Photography Basics: Shutter Speed :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photography Basics: Shutter Speed

by David Peterson 10 comments

Nothing could be more fundamental to photography than shutter speed. It determines so much of every picture we take. We can use it to freeze fast motion or to make rushing water blend together and create a beautiful backdrop for a waterfall. Shutter speed controls how bright or dark our photos appear, allowing us to capture the neon lights at night and the glowing sun moving just past the horizon. It is all of these things and more. That’s why understanding shutter speed is absolutely essential for anyone learning photography.

Shutter speed is the rate at which the shutter on your camera opens up and then closes. Aside from all of the modern electronics, a camera is a pretty simple device. It is a box containing a light sensitive surface (image sensor), something to focus the light on that surface (lens), and a hole to let the light in (aperture). The shutter is like a set of window blinds behind the hole. It opens to let light in, and it closes again to keep it out.

A photograph is formed when the light sensitive surface is exposed to light for some period of time. That’s where you get terms like “exposure.” The longer the photosensitive surface is exposed to light, the brighter the image on it becomes until it is completely white. Of course, all of this depends on much more than just the duration the “blinds” are open, but it is a good general rule of thumb.

Putting everything together, we realize pretty quickly that shutter speed has a direct impact on the brightness and darkness of the pictures we take. There is a huge difference, in terms of brightness, between leaving the blinds open for 1/500 of a second and leaving them open for 30 seconds. In the former, you are likely to get a frozen image that could be dark, while in the latter, you will probably end up with a completely white frame (unless you took the photo at night).

To change the shutter speed, I recommend choosing Shutter Priority mode. It's usually called "Tv" on your mode adjustment wheel. In this mode, your camera will let you select the shutter speed, and it will control the other two important elements to ensure your photo has a good exposure (it's not too dark, or bright), ISO and Aperture.

High Shutter Speed To Freeze motion

Different shutter speeds correspond to different kinds of photographic effects, and they are all worth noting. At very high shutter speeds, from 1/400s and up, you can effectively stop the motion in the frame completely. Let’s say your friend is upside down midair, and you want to capture a split second moment of it. Just increase the shutter speed to a high value like 1/400 to take the shot. The following image was taken at 1/500s, and it shows how this works.

At a lower shutter speed, say 1/125 of a second, the light reflected off of him as he moved would continue to hit the image sensor in the camera, and he would have appeared too blurry. That’s the reason I chose 1/500 of a second. It is too small of a time frame for much of any motion to occur in, so there is no blurring. It is, literally, a split second.

Slower Shutter Speeds To Create Smooth Water

Once you get near the slower shutter speeds available on your camera, moving things start to blur together and create streaks more often that not. Anywhere between 1/30s to 1s, the water from a waterfall blurs together into one white mass. You can use this effect to add a mystical atmosphere to any moving body of water.

Just remember that if you are going to do this, you will need to use a tripod to minimize camera shake. At shutter speeds below 1/60s, the effects of camera shake start to become very pronounced. If you don’t stabilize your camera, everything in the frame will appear blurry.

A slower-than-necessary shutter speed is the main cause of blurry photos, so be aware of that if you try to slow your shutter speed by too much.

Night photography

Night shots simply wouldn’t be possible if we couldn’t vary the shutter speed on our cameras. Because there is much less light available, you'll often use shutter speeds of 1 second or slower in night photography.

Most night shots are taken with a shutter speed between 5 seconds to 30 seconds. In some cases (like when there is almost no light around, or you want to shoot the 'light trails' of cars), an even longer exposure is needed.

It should almost go without saying that a tripod is absolutely necessary for all night photography. A remote control will help as well. Be aware that any jarring or shaking of the camera during these extremely long exposures will distort the image, requiring you to take it over again.

I have a whole video on taking great night photos as an added bonus when you purchase my Depth Of Field Secrets course. If you're interested in taking night photos, check it out.

The best way to learn about shutter speed is to play around with it and try to create one of the above three types of images. While you’re at it, you might as well send me the fruits of your labor. I’d love to see how you’re progressing at working with this critical component of photography.

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  1. mike says:

    thanks dave
    i have a non inter-changeable fuji fine pix s 2950

    with slow shutter for water, ( daytime ), i get a white overexposed pic
    i understand the reason why........................
    but can i overcome this without a lens?

    • David Peterson says:


      Unfortunately you won't be able to do that with your camera. To slow the shutter speed that much in daylight, you will need to attach a ND filter to your lens to cut down the light... and the 2950 does not include a filter attachment.


  2. Roger Boeken says:

    I don't understand shutterspeed can freeze motion better above x-sync speed of camera. I would think you need flash to freeze motions you cannot freeze at 1/200 or 1/250 ?
    At shutter speeds shorter than x-sync only slit part of picture is ligthened during short moment and subject is still moving between any two positions of the slit . It takes always 1/200 (or 1/250 s) to lighten the complete image, during which the subject was moving. Flash however lightens the whole subject only during the short lightening of the flashlight which is well under 1/250s.

  3. Tamar says:

    thanks you make it sound so simple! cant wait to try!!!

  4. Daniel Thomassin says:

    Bonjour David ;Un grand Merci pour tous vos conseils prcieux qui mapporte beaucoup . Aussi comme je suis ma formation au Creative Cloud Adobe Je vous ferais parvenir une parti de mon travail ;Ou si vous prfrer voir directement avec Adobe France il sont super sympa .
    a bientt David .

  5. Deon Holtzhausen says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the info it is really good to go back to basics fron time to time

  6. David Peterson says:

    Hi Joanna,

    That's exactly what my video course does. It explains in non-jargon terms the relationship between the two.


  7. Joanna Wood says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks for taking us back to basics. I recently purchased a Canon 1000D and am trying to teach myself how to shoot in manual. I understand Aperture and Shutter on their own but, trying to put the two together is kinda doing my head lols....
    Any chance of just a small tutorial of how they work together? Or have I missed something like this that you have already covered?
    Cheers Joanna.

  8. Jimmie says:

    Very Helpful and easy to understand,this has helped me a great deal.

  9. Dennis says:

    More great info for learner like me. You explain everything that's easy to understand. thanks

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