How to choose the ideal shutter speed for any situation featured image

If you already read our article about shutter speed works, you know that it affects both the exposure and motion blur.

Given there are a lot of shutter speed settings available in our camera, it can be a little hard to choose the ideal one for each of our shots.

These two factors have a large influence on your image’s overall looks and sharpness.

If you have no idea where to start, this guide is for you.

What is an ideal shutter speed for our images?

Ideal shutter speed is one that gives us an overall good exposure, sharpness and right amount of motion blur or no motion depending on the type of shot.

Choosing the perfect setting totally depends on what we want out of our images. For example, are we trying to freeze motion or convey a sense of speed? Or we just trying to compensate for exposure?

While I cannot tell you which exact setting you should be using, we can group them into two.

For any types of shots, we can categorically choose between using a fast or slow shutter speed setting.

Shutter speed at 1/50th or above can be considered fast. For the most part, most motion blur are eliminated at these settings.

In contrast, motion blur almost always starts to show anything below this setting. So, we can say that any setting below 1/50th is considered slow.

Chart showing how to choose the ideal shutter speed based on the subject's movement or exposure.

When in doubt, answering these 4 questions may help you decide:

  • If you only want a normal still shot, what is the focal length I am using so I can reduce camera shake blur?
  • Do you want to show a sense of speed and motion?
  • If not, then do we want to freeze a fast-moving motion?
  • And how is the available light? Will using higher or slower shutter speed underexpose or overexpose my image?

Keep in mind that we always have an option to change the aperture or ISO when dealing with exposure.

So it’s not about finding the right shutter speed all the time, but sometimes a compromise between the 3 main controls in your camera.

Let us give you a little more specific situations so you can confidently pick the best setting for your image.

Ideal Shutter Speed for Getting Proper Exposure

When it comes to getting the ideal shutter speed in terms of exposure, you have to first decide if motion blur or depth of field is more important to you at the moment.

This will hugely dictate if freely adjusting the exposure time is even an option.

Comparison of images showing underexposed, overexposed and properly exposed photos. To illustrate how to get the ideal shutter speed.

Shutter speed works together with the aperture to form exposure.

And though ISO is not technically part of the exposure, it still affects the brightness of your final image. And still, an option when compensating the lack of light.

Let me give you some scenarios…

Scenario 1: Capturing an image with shallow depth of field.

If you want to take an image with a shallow depth of field, then you want to keep the aperture as wide as you can, no matter what.

In this scenario, we can ably change the shutter speed to compensate with exposure.

Scenario 2: You want to capture a jump shot.

If you want to capture a freeze motion of a jump shot then you’ll have to use a fast shutter speed so you can eliminate any motion blur.

So on the flip side, if motion blur is more important, then you might want to keep the shutter speed at a certain setting.

This leaves aperture and ISO as your only option to compensate for the brightness.

Compensate with Overexposure:

Assuming we are on scenario one, use a faster shutter speed if your image is overexposed.

Generally, you want to keep ISO low to avoid image noise. So you rarely have to change it for overexposed images.

Compensate with Underexposure:

Conversely, use a slower shutter speed when coping with underexposed images.

But you gotta make sure that you are not using a setting too slow that camera shake can potentially ruin your image if you’re shooting handheld.

Which brings us to our next point we have to consider when finding the best shutter speed…

For Non-moving Subjects:

When shooting non-moving subjects, our main goal is to keep our subject as sharp as possible while having the right exposure.

So the ideal shutter speed in these type of shots is a setting fast enough to cut camera shake blur.

An example photo for choosing the perfect shutter speed for non-moving subject.
Photo taken by Heather LaBone

When shooting handheld, you can follow the reciprocal rule to identify the starting point.

Basically, it states that we should use a shutter speed setting faster or equal to the inverse of our focal length. So we need to pay attention to the focal length if we want to do this correctly.

Note that I mentioned “starting point” because we can use an even slower shutter speed setting if we have a good camera hand-holding technique. Lens or in-camera stabilization will also help us reduce camera shake blur.

But if we’re working in low light situations, we may have to adjust ISO as well.

If you can, use a tripod so you can use slow shutter speed. Just keep in mind that below 1/50th of a second will have motion blur if your subject is not completely still.

For Freeze Motion Images:

The ideal shutter speed for fast moving subjects are settings that are fast enough to freeze the motion typically at around 1/500 or above.

If you want to freeze a fast-moving motion, use a shutter speed faster than the moving subject.

This will depend on how fast your subject is moving. The faster the subject is moving, the faster settings we should be using.

For Long Exposure Shots:

The recommended shutter speed setting for long exposure landscape shots are the slow ones around 1 second or beyond.
Photo taken by Giuseppe Milo

For long exposure landscape shots, we still want to keep some portion of our image sharp.

So the main goal is to show motion blur on a certain part of your image that you want to attract attention. Like the clouds, moving waters and lights just to name a few.

All this, while keeping the surrounding elements tact sharp.

The ideal shutter speed for these kinds of shots is around 1 second or slower.

Check out my other post about how to do long exposure shots for more tips about this topic.

Anyway, we can’t pull this off without a sturdy tripod since the camera shake blur will be too much.

That said, the more motion blur we want to show, the longer the shutter speed we want to use. For example, waterfalls will look creamier on 10 seconds than on a 1 second exposure time.

For Panning Shots:

With panning shots, you want to have motion blur on the most part of your image while keeping your subject sharp.

To do this, you have to use a slow shutter speed but not as slow as what you’d typically use on long exposure shots.

The best shutter speed setting, in this case, is around 1/15 – 1/60 of a second. This will depend on how fast the moving subject is.

Panning shot example showing the ideal shutter speed of 1/15 to 1/60th of a second.
Photo taken by Asier Toledo

The important thing is that we pan along with the subject’s movement. This will render motion blur which will create a sense of speed. Same as long exposure, you’ll get blurrier motion if you use a longer exposure time

At these settings, camera shake blur will also be apparent so we want to make sure that we are utilizing proper panning.

For Astro Photography:

You’ll have to use slow shutter speed settings because you’d be typically working on an extremely low light situation for shots like these.

Specifically, you want to use the fastest shutter speed you can get without losing too much light. Our planet and the stars are slowly moving so it will produce some motion blur.

Astrophotography shot example showing using the fastest exposure time to compensate the lack of light.
Photo taken by Bromatofiel on Flickr

If you are shooting solely the stars and no foreground, use the widest aperture. Depth of field won’t be an issue for extreme distances.

If you have to include the foreground, still try to use the widest aperture and try to focus on the hyperfocal distance. If this won’t do due to compositional reasons, use the appropriate aperture to get enough depth of field.

You also need to push your ISO to a setting just before the noise makes the image unusable to compensate for the lack of light.

For Star Trails:

Star trail shot example showing the movement of the stars.

You got to have a lot of patience to show the movement of stars. For this, you’ll be using bulb mode and set the exposure time to around 30 minutes to about 3 hours.

Alternatively, you can also shoot in intervals over a few hours then merge everything in post-processing.

Same as above, you may need to adjust your aperture if you are including the foreground.

For ISO, use the lowest possible you can get.

Note: For both astrophotography and star trails shots, a tripod is a must.

The situations listed above should cover about 90% of the shots you’ll ever take.

But if you want to a little more specific recommendations based on the subject’s speed, continue reading.

Recommended Shutter Speed Settings:

Note: All these are just recommendations and must only be used as a starting point if you have no idea where to start.

Shutter SpeedSubjectsDescription
1/3000 and aboveFast-moving subjectsFreeze motions of very fast-moving subjects like race cars, fast pitches, high-speed motors, etc.
1/2000Fast-flying birdsFreeze motion shots of flying birds that have very fast wing movements like hummingbirds.
1/1000 to 1/2000Sports or subjects with moderate speedFreeze the motion of subjects with moderate speed. For example, sports, vehicles with moderate speed, birds that don’t flutter their wings too fast, dolphins or running dogs.
1/500 to 1/1000AtheletesStatic still shots of fast-moving people like dancers or athletes.
1/150 to 1/250Wildlife or other slow moving subjectsStarting setting to freeze slow-moving subjects such as walking people or animals.
1/125Sports panning shotPanning shots of fast vehicles like race cars or motorcycles.
1/50 to 1/250Portraits or Handheld ShotsHandheld shots following the reciprocal rule or portrait shots
1/60Mountain Bikes panning shotsPanning shots of mountain bikes or other moderately fast moving subjects
1/30 to 1/6050 mm focal length handheldSafe shutter speed for handheld still photos on a 50mm effective focal length. The better your handheld technique, the slower the shutter speed you can use.
1/15 to 1/30Panning shot athletesPanning shots of running athletes or cyclist.
1/8Long exposure of waterWater movements start to look blurred and creamy.
1 second to 10 secondsGeneral long exposureProject surreal movements like a waterfall. The slower the settings, the creamier the water looks.
15 seconds to 30 secondsAstro PhotographyPhotographing stars. Make sure to use the widest aperture and push ISO to just before the image gets too noisy first. Then use the fastest shutter speed you can get.
30 minutes to a few hours (Bulb Mode)Star trailsCapture star's movement over a long period of time.

You can download the PDF version of this guide with images here.

Conclusion:

Choosing the ideal shutter speed can be a little tricky sometimes. It is a matter of trial and error for the most part, especially for photos where we want to show motion.

But knowing when to use slow or fast exposure time can open up lots of creative possibilities for your images.

Think of the list given above as a starting point to fine-tune your settings to the best one for your image.

Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments.

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