What Is Shutter Speed?
Shutter speed is the length of time the camera’s shutter stays open to expose the sensor to light, also controlling the motion in the photo. Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. A shutter speed of 1/100 is 1/100th of a second and exposes the sensor to less light (or faster) than a shutter speed of 1 which is one second. Slower shutter speeds expose the sensor to more light and capture more motion blur.
Fast Shutter Speeds
Most photos are taken with shutter speeds between 1/500 -1/60 because it captures a sharp focus of moving objects and is typically safe without a tripod. As you will see later in the article, you can get sharp photos at shutter speeds slightly slower than 1/60, but you start to get into the “it depends” territory. Your photos could appear blurry without a tripod depending on several variables including lighting, focal length and movement. Shutter speeds of 1/1000 or faster are great for very bright ambient light or very fast-moving subjects.
Slow Shutter Speeds
When you use a slower shutter speed, the shutter stays open longer and exposes the sensor to more light. Shutter speeds of 1/4 of a second, 1 second, 2 seconds and beyond can be used for creative effects such as motion blur or increasing the exposure, but you will need to stabilize the camera to avoid camera shake.
When to use a slower shutter speed
Create Motion Blur
Motion blur can give a sense of movement, direction, speed, a sense of chaos in a street photography, or a sense of serenity in landscape photography.
Low Light Settings
Night scenes, astrophotography, indoor photography, caves, and caverns may low ambient light and require a longer shutter speed to achieve proper exposure.
I took a photography tour (which is no longer offered) through Antelope Canyon so I could bring a tripod. In fact, it was a requirement because the caves are dark and require a slower shutter speed to get proper exposure. Most of the photos taken that day were between 2 and 4 seconds. This photo was taken with a 2-second exposure time. If I had used a faster shutter speed, my photos could have been too dark.
Tips for slow shutter speeds:
Use a tripod or a place to set your camera
The camera needs to remain still to avoid blurry photos at longer shutter speeds. Don’t have a tripod? No problem! Use rocks, ledges, or benches, just make sure the camera won’t move.
Use a 2-second timer or a remote.
Pressing the shutter release button causes slight movement, which is noticeable when using longer shutter speeds. Timers and remotes capture an image without touching the camera so you can avoid the slight shake caused by pressing the capture button.
WHEN TO USE FAST SHUTTER SPEEDS
Freeze Fast Moving Objects
When photographing a fast-moving subject and don’t desire motion blur, such as kids, sports, or wildlife.
Longer shutter speeds could lead to overexposed photos when shooting well-lit subjects so you can increase the shutter speed to reduce the exposure. If you are using a slower shutter speed to capture motion blur, try adjusting other camera settings such as using a narrow aperture or reducing the ISO. Another option is neutral density filters, which act as sunglasses for your lens and reduces the amount of light that reaches the sensor.
The formula “1/focal length” helps determine the slowest handheld shutter speed without causing motion blur. For example, if you are shooting with a 17 mm lens then your slowest handheld shutter speed should be no less than 1/17th of a second; round up to the next fastest shutter speed. In this example, the slowest handheld shutter speed is 1/20. If the lens lacks image stabilization, then increase the shutter speed by an additional stop. Check out Improve Photography’s blog for a full chart of effective handheld shutter speeds at different focal lengths.
In the above examples I did not use a tripod or other forms of stabilization and neither scene had very much ambient so I used the slowest possible shutter speed for handheld shots. The photo on the right was taken with a 40 mm lens and I used a shutter speed of 1/40. The photo on the right was taken with a 50 mm focal lens and I used a shutter speed of 1/50.
To master shutter speed, I would suggest shooting in shutter priority mode while photographing water (waterfall, river, water fountain). Change the camera’s shutter speed as you take pictures and study how how slower and faster shutter speeds affect movement in the water and exposure. I learned how shutter speed works by sitting near a water fountain for an hour or two while playing with the settings. I didn’t intend to keep the photos; it was just practice. That’s the best advice for beginners – practice taking pictures when you don’t care about the result so you can get the perfect shot when it matters.