Fundamentals of Photography: Guide to Shutter Speed

Along with ISO and Aperture, shutter speed forms the exposure triangle. It is an important concept in photography because it directly affects your exposure. Further, you can use shutter speed to freeze motion or create motion blur in your photos. In this article, I will explain in simple terms how to use shutter speed to correctly expose your photos. We will also go over how to use it for creative purposes.

What Is Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to how long your camera’s shutter mechanism stays open to let light onto the image sensor. Since it measures how long your image sensor is exposed to light, it is also known as exposure time. Shutter speed is usually measured in seconds or minutes.

What Is Camera Shutter

A camera’s shutter refers to a curtain in front of the image sensor that opens and closes every time you take a shot. The exact mechanism of the shutter can vary depending on what type of camera you have. Let us take a DSLR camera as an example. They have a mirror in front of the shutter through which you see your picture in the viewfinder. When you take the shot, this mirror lifts up and the shutter curtain moves down to expose the image sensor. See example below.

An illustration showing the shutter mechanism of a DSLR camera

How to Measure Shutter Speeds

Since shutter speeds refer to a length of time, they are measured in seconds or even minutes. It is also common to see fractions of a second being used to shutter speed since such speeds are needed to freeze any moving objects. For example, to freeze the action of a person who is walking, you would need a shutter speed of at least 1/250th of a second.

Modern cameras have extremely fast shutter speeds that go all the way up to 1/8000th of a second. Such speeds are useful when you want to freeze the action of fast-moving subjects. Such as football players, racing cars, or wildlife.

Shutter Speed Chart

Shutter speed chart below refers to full-stops of shutter speeds. As you go from left to right, it doubles your exposure time and ultimately your exposure (amount of light).

1/1000 – 1/500 – 1/250 – 1/125 – 1/60 – 1/30 – 1/15 – 1/8 – 1/4 – 1/2 – 1″ – 2″ – 4″ – 8″ – 15″ – 30″

If you’re wondering what the stray quote marks () are about, the  is the symbol that stands for a second. I will explain in a bit why I marked the shutter speed of 1/60th of a second in red. For now, I also want you to know that cameras usually breakdown these full-stops to half or one-third stops to allow more control over shutter speeds. Here is an example showing those charts.

A shutter speed chart showing full-stops, half-stops, and one-third stops

How to Set Shutter Speed Settings

As you will see in examples and use cases below, controlling your shutter speed can give you really beautiful results. So how do you set your shutter speed?

You can specify the shutter speed in following three modes of your camera: Manual mode, Shutter Priority Mode (known as “Tv” for Canon and “S” for Nikon), or Bulb mode.

  • Shutter priority mode – Allows you to specify a shutter speed of up to 30 seconds. Camera controls the aperture automatically to get the right exposure at your shutter speed. It’s typically labeled as “Tv” on Canon or “S” on Nikon cameras.
  • Manual mode: Allows you to specify a shutter speed of up to 30 seconds. You must manually control the aperture to get the right exposure at your shutter speed.
  • Bulb Mode – Allows you to specify any shutter speed (even longer than 30 seconds). Especially useful when you want to take long exposure photography.

Once you are in any one of those modes, turn your main control dial to adjust your shutter speed.

How to Read Shutter Speed

You can read your shutter speed by looking at the LCD panel of your DSLR camera as shown below. If you have a top panel in your DSLR, the shutter speed is usually indicated to the left of your aperture value.

Image showing shutter speed settings on the back of a DSLR camera

When to Use a Tripod

If you recall, in our shutter speed chart, I marked the shutter speed 1/60 in red. This is because any shutter speed slower than 1/60th of a second is prone to camera shake (blurry images) when hand holding. This is especially true if your camera and lens combo are heavy. You can test your camera and hand steadiness by switching your camera to Tv/S mode and selecting a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second. See if your photo is blurry.

The solution is to use a tripod or some other support system (such as a bean bag) for your camera when shooting at shutter speeds lower than 1/60th of a second. It is a good idea, in general, to use a tripod even at faster shutter speeds since that will eliminate any possibility of camera shake.

Motion Blur

Motion blur is the effect where fast-moving subjects appear blurry due to being exposed to the camera’s sensor for longer periods. You can blur the motion of any moving object as long as the shutter speed is relatively slow compared to the subject’s speed of movement. Perhaps you might think that photographers should avoid motion blur at all costs. However, this streak-like effect can be very useful to photographers for indicating motion, evoking emotions, or capturing the passage of time…etc.

For example, when capturing the photo below, traditional ceremonial dance in a Buddhist temple, I opted for a slow shutter speed to convey speed and motion to my viewers. This is a complicated dance where two groups of dancers are circling around a dancer in the middle while holding canes attached to the middle dancer. Choosing a slow shutter speed has allowed the viewer to get a sense of fast action in this scene.

Tip: When you are shooting in broad daylight, it can be impossible to slow the shutter enough to capture motion blur. This is because a longer exposure will over expose the photo. There are three things you can do in this situation to obtain a longer exposure time.

  • Choose a smaller aperture to reduce the available light (the camera will automatically reduce aperture if you are using the shutter priority mode).
  • Reduce the ISO as much as possible so that the film’s sensitivity to light is low.
  • Use a Neutral Density (ND) filter to reduce the light entering the lens

Doing so would require your shutter to be open for longer periods of time allowing you to capture motion blur.

Freeze Motion

There are occasions where you want to avoid motion blur and instead freeze motion. This helps photographers to create moments that only a photograph can bring to life. For example, take a look at the photograph of the hummingbird below. Using a fast shutter speed such as 1/2000th of a second has allowed the camera to freeze the motion. The minimum shutter speed required to freeze motion depends on how fast your subject is moving. For example, a fast-moving hummingbird requires a minimum of 1/2000 of a second but a person walking can be captured without any motion blur with a shutter speed of about 1/XXX of a second.

Photo of a water drop with a ripple effect captured with a faster shutter speed

Long Exposure Photography

I am sure you have seen those waterfall photos with milky water effect. Just in case, if you haven’t, here’s one below. This effect uses longer exposure times to smooth out any movements in the scene. Hence the name “long” exposure photography. For example, to soften the water, exposure is set to 5 seconds. During broad daylight, it can be impossible to achieve such exposure times without overexposing your photo. As mentioned earlier, a Neutral Density (ND) filter can help in such situations to reduce the amount of light entering the camera. Allowing us to get a longer exposure time without overexposing the shot.

Beautiful long exposure photo of a Icelandic waterfall taken with a shutter speed of 5 seconds.
Shutter speed of 5 seconds has softened the water in this Icelandic waterfall

Bulb Mode

As mentioned earlier, your camera’s manual and shutter-priority modes allow you to set a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds. If you have the need to get more than 30 seconds of exposure time, you would need to go into the Bulb (B) mode of your camera. In this mode, your shutter will stay open as long as you hold the shutter button. This is extremely useful when you are doing long exposure photography. One thing to remember is that it is not a good idea to continuously press your shutter button with your finger. Instead, use a shutter release attached to your camera. So that you can avoid any camera shake while exposing. Needless to say, you also need to have your camera on a Tripod during such exposures.

Shutter speed examples

People usually ask what shutter speed to use? In this section, I attempt to give you basic shutter speed guidelines but the exact shutter speed depends on many factors such as creative needs (blur or freeze motion), light, ISO, your subject…etc.

Shutter speed examples
Use these as your starting points and experiment.
Subject Shutter Speed (s)
shutter speed for sports 1/1000
shutter speed for fireworks 1/2
shutter speed for moving objects 1/60
shutter speed for night photography 10 to 30 seconds or more
shutter speed for action shots 1/800 or faster
shutter speed for landscape 1/60 or more if hand holding
shutter speed for time lapse 1/30 to 1/100
shutter speed for lightning 4-6 seconds
shutter speed for light painting 5 seconds or more
shutter speed for hummingbirds 1/2000 or faster

Share Your Experiments Below

I hope you have enjoyed this article and learned something new today. Please upload your photos that emphasize on using the comment section’s photo icon. We would love to see your comments and sample photos.

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