dark?
  • it depends on your artistically intentions - blur or freeze motion?

Exposure Triangle

Shutter speed is one of three essential components of the Exposure Triangle. Understanding the Exposure Triangle is essential in photography.

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