Understanding Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed is one of the three pillars of photography, the other two being ISO and Aperture. Shutter speed is where the other side of the magic happens – it is responsible for creating dramatic effects by either freezing action or blurring motion. In this article, I will try to explain everything I know about shutter speed in very simple language.

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed, also known as “exposure time”, stands for the length of time a camera shutter is open to expose light into the camera sensor. If the shutter speed is fast, it can help to freeze action completely. If the shutter speed is slow, it can create an effect called “motion blur”, where moving objects appear blurred along the direction of the motion. This effect is used quite a bit in advertisements of cars and motorbikes, where a sense of speed and motion is communicated to the viewer by intentionally blurring the moving wheels.

How shutter speed is measured?

Shutter speeds are typically measured in fractions of a second, when they are under a second. For example 1/4 means a quarter of a second, while 1/250 means one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a second or four milliseconds. Most modern DSLRs can handle shutter speeds of up to 1/4000th of a second, while some can handle much higher speeds of 1/8000th of a second and faster. The longest shutter speed on most DSLRs is typically 30 seconds (without using external remote triggers).

Fast shutter speed: Fast shutter speeds can be used to produce the effect that movement has been frozen. The subject must be moving, and the camera still. The position of the subject in mid movement at the time the shutter opens is captured and isolated. This can be a useful technique for sports or dance photography, for photographing moving vehicles, or for creating effects such as the photographing of individual drops of water as they splash. As a general rule, if you want to photograph moving subject and obtain fine detail, a fast shutter speed is essential. Click here for examples

Slow Shutter Speed: We use this for two reasons – first, because it’s quite dark and we need to let more light into the camera. Or second, because we want to introduce some blur into our photo. Sometimes we can use blur for a creative effect. Below there’s an example of how we can use blur to emphasise a certain part of a photo. A long shutter speed can be set at night to record car headlights as trails. The key thing to remember about using a slow shutter speed is that anything that moves in the scene will blur. Once you’re aware of this you can use it creatively in your photography. Click here for examples.

How to set shutter speed

Most cameras handle shutter speeds automatically through in-camera metering. When the camera is set to “Auto” mode, both shutter speed and aperture are automatically selected by the camera. When you shoot in “Aperture Priority” mode, you set the lens aperture, while the camera automatically sets the shutter speed.

There are two ways to manually set the shutter speed:
a) By setting the camera to “Shutter Priority” mode, where you set the shutter speed and the camera automatically selects the aperture.
b) By setting the camera to “Manual” mode, where you set both shutter speed and aperture manually.


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One comment on “Understanding Shutter Speed
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