Shutter Speed

As discussed in the prior post, we’re lifting up the hood of each of the three variables that can contribute to the exposure of a picture.  First we are going to discuss Shutter Speed since I think it’s the easiest one to comprehend.

To start, I find it helpful to relate taking a picture to working in the kitchen..  When you put something in the oven, there are two essential measurements..  Temperature & Time..  If we can think of making a picture like cooking a meal; Shutter Speed is the “How long do I cook it” equivalent..  Aperture (or f-stop) can be thought of as the “temperature”.  Later, we’ll “add some salt” here and there with other adjustments.

SO WHAT’S SHUTTER SPEED AGAIN? Shutter Speed is simply how long the “shutter” is open – the longer it stays open, the more light gets in.  The more light –  the brighter your picture.


Slower Speeds can smooth out streams (1/3rd)

HOW DO I CONTROL IT? Moving your camera from AUTO mode into either “S” or “Tv” mode allows you to dictate the shutter speed and lets the camera calculate the rest.

WHEN WOULD I USE IT? Most often, shutter speed is used to control blur.  Sometimes you want to show motion/action, so a longer shutter speed is appropriate.  Other times you want to freeze the motion – so a shorter duration would be required.

Didn't quite freeze the motion here, I should have shot faster

WHAT’S THE DOWNSIDE? As you’ll soon realize, photography is governed by balances – can’t have too much of a good thing.  So in dealing with shutter speed, the downside of longer exposures is hand shake.  Blurry pictures are the result of moving the camera while the shutter is open, normally not a good thing.  So there will be times (twilight/indoors/etc) when adjusting the shutter speed alone won’t give you enough light to get a crisp/sharp shot – we’ll discuss solutions to address that in the next two posts.

Just enough blur to show motion (1/100th)

Becoming familiar with shutter speeds is a great intro to the rest of the camera because the numbers actually make sense.  Since it’s measured in seconds, half the time equals half the light… Doubling the time doubles the light.  This is known as a “Stop”..   1/1,000th of a second is one stop less of light than 1/500th (which is twice as long).

I learned about Shutter Speed by sitting at an intersection with a notebook and a camera.  I took pictures of people walking and cars driving past at every shutter speed on the dial, then noted what color the car was for each speed (film didn’t record your camera settings).  When I got the pictures back, I wrote on the back of them with a sharpie the shutter speed that I used.  I still think that’s a great way to learn and it’s easy now with your info saved into the picture file!

Shot at 1/500th to avoid any blur

Bottom Line: Shutter Speed controls blur – both from what’s moving in the frame AND from moving the camera.

Helpful Tip: Keep your shutter speed above the Length of your lens.  What?!  Well, if you’re using a 50mm lens, keep your shutter speed at 1/50th or faster to help avoid hand shake.  But if you’re shooting a soccer game with your 300mm, you’re minimum shutter speed is closer to 1/300th.  Long lenses exaggerate movement at the camera.

If you have  tripod you can shoot much longer exposures without worrying about camera shake!

3 Seconds on a tripod - Kids with Sparklers

Now, toss the camera into Shutter Speed Priority and go fool around!  It’s really the best way to learn.


One response to “Shutter Speed”

  1. Adam says:

    Great tips, especially for someone just starting out but also for those that are use to these settings. I normally shoot in A priority because I find I get confused on shutter speeds easy :)

    I like the idea of shooting the same scene at different speeds and then reviewing the results. I am taking my camera into Boston tomorrow morning to shoot for a few hours and may try that then.

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