Shutter speed for beginners

Understanding how shutter speed works is one of the first things you want to know as a beginner. Along with aperture and ISO, they make up the core foundation of photography.

It is one of the key things into understanding exposure. Thus, letting you control the brightness and looks of your image.

You can even convey motion or freeze a moment just by using the correct camera setting.

We prepared a little infographic at the end to better aid you on this topic.

The Camera Shutter:

To better describe how shutter speed works, we have to define how the camera shutter works. After all, it is pretty much why shutter speed exists in the first place.

The camera shutter is the curtain-like mechanism that opens and closes whenever you push the shutter release button.

Here’s how it works:

Picture of the Shutter Release Button on camera.

When you push the shutter release button all the way down, the camera’s shutter opens for a brief period of time. And then closes again signaling the end of the exposure.

It enables the image sensor or film to receive light during the time it is open.

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed is the duration of time the shutter remains open, exposing the film or image sensor to light.

As part of the exposure triangle, it has inherent effects on your images. Specifically, it helps you control the brightness as well as motion blur in your images.

It works in conjunction with the aperture. Aperture dictates the initial amount of light that your sensor can potentially receive depending on how wide is the lens’ opening. But none of those lights will be recorded unless the shutter allows those light to come in.

The amount of light the sensor or film receives depends on the length of time the shutter is open.

Because of this nature, it is sometimes called the exposure time.

On your camera, you can control how fast or slow the shutter remains open through the shutter speed setting.

How Shutter Speed is measured?

Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fraction of a second.

When you look at your camera’s shutter speed settings on the back screen, you’ll probably see numbers such as 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 etc.

Those numbers represent the speed in a fraction of a second. Since they are fractions, a higher denominator setting means they are faster.

Whenever you double the speed, you are also cutting the amount of light going through your sensor in half. So a shutter speed setting of 1/60th of a second has twice the amount of light than that of 1/120th of a second.

Shutter Speed 1/3 Stops Interval Chart showing how you can measure the amount of light you are accumulating.

In short, each stop interval will double or half the accumulated light. You can also set your camera to increment to 1/2 or 1/3 of a stop if you wish.

Most cameras can go as fast as 1/4000th of a second some even go at 1/8000th of a second and beyond.

However, you will also see numbers such as 1” or 10”. The double apostrophe symbol signifies that you have left the “fraction of a second” realm and you are now using 1 full second of exposure time.

1 second exposure time setting example on camera LCD screen.

Almost all cameras nowadays can handle a slow shutter speed setting from 1 second up to 30 seconds without using any special equipment.

You also have the option to use bulb mode to extend it more than 30 seconds.

Shutter Speed Stops Increment Chart:

Some shutter speed settings can only be visible if you change the increment by 1/2 stops or 1/3 stops.

This is useful if you want finer control or if you want to faithfully follow the reciprocal rule.

Here’s a chart of all the available settings you can choose depending on the increment:

By the way, you can enter the setting you are looking for in the search box. Or click on the next or previous button. I trimmed down this list because it is too long to my liking.

Full Stops1/2 Stops1/3 Stops
1/80001/80001/8000
1/6400
1/60001/6000
1/5000
1/40001/40001/4000
1/3200
1/3000
1/2500
1/20001/20001/2000
1/1600
1/1500
1/1250
1/10001/10001/1000
1/800
1/7501/640
1/5001/5001/500
1/400
1/350
1/320
1/2501/2501/250
1/200
1/180
1/160
1/1251/1251/125
1/100
1/90
1/80
1/601/601/60
1/50
1/45
1/40
1/301/301/30
1/25
1/201/20
1/151/151/15
1/13
1/101/10
1/81/81/8
1/61/6
1/5
1/41/41/4
0.30.3
0.4
0.50.50.5
0.6
0.7
0.8
1 second1 second1 second
1.3 seconds
1.5 seconds
1.6 seconds
2 seconds2 seconds2 seconds
2.5 seconds
3 seconds
3.2 seconds
4 seconds4 seconds4 seconds
5 seconds
6 seconds6 seconds
8 seconds8 seconds8 seconds
10 seconds10 seconds
13 seconds
15 seconds15 seconds15 seconds
20 seconds20 seconds
25 seconds
30 seconds30 seconds30 seconds

Note: Some DSLR or mirrorless cameras do not offer 1/2 stops increment.

Where to find the shutter speed setting?

The shutter speed setting is fairly easy to locate. You can find it in either one of the three ways:

  1. At the top LCD screen. The setting is usually indicated in the top left corner of the screen.

  2. At the back screen while reviewing the photo you just took. You may have to press the “info” button a couple of times.

    For Nikon users that will be the “i” button, for Panasonic, it will be the “disp” button. The position also varies depending on the camera brand but you can easily spot it once you tried it.

  3. Looking through the viewfinder. This varies from camera to camera but it is usually found at the bottom left side or at least at the lower area.

Most cameras ditch the whole fraction thing on the display but it is essentially the same. The only difference is, you’ll only see the denominators.

How shutter speed affects the image:

Shutter speed affects both the exposure and motion blur of your images.

Using slower shutter speed will expose your camera’s film or image sensor to more light giving you a brighter image.

Shutter Speed Cheat Sheet showing how exposure time can affect your images and some tips when you should use it.

However, all movements during that duration are also recorded. This will give more motion blur to your image.

As a result, it changes the overall brightness and looks of your image through motion blur. Let’s have a closer look at both.

Exposure:

Set of images showing how shutter speed affects the exposure.

As illustrated in the image above, shots taken at a faster shutter speed will yield darker images. This is very useful when you are shooting in an environment with too much light.

Slow shutter speed, on the other hand, is a little tricky at first. Yes, you will get brighter images but if you go too slow, you might end up with a blurry image.

But motion blur is not actually the culprit for this…

Motion blur:

Since your camera records the light for as long as it’s open, it will also record any movement within that time frame.

Imagine if your exposure time is set to 3 seconds and you are photographing a person waving her hand throughout that duration. What do you think her hand will look like?

You will see blurriness or “streaking” on the hand because your camera recorded all those movements done within that 3 seconds. This is called the motion blur.

It is the same phenomenon that happens with our naked eye. If the subject if moving faster than our eyes can follow, you will see a lot of streaking.

For cameras, this happens when the subject’s movement is faster than our shutter speed. The difference is, we can adjust our camera’s shutter speed setting to reduce or add motion blur.

Fast shutter speeds allow us to “freeze” the moment. This effectively removes motion blur even from fast-moving subjects.

With this, you can capture a photo without any streaking due to the motion, like a jump shot for example.

On the other hand, using a slower shutter speed setting will introduce more motion blur within your image. Any moving subject within your frame will generate this if your setting is slow enough.

This allows us to convey a sense of speed and motion with just a single frame.

It is what you’ll use for long exposure shots and works best for subjects with uniform movements.

Camera Shake Blur:

It’s important to understand that blur from camera shake is not the same as motion blur.

You may see some blur even if the subject is completely still if you are not using a fast enough shutter speed based on the focal length you are using. Even worse, the camera shake affects the entire image in contrast to motion blur.

Image comparison showing camera shake blur due to using slow exposure time.

Understandably, this is mostly overlooked because using faster shutter speed does solve this issue most of the time.

But why bother to differentiate the two?

The main reason is, camera shake can be reduced by using a tripod or turning on the image stabilization.

This will let you use slow shutter speed without worrying that you might get a blurry image. Even better, motion blur will still be apparent as long as your subject is moving fast enough.

When shooting handheld, a good rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed equal or faster than 1 divided by the effective focal length.

So if you are using an effective focal length of 50mm, you will use a setting of 1/50th of a second or faster.

To learn more about the reciprocal rule, click here. It will also cover how to calculate the effective focal length base on your camera model.

How to change the shutter speed setting:

You can only set the shutter speed if you are in the shutter priority mode or manual mode. Any other camera mode will automatically choose the shutter speed setting for you.

Shutter speed dial on Nikon DSLR camera.

In manual mode and for most cameras, you can change the shutter speed by moving the front dial near the shutter release button.

The same thing if you are in the shutter priority mode for most cameras.

But for Nikon users, the shutter speed can only be changed using the back dial when shooting in shutter priority mode.

When to use fast shutter speed?

For the majority of shots, we mainly use fast shutter speed to either reduce the camera shake blur or motion blur. Here are a few examples where you might want to use a short exposure time:

  • Still shots
  • Portraits
  • Sports such as car racing, Motorcross or Olympics
  • Wildlife

Anything below 1/50th of a second might show motion blur so anything faster than that is considered a fast setting.

When to use slow shutter speed?

On the other hand, we use long exposure time for images where we want to show a sense of speed. Or intentionally show motion blur of continuous motion.

Some use it to capture an abstract representation of a subject or even create a sense of separation by blurring out everything except the subject.

Here are a few examples:

  • Star Trails
  • Light painting
  • Light Trails
  • Steel wool photography
  • Panning shots
  • Long exposure landscape shots such as waterfalls, clouds, or city lights

Conclusion:

Understanding how shutter speed works help us control the overall looks and brightness of our image. It will help us freeze motion or convey a sense of motion in our images.

It will also help us capture sharp photos by eliminating blur from camera shake through the reciprocal rule.

Knowing when to use fast or slow shutter speed will give us more creative freedom when capturing photos.

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