Shutter Speed For Beginners

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Shutter Speed For Beginners

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  I may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted. 

Abrams Falls Shutter Speed Feature

Shutter speed determines the length of time the camera’s shutter remains open, which controls the amount of light that hits the camera sensor and the degree of motion blur in the final image. Shutter speed is a critical part of maintaining the image’s exposure. Whether shooting landscapes, portraits, or action scenes, understanding how to use shutter speed creatively makes all the difference between an ordinary and an exceptional image. In this blog post, I’ll explore the basics of shutter speed in photography, how it works, and how to apply it.


Shutter Speed Graphic shows how the faster the shutter speed the less light that reaches the sensor

Shutter speed refers to how long a camera’s shutter stays open when taking a photograph. It is one of the essential components of the exposure triangle, along with aperture and ISO. Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds and determines how much light reaches the camera sensor, thus affecting the brightness of the image. A faster shutter speed (such as 1/1000th of a second) allows less light to reach the sensor, resulting in a darker image, while a slower shutter speed (such as 1/30th of a second) allows more light to reach the sensor, resulting in a brighter image. Shutter speed also controls the amount of motion blur in an image – a fast shutter speed freezes action, while a slow shutter speed can create a sense of motion or blur in a moving subject.


Fast shutter speed refers to a quick opening and closing of the shutter, resulting in a very short exposure time. This means that the camera can capture fast-moving subjects with clarity and detail and freeze any motion in the photograph. Generally speaking, a fast shutter speed is above 1/500th of a second, depending on the camera and the lighting conditions.

When To Use A Fast Shutter Speed

Freeze Motion

hummingbird with sharp wings eating from a lower demonstrates how a fast shutter speed freezes motion.
Shutter speed: 1/2000 s

A fast shutter speed is beneficial in capturing fast-moving subjects without motion blur, allowing you to capture sports and wildlife photography without the subject appearing blurry or out of focus. High shutter speeds can also effectively freeze water droplets, capturing the intricate details of splashing or dripping water. 

Well Lit Settings

White Volkswagen Beetle Driving a Colorado Scenic Byway
Shutter speed: 1/1000 s

In bright conditions, a fast shutter speed is necessary to prevent over-exposure, which can result in washed-out images. This is because the shutter quickly opens and closes, allowing only an instant to expose the sensor to light. As a result, you can capture sharp, detailed, and well-exposed images even in bright conditions, making it essential to use fast shutter speeds in well-lit settings.

Shooting Handheld

You can use the formula “1/focal length” to avoid motion blur while taking handheld shots. This formula helps determine the slowest shutter speed without creating motion blur. For instance, if the lens you use has a focal length of 17mm, the slowest handheld shutter speed you can use is 1/17th of a second. You should always round up to the next fastest shutter speed, which means, in this case, the slowest handheld shutter speed is 1/20. If the lens does not have image stabilization or you’re especially shaky, add an additional stop to the shutter speed. Refer to Improve photography’s blog for a comprehensive explanation of the appropriate handheld shutter speeds for different focal lengths.


Generally, a shutter speed below 1/60th of a second is considered “slow,” and longer shutter speeds can range from several seconds to several minutes.

When To Use A Slow Shutter Speed

Create Motion Blur

Shutter speed: 10 s

Use a slow shutter speed to create motion blur when capturing subjects in motion, such as flowing water, moving vehicles, or people walking across a scene. A slow shutter speed creates a sense of movement and motion as the subject moves across the scene during the exposure.

For example, a slow shutter speed in landscape photography creates a smooth and silky effect on waterfalls or rivers. Similarly, a slow shutter speed in night photography captures light trails of moving cars or motion blur in moving people. Portraits can also benefit from a slow shutter speed as it can create a sense of movement or blur in the background while keeping a nonmoving subject in focus.

Dimly Lit Environments

Shutter speed: 8 s

Using a slower shutter speed gives the camera’s sensor more time to capture light, resulting in brighter, more detailed images. For example, if you take pictures of a beautiful cityscape at night, a slow shutter captures the city lights’ vibrant colors and creates stunning light trails from moving cars or people. Additionally, when photographing indoor events such as concerts or weddings, a slow shutter speed can capture the event’s ambiance and create unique effects such as motion blur.

However, using a slow shutter speed also has its downsides. With a longer exposure time, you risk introducing motion blur or camera shake if you or your subject moves during the exposure. You may also need a tripod or other stabilization method to eliminate camera shake.

Create Abstract Images

Abstract image of fall foliage with streaks of yellows and greens created using a slow shutter speed and camera movement.
Shutter Speed: 1/6 s

Using a slow shutter speed can create abstract images by capturing motion blur and creating streaks of light. To achieve this effect, set your camera to manual mode and select a slow shutter speed, typically 1/30th of a second or slower, depending on the scene. Next, secure your camera on a sturdy tripod to prevent camera shake and hold the shutter button down or use a cable release to take a long exposure. Also, experiment with moving your camera or the subject during the exposure for unique abstract effects. Additionally, try using different light sources in the scene to create interesting color contrasts and patterns. Play around with different shutter speeds and movements to create various abstract images.


To master shutter speed, I suggest shooting in shutter priority mode while photographing water (waterfalls, rivers, or water fountains). Change the camera’s shutter speed as you take pictures and study 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.

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.

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Author Bio

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Delaney is a Business Analyst by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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