How Shutter Speed Affects What You Photograph


Many of us, when we commence our journey into photography, pay scant regard to the technical side of image making. Today’s cameras are so good at exposure, color and focus that they flatter us, leading us to believe that we are already as good as we can get. Of course, a few shoots down the line, when you start to compare your images to those of your peers, there is the sudden, scary realization that there is a lot to learn about this photography malarkey. Chief among those, of course, is the exposure triangle, the invisible but vital bond between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Each of the trinity have unique capabilities to change the way your image looks and today we will take a look at what the shutter speed does to your shots.

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Should you go slow or fast?

What is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed is a simple concept to understand – it is the amount of time that the sensor or film is exposed to light as controlled by a shutter. The time is measured in seconds or more commonly fractions of seconds and typically most modern cameras will feature a range of shutter speed from 1/4000th, a very fast shutter speed up to 30 seconds, a very slow shutter speed. So what effect do these have on our images?

How Does Shutter Speed Affect Your Images?

Ultra Fast Shutter Speeds: These range from 1/1000 of a second to 1/8000th and possibly beyond. These speeds are perfect for freezing virtually any type of everyday motion, a running horse, a jet fighter or a racing car. These speeds are so high that even a subject traveling very fast may appear to be stationery, for example the wheels of a car may appear not to be moving at all. A secondary use of these ultra high speed is when trying to achieve a shallow depth of field in very bright light. By choosing a high shutter speed you can open your aperture to its widest extent in bright sunshine.

Ultra fast speeds completely freeze motion

Fast Shutter Speeds: From 1/250th to 1/500th of a second we are in the realm of the fast shutter speed. These are quite commonly used outdoors on average to bright sunny days. The best, creative use of these speeds is in creating a sense of motion in very fast moving subjects. This achieved by the photographer panning his camera in the direction of travel of his subject. Whereas the ultra fast shutter speeds would completely freeze any motion, use of the fast shutter speed will create motion blur in the fastest moving parts of the scenes, the wheels of the car, the legs of the horse for example. The panning of the camera will also create motion blur in the static background adding to the sense of speed.

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A high shutter speed keeps some motion blur in the fastest moving parts, in this case the bird's wings

Normal Shutter Speeds: The normal range is typically 1/30th to 1/250th of a second. These are typical everyday shooting speeds for most outdoor lighting conditions. The 1/30th of a second speed is traditionally known as slowest speed for getting acceptable images when hand holding the camera with a standard lens, a 50mm for example. There is a rule of thumb that suggests to avoid camera shake use a shutter speed that is equivalent or faster to the focal length of your lens. The normal shutter speeds are more suited to creativity with aperture than the shutter speed itself, being generally too slow for freezing motion and too fast for creative low light photography.

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The normal speeds are more about creativity with aperture

Slow Shutter Speeds: Below 1/30th we are into the realm of the slow shutter speed. Here it is virtually impossible to hand hold the camera and maintain a sharp image so the use of a tripod is required. The slow shutter speeds can be used simply for low light conditions, indoors with no flash, outside at dusk or sunrise or to capture creative motion blur such as the ethereal seascapes or waterfalls that we often see. To obtain slow enough shutter speeds to create these effects even in the lowest amount of natural daylight may often require the use of neutral density filters. At night it is possible to use ultra slow shutter speeds such as 20-30 seconds. These are ideal for shooting nighttime cityscapes and capturing the light trails of cars passing on the roads or blurring over bodies of water.

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Here, a slow shutter speed has given us light trails

And Then There is Bulb Setting

There is one shutter speed beyond this called Bulb. When you select this shutter speed, the shutter will remain open all the while you have your finger on the shutter button. It can also be controlled by a remote shutter controller, and indeed this is recommended as it will allow you to keep the shutter open for minutes without inducing camera shake. These sorts of shutter speeds are often used in astrophotography.

Shutter speed, at first may seem a complicated subject, but as always in digital photography, practice not only makes perfect, it also will give you a great understanding of the effect of different shutter speeds. Try using different shutter speeds on moving subject or in low light to gauge the effect for yourself.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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