Ask David: When do I use different shutter speeds? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Ask David: When do I use different shutter speeds?

by David Peterson 15 comments

Your camera is an amazing creative tool. That's not really intuitive to a lot of beginners, because cameras are so good at recording reality. But the fact is that you can use your camera to manipulate reality just as you can use it to recreate reality and the simplest creative tool your camera has is shutter speed. Shutter speed works in two directions--you can either slow it down or speed it up. Use a slow shutter speed to emphasize movement. Use a faster shutter speed to freeze movement. So how do you decide when to choose a slow shutter speed, and when to choose a faster one?

Let's start with a cheat sheet.

Shutter Range Shutter Speed Settings (seconds) General Applications
Fast-Shutter Speed
High Shutter Speed 1/2000, 1/4000, 1/8000 High speed subjects (Jet aircraft, bullets, etc.)
Fast Shutter Speed 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000 Sports, action, stopping motion, telephoto lenses (long focal length)
Mid-Range Shutter Speed
Mid-Range Shutter Speed 1/60, 1/125 Portraits, stationary subjects
Slow Shutter Speed
Slow Shutter Speed 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30 Motion blur, panning, water (“angel hair” effect)
Long Exposures 30, 15, 8, 4, 2, 1 Night photography
Bulb Setting B Fireworks, lightning, light painting

Note: This list is a guideline—the shutter speeds you choose may vary depending on the type of effect you want. For example, when shooting water to achieve the "angel hair" effect, you may want to choose even longer exposures to enhance the effect.

Slower shutter speeds

When you slow down your camera's shutter speed, you're giving the ambient light more time to record an image on your camera's sensor, that's what produces the motion blur effect in your final photo. The term "slow shutter speed" is not really an all-inclusive one; different speeds will get you different effects. I like to divide that term up into three different categories.

Slow Shutter Speed

his category includes speeds of 1/2 second to 1/30 second -- slow enough to record the image and trace any movement in the scene. When you shoot at these speeds, you need to brace your camera or use a tripod to prevent camera shake. Camera shake is that sort of motion blur you don't want—it will produce double imaging and blurring throughout the image.

Slow shutter speeds can be used for creative effects, so provided you have a way to stabilize your camera you can get a lot of cool results just by trying out different settings. Some examples:

Slow Shutter Speed - Motion Blur - Motion blur in your image lets your viewer know that your subject is in motion. Let's say you're shooting a running child—you've got a sharp background and a blurry subject, and your viewer gets a sense of speed. A spinning windmill is another great example—the tack-sharp structure and surrounding environment contrasts with the spinning, motion-blurred vanes.

Slow Shutter Speed - Panning - This technique uses motion blur, too, only the blur comes from the movement of the camera. When you pan with (or follow the motion of) a moving subject, you get a blurred background and (hopefully) a sharp subject. The streaky blur you'll get in that background does a great job of conveying speed and forward motion to your viewer. Panning can also help isolate your subject from a busy background.

Panning works best at shutter speeds of 1/8 to 1/30 of a second. Anything slower than that and camera shake would start to become a problem. On the other hand, speeds faster than 1/30th wouldn't produce any background blur at all.

Panning takes practice, so don't be disappointed if your first attempts aren't perfect. Just remember that panning works best with horizontal motion—bicycles, motorcycles and other vehicles—runners may not work as well because they've got some vertical motion, too. You could pan with that forward motion but those swinging arms might produce an image of a runner with no hands.

Slow Shutter Speed - Water (Angel Hair Effect) - The "angel hair" effect is what they call those misty water shots I'm sure you've admired. To get a shot like that, start with 1/15 and then experiment with increasingly slow shutter speeds. Moving water (waterfalls, fast-moving rivers and ocean waves) will turn into a soft, misty fuzz. The longer the shutter speed, the smoother that water’s going to appear.

Long Exposures

This category includes speeds of 1 second to 30 seconds or longer. Typically, you'll be using these speeds in low light, and you will need a tripod and a wireless trigger to keep your camera steady. Keep in mind that even though you are using a tripod, the act of pressing that shutter release button is still going to be enough to cause camera shake, and that may ruin the shot. If you don't have a wireless trigger then it might be wise to use your camera's self-timer to trigger the exposure. You may also want to consider using your camera's mirror lock-up function. At very slow shutter speeds, the vibration caused by the mirror inside your camera as it moves out of the way during the exposure can affect image sharpness. A strong wind could have the same effect, so take note of the strength of the wind.

Bulb Setting

In bulb mode, the duration of the exposure is controlled by the photographer. In some cameras, you press the shutter button once to open the shutter and again to close it. Other models require the shutter button to be held down for the duration of the shot. A wireless trigger is a must for bulb mode, because you can't keep your finger on that button without introducing camera shake. If your camera model is the push-twice variety, you may be able to get away without one at very long exposures (that little bit of camera shake at the beginning and end of the shot won't be enough to impact a very long exposure), but for the most part having a wireless trigger on hand is a good idea.

Use bulb mode when shooting fireworks, lightning or light painting. In these scenarios, the shutter is left open until the light illuminates the scene. The longer the shutter is open, the more of those fireworks or lightning strikes you can record on the same image.

Slow shutter speeds give you a lot of creative opportunities. Just remember that your tripod and wireless trigger are required accessories whenever you think you're going to be shooting at those longer speeds. It may be a bit of a bother to carry that extra gear around with you, but your results will make it all worthwhile.

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  1. Judy says:

    Hi David, Thank you so very much for these informative tips and tutorials. I am an amateur photographer. I Have a Nikon D7100 with 2 kit lenses and a nifty 50 f1.4. I love photographing my grandkids with the 50 but have not mastered tac sharp focusing most of the time. These kids never stop moving!! Love learning new ways to overcome these obstacles. Use aperture setting most of the time and would love to move to manual shooting. Still need a lot of practice. Any advice you can give would be helpful with moving targets.

  2. Nancy says:

    Thanks for the tips, I always read them. I wonder about slow shutter speed motion photos where the foreground is blurry and background is in focus (eg close up flock of pigeons flying in front of old building), should I focus on the birds or the building?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Nancy,

      Yes, focus on the building because that's what you want focus on. Good luck!


  3. Gabriel Parsons says:

    Hi David What shutter spped would you sugest for bluring the main prop on a Helicopter. The ideal wouldbe to have a blurred circular image of the revolving blade. Thanks Gabriel

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Gabriel,

      It really depends on how fast it's going, and how much of the propeller you'd like blurred - just a small arc of prop, or a whole circle. Like most things with photography, the best thing is to set Shutter Priority, take a couple of test photos and change your shutter speed until you get the result you want.


  4. behzad1239 says:

    Thanks Dvid as always for the info. I am sure you are correct to say that one has to take many photos with various combination of shutter/aperture to get the right photo however, i find it difficult to get the combination when i want the right depth of field in addition the the right exposure if you see what i mean!!

  5. nrman graves says:

    Using slow shutter speed for angel hair effect is a problem with f8 min. aperture on most point and shoots.
    Any good solutions?

    • David Peterson says:


      First, make sure you are at the lowest ISO your camera supports - 100 usually, but sometimes 50. Also, don't stick with f/8. Close the aperture more to f/20 or f/32 which will mean the shutter can be open for longer.

      Finally, wait for a time of day where there isn't as much light. Either a cloudy day or closer to sunset.

      I hope that helps.


  6. krishna kumar says:

    Thank you David for a highly useful article on the use of shutter speeds. I am confident that my next lot of images will not be the same as before ... !

  7. Stacie says:

    I happened across this site today as an amateur photographer getting ready to take pics of her son's wedding in Colorado in a few days. I cannot tell you how much I learned and how excited I am to try some of the ideas you suggested. I have spent several hours on here tonight! I've had my Canon T1i for 5 years now and I love learning new things about it. You are also a talented writer and drew me in immediately. Thank you so much.

  8. Dino says:

    Hi David and thank you for the great write up. One question: for panning, do you use a tripod or hand held or can it be both?

  9. Sanju Thokchom says:

    Dear Sir.... It's really informative and so helpful specially for us who love photography but have insufficient knowledge..... I am from India... And I have nikon 3200 with two lens 18 to 55 and 55 to 200. What should I follow for enhancing and perfecting Manual focusing.

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