Introduction to Shutter Speed: Easy explanation and examples

In Photo Basics by Jim Harmer8 Comments

Setting the shutter speed on your camera is really simple, and it will teach you how to capture crystal clear photos even when there is fast action in the scene.  Knowing how to use the shutter speed properly also helps photographers to make creative long exposure shots.

Simply put, the shutter speed is the length of time that the camera is recording a picture.  A long shutter speed makes a brighter picture, but if something moves while the image was being recorded, it causes blur.  On the other hand, short shutter speeds freeze motion better but produce a darker picture.

In this post, I'll teach you everything you need to know about the shutter speed to confidently set it every time.  However, there is more to learning a camera.  After reading this, check out my photo basics series where I teach you everything you need to know about using your camera in a series of free articles.

How the Shutter Works

The part of your digital camera that records the picture is called the imaging sensor.  In front of the sensor, there is a “blinder”–that's the shutter.  The shutter's job is to cover up the sensor until a picture is being recorded.  It quickly uncovers the sensor for a moment for the picture to be recorded, and then covers it up again.

When you set the shutter on your camera, you are setting the length of time that the shutter reveals the imaging sensor so it can record the light coming through the lens.  The longer the light is being recorded, the brighter the picture will be.

The shutter speed is expressed in fractions of a second.  If you see a camera setting of 1/100, it means that your photo is only being recorded for one one-hundredth of a second.  A shutter speed of 1/2 means your photo is being recorded for half a second.

In this example, you can see the 1/250 shutter speed is too fast and it freezes the action of cars driving by. The photo on the right uses a creative long shutter speed to show the movement of the car lights as they drive by.  This was shot on a tripod to prevent camera shake.

Download My Free Shutter Speed Chart

If you are understanding this tutorial but you're afraid you may forget how to set the camera settings when you're out shooting, go download my free camera settings chart.  You can keep it in your camera bag and glance at it anytime you need to get an idea for general camera settings for a particular situation.

Shutter Speed Examples

Here are a few common shooting situations and the shutter speed that I would recommend as a general idea:

  • 1/4000 – Taking pictures of a friend at the beach on a sunny day.  You will likely need 1/4000 shutter speed to block out most of the light since it's so bright outside or else the picture will be overexposed.
  • 1/1000 or faster – Fast action sports photography such as basketball or football.  This shutter speed is usually sufficient for shooting sports, but you may find that you can't go quite that fast if it's in a dark indoor gym.  More on camera settings for indoor sports here.
  • 1/400 – Taking a portrait of someone in a park on a rainy day at noon.
  • 1/200 – Photographing someone indoors when using a flash to light up the scene.
  • 1/50 – Photographing a family member indoors.  Even with the lights on in a room, you usually need to drop the shutter speed and increase the ISO to get a properly exposed picture indoors (unless you're right next to a window).
  • 1/20 – Photographing a waterfall while the camera is on a tripod to capture silky movement in the water.
  • 1/10 – Photographing sunset color in the sky after the sun has gone down.  For landscape photos like this, the aperture will typically be at f/16 or another high number, so you'll need a long exposure to capture the light.  More on camera settings for photographing a sunset here.
  • 15 seconds – Photographing the Milky Way at night while the camera is on a tripod.  More on camera settings for photographing the Milky Way here.
  • 30 seconds – Photographing a city scene at night and getting light trails of the car headlights and tail lights driving past.  You would obviously need a tripod to shoot with this long of a shutter speed.
  • 2 hours – Photographing star trails (though this is more commonly done by shooting a series of shorter pictures and combining them later in Photoshop). Note that most cameras can't go past a 30 second shutter speed unless you get a cable release.  More on star trail photography here.

The difference between 1/10 and 1/30 shutter speed is subtle, but you can see here that the water looks silkier at a longer shutter speed of 1/10. The water in the 1/30 shot looks a bit too “crunchy.”

Using Long Shutter Speeds for Creative Effects

As a photographer begins to learn how to use a camera, the shutter speed is usually just set fast to freeze the action; however, as a photographer becomes more advanced, the shutter speed is often used as a creative tool to allow for creative blur in a photo as a way to express motion.

The most common example of a creative long exposure is photographing waterfalls.  If you take a picture of a waterfall with a fast shutter speed, the photo almost always looks amateurish.  Professional photographers almost always use a longer shutter speed at waterfalls to show a sense of movement and beauty.

What's the shutter speed on this photo? It's actually a trick question. It doesn't really matter! Nothing is moving in this scene and there was no wind to blow the leaves, so it wouldn't really matter if this were shot at 1/500 or 2 seconds as long as I set the aperture and ISO to balance the exposure. I shot this at 1″ on a tripod.

The 1/Focal Length Rule

Your hands have a natural tremble to them.  Also, when you press the shutter button on the camera, the camera moves just slightly.  While this may seem minimal, remember that you are recording something that is a slight distance away, and that distance magnifies the tremble in your hands.  Camera shake is only an issue when you are hand-holding the camera.  There is no significant camera shake when your camera is locked onto a tripod.

An example of camera shake is holding a laser light.  If you point it at the table a few inches away from you, it appears to hold perfectly steady.  However, when you shine the light across a room at the wall, you can see the laser light dancing everywhere.  It's impossible to hold it perfectly steady.  That's exactly why even a little camera shake can produce a blurry photo.

The easiest way to stop camera shake is to simply use a fast shutter speed.  For example, shooting at 1/4000 of a second is so fast that your hand simply doesn't have enough time to tremble much before the photo is done being recorded.  However, that's impractical because many shooting situations would require a slower shutter speed to gather enough light.

The camera shake is magnified by distance, so the more zoomed in you are (longer focal length), the faster your shutter speed needs to be to freeze the motion of your shake.  This is why some photographers teach the 1/focal length rule.  The 1/focal length rule says, to prevent camera shake, your focal length in mm should be equal or greater than the shutter speed (the denominator in the shutter speed fraction).  For example, if you are zoomed in to 100mm (you'll get this number by looking at the scale on your lens), you would need to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/100.  If you were using a wide angle lens at 20mm, you could cheat down your shutter speed to no slower than 1/20 (meaning you shouldn't go to 1/10, but you can go faster to 1/40 or 1/60 without any problem).

This rule is good to keep in mind as a benchmark for setting your shutter speed, but it is by no means perfect.  Today's technology is changing the rule and allowing photographers to use slightly slower shutter speeds while maintaining sharpness due to newer image stabilized lenses and sensors.

Conclusion

Setting the shutter speed is actually one of the easiest settings to get right on the camera.  You simply determine how much blur is acceptable and set the shutter speed accordingly.  However, remember that shutter speed also impacts the brightness of the image, so you sometimes need to compromise between the ideal shutter speed, and a practical shutter speed for capturing enough light in the photo.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. Stop sending these unwanted and unsolicited messages to my phone. This is a listed federal and Missouri Do Not Call number…continuinf to send messages will result in a formal complaint to authorities.

    1. Author

      @Fred Lydic – The only possible way you could be receiving any message is if you clicked to allow browser notifications. Just go into your browser and turn off the notifications if you don’t want them.

  2. So this gives a great explanation of what settings you should use for different situations but where on the camera do you actually set them?

  3. Wonderful!
    I love and appreciate your info!
    Looking forward to more…
    Thank you so much!

  4. JIM, thank you for your site – your work. I’m getting back into serious photography after many years. So, I’m playing ‘catch-up football’. You site is perfectly geared to my needs – some places almost back to beginner, some medium to beginning advanced. My memory appears to be selective. 🙂

    I sent to requests for an email of your “free camera settings chart” – but have not yet received an email with said chart. I would really love to have it – as those memorized types of general settings are roughly 20 years out of my head [all that pre digital].

    Thank you for your assistance.

    Desmond

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