Understanding Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is one of the most important settings on your camera, as it controls how long the camera’s shutter stays open to expose the camera sensor to light. Mastering control of shutter speed is crucial for capturing crisp, clear photos and achieving a variety of creative effects. In this article, we’ll explore shutter speed in depth and provide tips on how to take control of it for better photos.
What is Shutter Speed?
The shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera shutter remains open to expose the sensor to light. It is measured in fractions of a second – for example, 1/500 means the shutter opens and closes in just 1/500th of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the less time light has to enter the camera. A fast shutter essentially “freezes” motion in the scene, while a slow shutter blurs motion by allowing the sensor to be exposed to light for longer.
How Shutter Speed Affects Photos
Faster shutter speeds are used to freeze motion, while slower shutter speeds intentionally blur motion. Consider the example of a flowing river:
- A fast 1/500s shutter speed will freeze the action of the rushing water, capturing the drops and ripples crisply and clearly.
- A 2 second shutter speed will blur the motion of the water, creating a silky smooth, dreamy look as the water takes on a milky, ethereal appearance from the extended exposure time.
In addition to motion blur, shutter speed impacts overall image brightness. Faster shutter speeds reduce the total amount of light hitting the sensor, creating a darker image. Slower shutter speeds allow more total light and create a brighter image.
When to Use Fast Shutter Speeds
Fast shutter speeds are necessary for freezing subject motion, especially with fast-moving subjects like sports, vehicles, wildlife, and children. A minimum shutter speed of 1/125 is recommended for freezing motion, but even faster speeds like 1/500 may be needed for very fast motion. Some examples where you want to use a fast shutter:
- Sports – use 1/500 or faster to freeze the swing of a bat or kick of a ball.
- Birds in flight – use 1/1000 or faster to freeze the motion of flapping wings.
- Active kids – use 1/250 or faster to freeze facial expressions and fast movements.
- Vehicles – use 1/500 or faster to freeze speeding cars and avoid motion blur.
You can also use fast shutter speeds to avoid camera shake blur when hand-holding your camera. A good rule of thumb is to use a minimum shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens. So if you’re using a 50mm lens, use 1/50s or faster to avoid shake. You may need to increase your ISO to achieve these fast shutter speeds in low light.
When to Use Slow Shutter Speeds
Using shutter speeds of 1 second or longer creates intriguing motion blur effects. Slow shutter speeds allow you to create a sense of motion and dynamism in your photos. Some examples where you want to use a slow shutter:
- Waterfalls – use shutter speeds of 1-30 seconds to create silky, smooth cascades of water.
- Rivers or ocean waves – use 2-30 second exposures to blur the motion of flowing water.
- Night traffic – 30 second exposures will turn car light trails into dynamic streaks of light.
- Light painting – use exposures of 5-30 seconds to creatively paint with light.
- Night skies – use very long exposures of 15-30 minutes to capture details of the Milky Way.
- Static subjects in low light – use 1/30s or slower if your subject is still and you need more exposure.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to stabilize your camera very well, either with a tripod or other support, whenever using exposures of 1/30s or slower. Image stabilization features can also help minimize shake.
How to Adjust Shutter Speed
DSLR and mirrorless cameras provide full manual control over shutter speed, usually via a dedicated shutter speed dial or settings menu. Most cameras also offer semi-automatic shutter modes:
- Shutter Priority (Tv or S) – lets you manually set the shutter while the camera chooses the aperture.
- Manual (M) – allows full control over both shutter and aperture.
- Auto Modes (Program, Auto) – camera selects both shutter and aperture automatically.
To start understanding shutter speed control, begin by exploring your camera’s Shutter Priority mode. Here you can select speeds from fast (to freeze motion) to slow (to blur motion), while the camera handles aperture.
Once you have a grasp of Shutter Priority, switch to full Manual mode for simultaneous control over both shutter and aperture. This takes practice but provides the most creative flexibility.
Key Tips for Learning Shutter Speed
- Start by learning how to “freeze action” with fast shutter speeds outdoors in bright light. Once comfortable, move indoors and increase ISO as needed to maintain fast speeds.
- Try panning techniques – choose a slightly slower shutter speed like 1/30s and pan with a moving subject to blur the background while keeping the subject sharp.
- Stabilize your camera! Use a tripod, monopod, beanbag, or other support for slow shutter work. Image stabilization (IS) lenses also help.
- Use Time (T) exposure mode to access very long shutter speeds for night skies, light painting, and other creative effects.
- Always check your results and analyze photos – are they crisp or blurry? Too bright or too dark? Use this feedback to refine your shutter speed selection.
- Bracketing shutter speed and using burst mode allows you to “chimp” and review a range of different shutter effects quickly on the camera LCD.
While mastering control of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, it’s important to learn how they interact to achieve a proper exposure.
What is Exposure?
Exposure refers to the amount of light reaching the camera sensor. The exposure is controlled by the Three Pillars of Exposure:
- Aperture – opening in lens allowing light through (measured in f-stops)
- Shutter Speed – how long shutter is open (measured in seconds)
- ISO / Film Speed – sensitivity of the camera sensor to light
By balancing these three settings you can achieve your desired exposure. For example, decreasing shutter speed must be balanced by increasing ISO and/or widening aperture to maintain the same exposure.
The overall brightness of an image is called luminance. Luminance is quantified in photography as “stops” of light. A change in luminance by a factor of 2 is equal to 1 stop.
Common exposure goals:
- Overall balanced exposure (medium luminance)
- Brighter exposure for highlighting subject (high luminance)
- Darker exposure for silhouettes (low luminance)
- Matching luminance of multiple shots in a time-lapse
Using a light meter, either your camera’s built-in one or an external handheld meter, allows you to quantitatively measure exposure and determine necessary setting adjustments.
A key tool for evaluating exposure is the histogram – a graph showing the tonal distribution in an image. Optimizing your exposure will create an evenly distributed histogram without heavy clipping on either end.
Clipping occurs when very bright areas become completely white (blown out highlights) or very dark areas become completely black (crushed shadows). The histogram allows you to identify and avoid clipping.
Reading and interpreting your camera’s histogram display takes practice but is critical for achieving proper exposure.
Other Exposure Tips
- In very bright conditions, use aperture, shutter and ND filters to reduce light vs. cranking down ISO to avoid noise and preserve dynamic range.
- In very low light, maximize aperture opening and minimize shutter speed before boosting ISO to maintain image quality.
- For maximum sharpness, especially with wide apertures, ensure proper focus with autofocus or magnified live view.
- Use exposure compensation to quickly adjust brightness when in P or Auto modes.
By mastering the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO you gain creative control over exposure and can achieve your vision in any lighting conditions.
Advanced Exposure Techniques
Once comfortable with basic exposure, there are many creative techniques to take your photography to the next level:
- Long exposures – use ND filters in bright daylight to allow very long exposures of moving water, clouds, traffic, etc.
- Motion blur – intentionally skew shutter speed faster or slower than needed to creatively blur or freeze motion.
- Bracketing/HDR – take multiple shots at different exposures and composite in post for incredibly detailed high dynamic range images.
- Intentional underexposure – leave areas dark for dramatic high-contrast scenes or silhouettes.
- Flash/strobe – add a speedlight for creative effects, Fill flash can balance bright backgrounds.
- Mixed lighting – leverage multiple light sources with different color temps (tungsten vs. daylight etc). Set white balance or gel flashes.
Proper sharp focus is just as important as good exposure for achieving great images. Mastering focus control allows you to direct the viewer’s attention and compose creatively.
DSLRs and mirrorless cams allow you to take control of focus in several ways:
- Autofocus Modes
- Automatic (camera handles focus)
- Single (focus locks when shutter half-pressed)
- Continuous (focus continually adjusts if subject moves)
- Manual (manually adjust lens focus ring)
- Autofocus Area Selection
- Automatic (camera chooses focus point)
- Single point (choose one AF point manually)
- Dynamic (array of points that camera selects from)
- Group (cluster of focus points selected together)
- Autofocus Tracking
- AF-C mode + dynamic/group AF area allows tracking of moving subjects – camera will shift focus as it detects subject movement. Useful for sports, birds, etc.
In addition to refining your autofocus technique, here are some other key tips for focusing:
- Live View shooting allows critical magnification of the scene for very precise manual focus, especially effective for macro and still life work.
- Focus stacking combines multiple shots focused at different depths to achieve greater depth of field than possible in one exposure. Use for macro and landscape.
- Focus bracketing automatically shoots a burst of images focused at different distances – useful to ensure getting the right focus plane in Active Kid mode!
- Use the hyperfocal distance focusing technique for landscape photography to maximize depth of field – focus 1/3 into the scene to get foreground to infinity in focus.
Practice, evaluate your results critically, and refine your focusing approach based on subject matter and creative goals. Mastering focus gives you another powerful creative and technical tool.
Light and Composition
Photography literally means “drawing with light” – understanding light sources and how they interact with your subject is crucial. Also study the masters of photographic composition to take your images from snapshots to works of art.
- Observe the color, direction, and hardness/softness of natural light and how it changes throughout the day. Use this to plan shoots.
- Shoot early morning and late afternoon for warm, soft, raking light. Midday light is often harsh and flat.
- For portraits, diffuse and reflect light using scrims, reflectors, and diffusers to soften its hardness and create flattering highlights.
- For product or still life shots, use artificial lighting (speedlights, strobes, LED) to build dramatic directional lighting.
Some key compositional principles to study and practice:
- Rule of Thirds – mentally divide frame into thirds horizontally and vertically, placing subjects on intersection points to avoid dead center.
- Leading Lines – use lines within scene (roads, fences, etc) to draw viewer into image. Curving lines add dynamism.
- Framing – use foreground objects like doorways or overhanging branches to frame your main subject. Adds depth.
- Symmetry/Patterns – composing symmetrically or seeking repeating patterns (in architecture, nature etc) creates bold graphic images.
- Viewpoint – shoot from different heights, angles and perspectives. Squat down for intimate kid perspective or shoot downward for unique angles.
Always scan the frame and decide what should be included or excluded. Move yourself and your subjects to improve the composition. Take lots of shots and don’t assume your first framing is best.
Improving Your Eye
Train your eye to identify beautiful light, engaging subjects and compelling compositions:
- Study photography books, magazines and galleries to immerse yourself in inspiring images. How can you apply these ideas to your own work?
- Practice daily – always have your camera handy. Take note of special moments and intriguing light you want to return to shoot.
- Try new perspectives – get low, climb high, explore all the angles. Fill the frame in close. Fixate on small details.
- Use focal length creatively – go wide for an immersive look or long for intimate compressed perspective.
- Follow the light and go where it takes you – whether landscapes, city streets, or everyday scenes. Let dramatic or beautiful light motivate your photography.
Mastering composition and light will elevate your work from casual snaps to compelling photographs.
Editing Your Photos
Post-processing is essential for transforming your RAW camera images into polished final images ready for sharing or display. Take the time to learn image editing well – it makes a huge difference.
Key Editing Steps
While creative options are endless in software like Adobe Lightroom, some core edits to master include:
- Cropping – improve composition, change formats and aspect ratios
- Exposure adjustments – compensate for under/over exposure
- Contrast adjustments – increase contrast and dynamism or decrease for a more subdued look
- White balance correction – remove color casts, warm or cool look
- Noise reduction – minimize graininess and ugly noise
- Sharpening – add back lost sharpness for crisper details
- Color grading – enhance colors or creative color shifts with saturation, vibrance and hue adjustments.
- Dodging & burning – lighten or darken selective areas to balance exposure
- Vignettes – darken edges to draw attention to subjects
- Red eye removal
- Horizon straightening
- Transform perspective adjustments – fix leaning verticals in buildings etc.
- Lens corrections – remove vignetting, distortion, chromatic aberration
Take advantage of non-destructive editing in Lightroom – you can go back and tweak adjustments anytime without damaging the original photo.
Try some of these more advanced techniques once comfortable with the basics:
- Panoramas – stitch multiple photos into an ultra wide panorama
- HDR merging – combine exposures for incredible detail and dynamic range
- Focus stacking – maximize depth of field from multiple focus stacked images
- Astrophotography processing – bring out nebulae and Milky Way from night sky photos
- Photo composites – seamlessly blend multiple images together in creative ways
There are always new editing skills to learn to bring your artistic vision to life. Processing completes the photographic process and allows full creative expression.
- Sort and cull photos ruthlessly and delete all but your best work – this keeps your Lightroom catalog fast.
- Back up finished images to an external hard drive and ideally cloud photo storage as well. Hard drives do fail.
- Standardize your editing process for consistency across similar images – create presets for common adjustments.
- You don’t need to master every editing tool and filter – focus on techniques needed for your particular photography goals.
Mastering your DSLR or mirrorless camera provides incredibly powerful creative potential. Follow this guide’s tips on understanding shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focusing techniques, composition, exposure, light, and post-processing workflow to gain confidence in your abilities. Practice constantly, read voraciously about photography, and continue learning. With dedication to your craft you can produce amazing photographic art with your camera. Now get out there, be creative, and have fun!