What is Shutter Speed in Photography? (The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide)

What is shutter speed in photography? Why does it matter? Where can you set the shutter speed on your camera? How do you freeze fast motion in photos?

As an amateur photographer with five years of experience, I often get asked this from new photographers.

Shutter speed in photography is one of the three basic and most important elements of the exposure triangle in addition to aperture and ISO.

In this article, I will help you understand what shutter speed is, how it works, and how to use shutter speed effectively so you can have full control of your camera, and take great pictures, even in challenging conditions.

slow shutter speed
1 Second Shutter Speed – Exploring the Waterfalls

What is Shutter Speed in Photography

Shutter speed, also known as exposure time, means how long the camera shutter is open while the camera takes a picture.

Essentially, shutter speed refers to the length of time that the camera sensor is exposed to light, which affects the picture’s exposure and appearance (blur and sharpness).

Shutter Speed = Exposure Time

In digital photography, image quality depends on the amount and type of light hitting the camera sensor. For this reason, using the right shutter speed is critical for creating a successful images.

How is Shutter Speed Measured?

Shutter speed in photography is measured in seconds or fractions of a second such as 10s, 5s, ½s, 1/4s … 1/250s, 1/500s, etc.

For example, a shutter speed value of ½ means “one-half of a second,” while 1/250 means 1/250th of a second or 0.004 seconds.

When you press the camera’s shutter button, the shutter opens for a period of time to let light pass through the sensor, then the shutter closes and the image is captured. The exposure time depends on the current shutter speed setting you use.

For instance, when you set the shutter speed of your camera to 5 seconds, this allows the shutter of your camera to open for 5 seconds before it closes again.

The most common shutter speeds available on cameras are 1/2000s, 1/1600s, 1/1000s, 1/500s, 1/250s, 1/125s, 1/60s, 1/30s, 1/15s, 1/10s, 1/8s, 1s, 10s, etc.

man press shutter button

Understanding Shutter Speed: Fast Shutter Speed vs. Slow Shutter Speed

  • A small number (shutter speed values like 1/100s, 1/200s, 1/250s, 1/500s, etc.) = fast shutter speed:
    • short time light reaches the camera lens,  meaning less light hits the camera sensor
  • A high number (like 1s, 4s, 10s, etc.) = slow shutter speed:
    • longer time light reaches the camera lens, meaning more light hits the camera sensor

Simply put, the smaller the number, the faster the shutter speed/exposure time, the higher the number, the slower the shutter speed/exposure time.

For example, 1/1000 is much faster than 1/30, and 10s is slower than 1s.

Once you master how to use a fast/slow shutter speed, you will shoot more creatively and produce unusual and engaging images.

shutter speed dial
Shutter Speed Dial on The Top Right of The Back of The Camera

What is the Fastest Shutter Speed You Can Use?

Most cameras generally allow you to use very fast speeds up to 1/4000th at the fastest, while some high-end mirrorless cameras or DSLRs may shoot at a much faster shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second with mechanical shutters.

What is the Slowest Shutter Speed You Can Use?

Depending on your camera, the slowest shutter speed available without using a remote shutter release is 30 seconds for long exposures; you can use an even slower shutter speed or longer shutter speed through a remote shutter release if necessary.

Slow Shutter Speed Brings out More Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to The Darkness at Night.

What Is Bulb Mode?

In photography, bulb mode is to set exposure time beyond the 30 second limit – to keep the camera shutter open as long as the shutter button of the camera is pressed.

On some cameras, you can find bulb mode (abbreviated B) on the mode dial. In others, it’s in manual M mode. You can say this is a special manual mode.

The biggest advantage of bulb mode is that the exposure time far exceeds 30 seconds.

In this mode, you can set exposure time between one second, one minute, a quarter of an hour, or unlimited exposure time until the battery is completely dead.

The bulb mode is particularly suitable for long exposures in night photography, say photographing

  • starry night sky
  • lightning photos
  • star trails
  • fireworks etc.
starry night sky
Long exposure – starry night sky

How Shutter Speed Affects Your Pictures

Shutter speed in photography impacts your pictures in two ways:

1. Shutter speed controls the exposure in your photo. It increases and decreases exposure – making your images brighter (overexposed) or darker (underexposed).

2. Shutter speed determines how sharp or blurry the movement in your picture will appear. It captures and freezes motion or creates an effect of motion (motion blur) in your images. In other words, shutter speed freezes fast movements, or makes movements look smooth.

Understanding Shutter Speed: How Shutter Speed Controls Exposure

The correct exposure is the foundation of photography. A properly exposed image has neither overexposed areas in the light areas of the photo, nor underexposed areas in the dark areas of the photo.

You can use shutter speed to control the exposure time of your pictures in two ways: increases and decreases exposure.

  • When the lighting conditions are poor and your pictures get too dark, with slower shutter speed, you will increase the exposure time to let in more light and brighten your pictures.
  • Conversely, if the lighting conditions are too bright, with fast shutter speed, you will decrease the exposure time to let in less light and darken your pictures.

Find The Light

Depending on the light conditions of the place you are shooting, if your image needs less light, you should choose a faster shutter speed. On the other hand, if it needs more light, choose a slower shutter speed.

For example, if you’re take pictures in the park in bright sunshiny day, you have a lot of light. Therefore you use a fast shutter speed here, so that not too much light comes into the camera sensor.

If you’re taking pictures at home where you don’t have much daylight, you use a slow shutter speed so that as much as possible gets into the camera sensor.

Shutter Speed in Photography and The Exposure Triangle

Adjusting the shutter speed alone does not always guarantee properly exposed pictures. The correct exposure not only relies on shutter speed, but also depends on aperture and ISO.

These three key parameters – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO – is called the exposure triangle.

In reality, the three camera and lens parameters are directly related. They work together to determine the exposure and result in the brightness or darkness of pictures.

Understanding Shutter Speed: How Shutter Speed Determines Motion

When shooting a moving subject, shutter speed in photography either freezes motion or creates an effect of motion in your images. This offers you more creative opportunities to experiment. You can either freeze a fast-moving object or take motion blur pictures.

For example, when you see a great photo of fast-moving objects without motion blur like runners in a race, that results from shooting with a fast enough shutter speed.

Generally speaking, a faster shutter speed of 1/250 second or above can create a still image in which both the moving subject and background appear sharp.

regular shutter speed
A Waterfall Picture Taken at A Fast/Regular Shutter Speed: 1/250

On the other hand, when you see those photos of flowing water that looks silky and soft, almost unreal, that’s a result of a slow shutter speed or long exposure.

Generally, slower shutter speeds like 1/60 second and slower can bring a blurring effect.

Simply put:

Faster Shutter Speed = Frozen Motion
Slower Shutter Speed = Effects of Motion

shutter speed chart one tableshutter speed chart two tableshutter speed chart three table

How to Freeze Motion By Using Fast Shutter Speed

A fast shutter speed in photography allows less light on the sensor and freezes action.

The faster the movement, the shorter time the camera shutter remains open to freeze the movement.

Whether you’re shooting a race car, a kid romping around a dog, or your friends playing soccer, a fast shutter speed setting of 1/1000 or above is often used to freeze the subject, emphasizing its moment.

The higher the shutter speed, the better when freezing action.

With a few minutes of careful observation and the right camera settings like shutter priority mode and continuous shooting mode, you can create sharp and focused shots in motion!

Having said that, a faster shutter speed of 1/1000 won’t always work, but it can provide you with a good starting point when adjusting your camera settings.

When to Use a Fast Shutter Speed to Freeze Motion?

A very fast shutter speed is quite useful in bright light for certain types of photography. These include:

  • street photography
  • landscape photography
  • wildlife photography
  • sports photography
  • other types of action photography

An extremely higher shutter speed is best in sports or wildlife that involves a lot of action, especially when you’re using a telephoto lens since a ‘zoomed in’ shot amplifies any camera shake.

Note that when you take action shots in low-light environments, you can increase ISO to ensure you shoot with fast shutter speeds.

Besides shutter speeds, capturing a freeze motion also depends on other camera settings you use like aperture, ISO, etc.

The Big Advantage of Fast Shutter Speed: Avoiding Camera Shake

No one can hold a camera 100% steady when shooting handheld. The big advantage of fast/quick shutter speeds is they can eliminate camera shake, which results in blurry pictures when working handheld.

This is because faster shutter speeds reduce the chance of blur from movement.

Moreover, if you hold your two hands close to your body and your feet are shoulder-width apart – you can reduce camera shake to some degree.

Use Fast Shutter Speed to Freeze Motion
1/1250 Second Shutter Speed – Men Playing Soccer

How to Use Slow Shutter Speed to Create Effects of Motion

You can create interesting effects of motion with slow/long shutter speeds speed, These include:

  1. Shooting in Low-Light Situations
  2. Capturing Motion Blur
  3. Panning Photography
  4. Light Painting
  5. Shooting Flowing Water & Clouds
  6. Shooting Long Exposure During the Day and Night

For this type of shot, you need a lot of light to avoid underexposing your image.

It’s best to mount your camera on a tripod or lay down on your belly to prevent camera from shaking.

1. Shoot in Low-Light Situations

Both indoors and outdoors, there is a situation that has a lack of available light.

The easiest way to get more light onto the camera sensor is to adjust  shutter speed.

A slow shutter speed allows more light into the scene, which results in proper exposure in low-light environments.

However, a slow shutter speed is only suitable for still subjects. If the shutter speed is too slow while shooting handheld, you will get a blurred picture due to camera shake. Unless you deliberately want to blur the picture, such as photographing a waterfall.

A Tripod

For this reason, the best solution while shooting with a slow shutter speed is to use a tripod.

As a rule of thumb, for any shutter speed slower than 1/60, you need a tripod.

For example, if you use a shutter speed of 1/2, you’ll need a tripod to keep your camera perfectly still, in order to capture a sharp photo in low light.

The major advantages of a tripod are:

  • reducing camera shake
  • allowing for longer exposure time
  • and making shooting in low light much more easy

Shutter Release Cable

In addition to the tripod, a shutter release cable offers even more security for shooting blur-free and sharp pictures in low light.

A shutter release cable provides remote control of the shutter release on your camera without having to touch the camera to take photos.

When you shoot long exposure in the camera’s bulb mode, it’s best to use a shutter release cable.

Even though a shutter release cable is not always necessary, it’s worth having with you just in case.

However, using a shutter release cable can cause motion blur. For this reason, it is only suitable for photographing still objects.

Image Stabilization

You can also reduce camera shake with a slow shutter speed in low light by using the camera’s built-in image stabilization features.

Different camera makers names their image stabilization differently. For Nikon, it’s Vibration Reduction (VR). For Canon, it’s Image Stabilization (IS), Sony is SteadyShot, and so on.

Besides slow shutter speed, a wider aperture and a higher ISO setting also let as much light in as possible. Both would work too while shooting in low light.

slow shutter speed low-light situations
Ethnic Jewelry in Low Light

2. Capture Motion Blur: Blurred Subject, Background in Focus

As the name suggests, motion blur comes from a fast movement. It refers to when you photograph moving subjects with slow shutter speeds, the subjects appear blurry through the frame, while the rest of the image remains sharp and in focus.

Note motion blur only appears on the moving subject of the image –  to show how fast it is moving – not the entire image.

For example, when you photograph night traffic, the moving cars’ headlights and taillights are blurred, and the rest of the image such as buildings, and bridges are in focus.

motion blur
Night traffic, Jackson Street Bridge, Atlanta, United States

Motion blur has a powerful visual impact on the viewers. It’s ideal for conveying

  • movement
  • liveliness
  • a sense of speed
  • and action

Examples of Motion Blur

Motion blur creates the feeling of activity in a still image. In real life, there are many situations where you can capture motion blur intentionally. These include:

  • People rushing on the street
  • Fleeing animals
  • Moving roller coasters and rides
  • People dancing with friends
  • Moving waterfalls
  • People playing with glow sticks
  • Kids playing on swings, and so on.
Dancers perform in Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival
Dancers perform in Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival

What Shutter Speed to Use to Capture Motion Blur?

Shutter speed in photography is the most important setting when capturing motion blur. The precise shutter speed to create effect of blur depends on several factors. They include:

  • the speed of the moving object
  • the camera-subject distance
  • and the current focal length you use

To be brief,

Short Shutter Speed = Less Blur
Long Shutter Speed = More Blur

The Basic Rule: 1/60s Is a Starting Point

The 1/60s is a good starting point to create the blur effect. Because it is the “borderline” between sharpness and blur.

Slower than 1/60s, the moving object may appear blurry. Faster than 1/60s, you may freeze the object.

But again, several factors determine what shutter speed you can use. It’s best to start with a reasonably slow shutter speed and then adjust according to the subject’s speed.

For example, in landscape photography, a slow shutter speed of 10 seconds or longer is required to capture the motion of waterfalls.

For beginners, it’s best to set your dial to shutter priority mode (Tv or S on the mode dial). With that, you can select the correct shutter speed, and your camera then autoselects the aperture that complements your shutter speed.

This makes shutter priority mode better than manual mode to take a well-exposed motion blur picture.

slow shutter speed motion blur
Motion Blur – Silhouette of Man Standing on Grass Field during Night Time

3. Panning Photography: Blurred Background, Subject in Focus

Panning refers to a camera technique in which the photographer moves with the action of the subject.

With this technique, the moving subject appears sharp while the background appears blurry.

As a result, the blurred background becomes the negative space, which balances the subject – the positive space for a stunning photograph.

Panning creates a dynamic image – which conveys a sense of speed and movement – and the moving subject stands out perfectly against the blurred background.

Panning is often associated with a moving subject going horizontally, such as runners, cyclists, racing cars, flying birds, etc.

Best Shutter Speeds for Panning and Practical Tips

The panning technique is not easy to master and can be frustrating at the beginning. It takes a lot of practice.

If you’re new to this technique, it’s a good idea to start with a slower shutter speed, for example, 1/30.

Of course, the right shutter speed to use also depends on the light, camera-subject distance, and how fast the subject is moving.

There isn’t a one-setting-fits-all solution when it comes to panning photography. It requires a lot of practice.

For example, when shooing a racing car, you start with a little bit higher shutter speed, but lower shutter speed with a cyclist moving past you slowly.

The basic rule is that a slow-moving subject needs a slower shutter speed than a fast-moving subject and vice versa.

How to Take Panning Shots

Once you choose the right shutter speed to start with, focus on the subject with your camera then track the subject. When the subject is in focus, release the shutter.

Remember that you should keep moving after you have pressed the button for a successful action panning picture.

If your camera has burst mode, or continuous shooting mode, you can take advantage of it to take multiple pictures within a short period of time. This way you will increase the chance to get a good shot among them.

If your shutter speed is too slow, you may end up with an overexposed panning picture because too much light hits the camera sensor.

To eliminate overexposure, start with a low ISO value and a small aperture to compensate for the slow shutter speed you use.

In a nutshell, the key to creating fun, narrative panning shots is to use a relatively slower shutter speed and move the camera at the same speed as the subject you photograph.

For beginners, shutter priority mode is recommended so you can fully control the shutter speed while the camera does the rest for you.

Panning Photography
Cyclist at a Competition – Telling a Story with Panning

4. Light Painting

Light painting is a photographic technique using a slow shutter speed (or long exposure) to create image by “painting” with a moving light source and capturing it on camera.

Light painting is also known as light graffiti and works best in darkness.

Generally speaking, a (very) slow shutter speed of 10 to 30 seconds is required to capture moving light sources in a blur in a dark place.

Best Camera Settings for Light Painting

To make a light painting, think about what you want to paint in advance, and focus your camera in light at the distance where you want to stand. For starters, you need a tripod.

As it is difficult to focus with autofocus in the dark, it’s best to turn off autofocus and switch to manual focus after focusing your camera in light.

To avoid possible overexposure and image noise, set a low ISO of 100 to 200, along with a small aperture of F/9 to F/22 so you have relatively deep depth of field.

Plus, a wide-angle lens is recommended because with a wider lens, you can crop poor-composition pictures afterward.

When you’re ready, take a few test shots to see if your lens works with light painting.

Bulb Mode and Remote Cable Release

If you want to create a longer exposure of a dark scene beyond 30s, you need to use bulb mode by setting in Manual or Shutter Priority on your camera.

The longer the shutter speed, the more time you have to create your light painting.

With a remote cable release, you can step into the image yourself to draw the painting, or you can be part of a visual element yourself.

Simple Light Painting Tools to Make Your Images Stand Out

Light painting is a creative way of self-expression. With simple tools, you can make stunning light painting photos. These include:

  • flashlights
  • light painting brushes
  • lasers
  • LED lights
  • strobe lights
  • glow sticks
  • string lights
  • candles and so on.

In addition to these simple tools, all you need is your imagination. The possibilities are limitless. Just slow your shutter speed, use your light source and start experimenting.

Light painting
Light Painting – 30 Seconds Shutter Speed

5. Shoot Flowing Water & Clouds

You’ll want a slow shutter speed of at least 1/2 a second or longer to blur the water.

Try a test shot and adjust until you have the right exposure. Slower shutter speeds make the moving water look silky white blur, creating a mythical, heavenly feel.

It takes a lot of practice, but the results are rewarded.

Shoot flowing water & clouds
Flowing Water – 2 Seconds Shutter Speed

6. Shoot Long Exposure During the Day and Night

Long exposure photography is also known as slow shutter speed photography.

It takes advantage of slow shutter speeds to create motion blur deliberately for an artistic effect.

To do slow shutter speed photography, you need to use lens filters, and a tripod to avoid possible camera blur.

Long exposure is widely used when shooting oceans, waterfalls, fountains, rivers, etc. in various types of photography. These include:

  • street photography
  • landscape photography
  • architecture photography
  • portrait photography
  • and astrophotography

The most common question with long exposure during the day is that shots come out white due to overexposure.

To avoid unwanted brightness in your images, a small aperture and low ISO is recommended.

With regular practice, long-exposure photography will help you transform everyday scenes into unusual, stunning images.

Shoot long exposure during the day and night
A Long Exposure Photo Taken just Before Sunrise- 1 Minute Shutter Speed

How to Adjust Shutter Speed Manually on Your Camera

Most professional cameras will display the current shutter speed settings in the viewfinder, LCD panel, and the shooting settings display. You can easily set the shutter speed when your camera is in M ​​mode or semi-automatic S mode (shutter priority mode).

Changing Shutter Speed on Your Canon Camera.

Canon uses TV mode (Time Value) to indicate Shutter Priority mode, unlike other camera manufacturers.

Under this model, you choose the shutter speed, and the camera autoselects the aperture and ISO to achieve proper exposure:

  1. Turn the dial to M (manual), or TV (Shutter Priority) mode.
  2. Turn the black dial below the shutter button until you reach the shutter speed you preferred

Setting Shutter Speed on your Canon Cameras

Changing Shutter Speed on Your Nikon Camera.
  1. Change the shutter speed by turning the same dial you did in manual mode.
  2. Turn the mode dial to M (Manual) or S (Shutter priority)
  3. Turn the same dial on the right-hand side left or right, depending on the shutter speed you desire

Setting Shutter Speed on Nikon Cameras

Setting Shutter Speed on Your Sony Camera. 
  1. Turn the mode dial to M (Manual) or S (Shutter priority)
  2. Turn the main dial left to decrease the shutter speed or right increases it depending on your preferred shutter speed.

Setting Shutter Speed Sony Camera

Best Shutter Speed for Night Photography

Night photography allows you to go out and capture some incredible images of landscapes with city lights.

Slow shutter speeds let in more light resulting in long exposure times. For this reason, you can take motion blur pictures like moving cars at night.

Generally speaking, manual mode, slow shutter speed around 10s – 30s, ISO around 200 – 800, and aperture around f/5.6-16 yield the best results.

You will also use a tripod at night to avoid a possible camera shake.

Best Shutter Speed for Night photography
String Lights on the Pier- 20 Seconds Shutter Speed

Best Shutter Speed for Portraits

Portrait photography is enjoyed by thousands globally.

As a rule of thumb, the right shutter speed value is higher than your effective focal length  while photographing portraits.

For example, at 100mm, use a 1/100th of a second handheld or even faster to avoid motion blur. You won’t be using a shutter speed slower than 1/60 for the reason of stabilization.

However, many photographers prefer a shutter speed of around 1/200 of a second handheld for stunning portraits.

Plus, you need an aperture around f/2 – f/5.6, the lowest ISO setting possible, like ISO 100 or 200 for shooting with natural light.

Best Shutter Speed for Portraits
Smiling Girl in Denim – 1/100 Second Shutter Speed

Best Shutter Speed for Outdoor Photography

Shooting outdoors is enjoyable because it allows you access to many subjects including:

  • landscapes
  • nature
  • macro
  • wildlife, and many more

You’ll have unlimited background options for your pictures and enjoy all the natural light.

The right shutter speed for shooting outdoors depends on how much light is in the scene.

A good starting place is to set shutter speeds to around 1/100S – 200/1S handheld, with ISO around 100-200, and an aperture of f/2.5 – f/5.6 in bright light. Adjust your setting until you get appropriate exposure.

Best Shutter Speed for Outdoor Photography
Outdoors – 1/100 Second Shutter Speed

Best Shutter Speed for Moving Objects

When shooting a moving object, every moment is unique. There is no best shutter speed for all scenarios.

However, you will get the desired outcome by experimenting with different shutter speeds.

For example, if you are shooting a car driving past you, to completely freeze action, set a fast shutter speed to 1/160th for a test shot, then increase or decrease the shutter speed after reviewing the previous images.

To capture moving people on the street in sharp focus, a minimum shutter speed of 1/125s or higher is the best.

Simply put, how fast the shutter speed is to use depends on the speed of moving objects.

Best Shutter Speed for Moving Objects
Car on the Road – 1/125 Second Shutter Speed

Best Shutter Speed for Motion Blur

You want to apply slower shutter speeds to capture motion blur that slows down the moment.

For example, when you’re shooting flowing water, to achieve a blurring effect and create a sense of movement, start with a slower shutter speed of 1/15s and take a few test shots, then decrease it from there, try 1/8, 1/4, and so forth until you get the result you like.

Always make sure that your shutter speed is slow enough – if in doubt, go slower.

Best Shutter Speed for Motion Blur
Motion Blurred Bumper Cars at a Fun Fair – 2 Seconds Shutter Speed

Go Ahead and Experiment With Shutter Speed Yourself

Photography is not just a still and staged action, you can also create a sense of movement through shutter speed.

Faster shutter speeds freeze the motion, while slow shutter speeds make motion blur.

Understand how to use fast/slow shutter speeds in different situations, and don’t be afraid to experiment with your shutter speed.

Use shutter speed settings you would normally avoid – When done right, you’ll take unique and compelling pictures of an ordinary object from a new perspective.

Moreover, you will bring a new level of creativity to your photos and have lots of fun shooting.

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