The ultimate guide to mastering shutter speed
Although it’s the easiest exposure triangle concept to understand, shutter speed is the most important thing to master when it comes to properly exposing your image.
It’s one-third of what they call the “exposure triangle” – the three components you need to master in order to correctly expose an image yourself.
It’s simple to understand – and we’ll dive into the basics in just a bit – but it’s the most important to master. That’s because your shutter speed controls your motion in your image. Which also controls the sharpness or blurriness of your image and thus your ability to tell a story or even have a usable photograph.
You should prioritise shutter speed over all else, aperture, ISO, whatever. Because you can deal with an image if it’s a bit grainy, you can deal with an image if it doesn’t have exactly the depth of field that you want. But a completely blurry image when it’s meant to be sharp? Gone. Trashed. Unusable. In all cases except for a super duper high ISO (which you’re probably less likely to accidentally mess up), an incorrect shutter speed is the thing that’s going to get you in trouble, so it pays to master it.
So, let’s start with the basics. Shutter speed can be used in two main ways – to freeze motion, or utilised for creative expression.
Shutter speed basics
You know that “clicky” noise your camera makes when you press the shutter button? That’s the shutter banging up and down inside your camera.
Think of it like this; there’s a sensor in your camera and its job is to pick up light. A “shutter”, sits in front of that sensor. Kinda like having curtains behind a window. When you open the curtain, you can see outside. When you press the shutter button, it opens the shutter. Once the shutter is open and light hits the sensor, to put it simply, the sensor records the light as a picture – like burning a piece of paper with a magnifying glass that just happens to be shaped like the Eiffel tower when it’s your first time in France.
The next part is a little bit more tricky.
Shutter speed is therefore the speed to which you’re opening and closing that curtain. But you know when you’ve been a dark room for too long, and suddenly opening a curtain to let the light in blinds and gently startles you? Well, the sensor is kind of like that too.
In normal photography conditions, when there’s too much light all at once, the sensor can’t see what’s going on. There’s too much light let in – the light coming through the magnifying glass is too powerful – and so we need to shorten the amount of time the shutter is open for. This is how the shutter speed effects exposure.
Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second in normal circumstances – 1/4, 1/30, 1/60, 1/100, 1/1000 etc.
The faster your shutter speed (smaller the fraction), the shorter amount of time your shutter will be open for, and subsequently, the less light you’re letting into the sensor. This has an effect of freezing time, or freezing motion – think of it as life at one thousands of a second.
Conversely, the slower your shutter speed, the more light is let through onto your sensor, blurring the world into a creative wash of exposure. Sometimes, you actually want this, like at night or if you’re using shutter speed for a creative purpose. I’ll explain a little more later on.
Over your focal length
So let’s talk about speed and context.
To make things a bunch more confusing, different focal lengths have different minimum shutter speeds in order for your image to retain its sharpness.
The longer your lens, the more likely you are to introduce camera shake. This is because as your magnification grows, the micro movements in your hands become more obvious as the field of view gets shrunk down. For example if you are using a 200mm lens, through the view finder we can see that it’s quite difficult to hand hold a shot. Even the steadiest of hands will introduce a bit of camera shake.
Typically, this is where “In body stabilisation (IBIS)” comes in, but that’s another story for another day.
What you need to know at this point, is that as a rule of thumb, there is a recommended baseline you should be shooting at. And that’s 1 over your focal length.
So for example, this means is that if you’re shooting at 200mm, shoot at a minimum of 1/200sec. If you’re shooting 35mm, 1/40 (because typically there is no 1/35). 16mm? 1/20. etc. You get the point. Keep this general guideline in mind, especially when reviewing any blurry shots that were supposed to be sharp.
What this shows is that there’s a relationship between the speed of your shutter and the focal length of your lens. And for a lot of people who shoot wide, it’s worth noting here that (depending on your subject) it’s totally acceptable to go down to something like 1/15sec in some cases for your images if your hands are steady enough. Crazy, right?
But of course, like all things in photography, there are exceptions to this rule. Especially if you plan on shooting people or subjects with motion.
People and motion
Back to our ‘window’ analogy – the faster the curtain is flashed open, the smaller a slice in time you are freezing. If that window is open for too long, too much light is being let in, “trailing” your exposure and making things blurry.
When shooting people or subjects in motion, this principle is everything.
Most of the time, your objective here is to ensure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the motion in your frame. The faster the motion, the faster the shutter speed is required to be.
There’s no hard and fast rule to how fast your shutter speed should be to capture people and moving subjects. This comes down to experimentation and a bit of practice. However, there’s some great places to start that I’ve personally come to use over and over, time and time again.
For portraits, I use a minimum shutter speed of 1/200. People move. You’re moving. Fortunately, unless your model is doing backflips or running like Usain Bolt, most of the time 1/200 is enough. Most of the time, I’m up at 1/400 just to be safe though. However, sometimes if you’re struggling with exposure at night, you can get away with up to 1/60 if you shoot wide and can direct your model not to move as much or as frantically.
For street photography, I use a minimum shutter speed of 1/400. Because it’s so unpredictable out on the street. You never know if you’re capturing a person, or a car, or a bus or a train. You might swing your camera wildly in order to get the shot. There are a lot of variables and 1/400 gives you lots of room to screw up. Sometimes I even go up to 1/1000 in the day time just to be safe. After all, if there’s light available, why not use it? If the intention is to freeze the frame, in most cases 1/400 vs 1/1000 looks pretty similar, so you might as well give yourself a buffer.
For really fast movement, I use as fast as I reasonably can get away with, at a minimum of 1/1000. One of my favourite images is of a windmill farm shot over 10km away at 250mm at 1/6000ths of a second. 1/6000! I felt it necessary because I shot it out the window of a moving car down a highway doing 110km/h. Sometimes you need the speed.
Shutter speeds for creative photography
But with all this talk about freezing motion, again, like all things in photography, there’s no such thing as hard rules.
There are many many instances where you want your shutter speeds to be low. Lower than you might be able to hand hold. So low that you’ll have to use a tripod. We call these long exposures, and they’re really cool.
One of my favourite techniques is called “Panning”. It’s probably one of the hardest photographic techniques to master, but it’s well worth the time to practice, as it’s such a unique look and fairly unique skill.
Start with a shutter speed of 1/30, use a continuous autofocus mode, a fast burst rate, put your eye to the viewfinder, brace your elbows to your body, focus on a car or fast moving subject, and pan your body horizontally while burst firing.
If you do it right, what you’ll get is a sharp area where you’ve focused on, but everything else will be blurry, accentuating the appearance of a fast moving object. It’s really cool.
The trick here is to match your body’s panning speed with the speed of your moving object. It’ll take thousands of frames to master, but it’ll be worth it.
When looking for inspiration for panning images, look for images where a lot of the subject area is sharp, and the blurred lines are long. These are the signs of a panning master. If you’re trying to emulate the skill, beware of the photoshoppers though. A fake pan is real easy to fake in Photoshop. That really takes no skill. But once you get good at panning you’ll be able to tell a real pan from a photoshopped one a mile away.
Start with a nice and easy 1/30 to get your rhythm. Once many of your shots turn out sharp and you feel yourself improving, use a slower shutter speed. Try to get all the way to 1/8, 1/4 or even half a second. When you see the types of trails that speed gets, you’ll know what I mean.
Moving into night photography here, we get into a pretty fancy technique I love to use in cities capturing the light trails of cars.
Using a slower shutter speed of 1/4 to 3 seconds and focused on moving cars, we can start to capture the trails of their passing lights and begin to shape how long these trails go for. The longer your shutter, the longer your trail.
Try to think about how long you want your trails to be in your image and match your exposure to the length. This is getting into the realm of “creating your image”, rather than documentation, and it’s a great tool to have in your photography toolkit.
The next bracket of time here is Astro photography.
The thing about shooting stars is that your objective is actually to use the shortest amount of time possible, the lowest amount of ISO possible, and the fastest aperture possible, while maintaining a correct exposure.
It’s tricky, and good astro photography is an entire article in and of itself, but typically you want to shoot anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds with most lenses, and your objective is to expose for the stars but not with such a long exposure that the stars start to trail (because the earth moves).
Let me know if you’re interested in a longer form article about how to do good astro photography and I’ll make one =)
Long exposure photography
Okay, I won’t go into the weeds too much here, but rest assured that there are a plethora of use cases, situations and scenarios to where you would want to use an exposure equal or longer than 20 seconds.
From light trail images at night, to using ND (neutral density) filters and capturing waterfalls, multiple-minute exposures capturing clouds – there’s an entire world out here for you to explore, and again warrants an entire article on its own.
Shutter speed tips and tricks
So, to sum things up, here’s some general advice for mastering shutter speed:
- Learn all the different styles of photography and what shutter speeds are suitable for them – there’s no other way than to try them out for yourself!
- If you’re a beginner, master shutter speed first when learning the exposure triangle. Although it’s the easiest to learn, it’s the most important to master.
- Don’t shoot in Aperture priority. This is where you control the Aperture via the dials, and the camera takes care of the rest. It’s a sure fire way to reduce your hit rate and mastery of shutter speed. Consider shooting in manual mode, with automatic ISO brackets, controlling your aperture and shutter speed manually – ISO on most modern cameras is pretty good these days.
- Consider practicing shutter speed with street photography. That’s often one of the hardest types of photography to shoot, requiring reflexive skills on the dial. A great way to up your skill.
Hope you enjoyed this article and learned a thing or two about shutter speed.
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