What Is Shutter Speed and How to Use It in Photography
Shutter speed is one of the most fundamental settings in photography, and understanding it can revolutionize your work in every genre. Shutter speed directly influences how the movement will look in a photo and how much light you will be able to get. Choosing the wrong shutter speed might lead to unintentionally blurred, dimly lit, or simply bad images.
Understanding how to use different shutter speeds is a must for anyone who is interested in improving their photography and experimenting with shooting under variable lighting conditions. However, it might be hard for a beginner to fully process complicated photography technicalities. This article explains what shutter speed is in simple words and gives you ideas on how you can use different shutter speeds in your photography.
What Shutter Speed Is
When you take a picture with a DSLR camera, you hear a click of its shutter. A shutter is a thing that serves as a curtain or a barrier in your camera. It keeps a camera’s sensors covered from light until you press the button and take a picture. When you do it, the shutter opens, light comes through your lenses and exposes your digital sensor, resulting in a photo. With film photography, it’s the film that gets exposed when the shutter is open and light can come through it.
Your camera takes images when the shutter is open, but the span time for which it is open varies, which is why different shutter speeds exist. That means that the longer your shutter is open, the longer (or slower) your shutter speed is, and the more light is exposed to the sensors. Shutter speed can be less than a quarter of a second or, on the contrary, last for several minutes.
To put it simply, shutter speed determines how long a camera’s shutter is open, influencing the outcome of your final shot. Shutter speed is one of the three parts of the exposure triangle (the other two being aperture and ISO, or light sensitivity of a sensor), which means it is one of the key things you need to keep in mind to receive a balanced, correctly exposed image.
Shutter speed measurement
This is measured in fractions of a second, in seconds, and even minutes, depending on its length. For example, shutter speed marked as 1/4 means you will take a shot in a quarter of a second, 1/2 – in half of a second, and so on. Fast shutter speeds and slow shutter speeds can create oppositely looking shots.
Fast shutter speed indicates the shortest amount of time the shutter is open. Modern cameras can take a picture as fast as 1/1000 or 1/500 of a second, which is useful when you shoot in well-lit spaces or outdoors when the sun is bright since longer shutter speeds might result in overexposed images.
While longer shutter speeds, from 1/100 of a second to 1/2, are considered relatively slow, they are what we can call a medium shutter speed. Actually, low shutter speed (or long shutter speed) is any shutter speed that is longer than 1 second. Really long shutter speeds last as long as several minutes and are used for night photography when the amount of light is limited.
Shutter speed and movement
As mentioned earlier, shutter speed directly influences how much light your sensors will receive. However, it is also important to keep in mind that shutter speed is responsible for how action and movement will look in the photo. If your shutter speed is open for a longer period of time with your shutter speed being slow, your camera will capture everything that happens until the shutter is closed again.
If you shoot moving objects, longer shutter speeds will create motion blur, which sometimes can be done for artistic purposes. However, if you want to take a crisp photo and ‘freeze the movement’, you should opt for a faster shutter speed.
Another important thing to consider is that when you shoot with longer shutter speeds, even the slightest shake of your camera might ruin the image. That’s why most photographers use tripods for long exposure photography (or slow shutter speed photography). When your shot is done in 1/500 of a second, the chance you will shake your camera is minimal, but when the shutter is open even for half a second, this seems more likely.
How to Use Shutter Speed in Different Photography Genres
Shutter speed as part of the exposure is important for any photography genre. However, there are many photography genres that heavily rely on shutter speed to create a certain outcome of a picture. Here is how fast and long shutter speeds are used by photographers in different fields.
Fast shutter speed
The most obvious example of the photography genre that relies on fast shutter speeds is sports photography. When you shoot actively moving people, especially sportsmen, it’s hard to receive a crystal clear, sharp image if you don’t use the fastest shutter speed that your camera is capable of.
Fast shutter speed is also perfect for portrait photography outdoors, especially if you ask your models to do something in front of a camera, or they laugh and move. When you shoot in good lighting conditions, even a relatively medium shutter speed of 1/15 or 1/30 might result in an unintentional blur or overexposed shots.
Long shutter speed
While fast shutter speed results in more clear and crisp photos, you can’t always rely on that, as sometimes there is simply not enough light to use it and you will get dark images if you do. What’s more, long shutter speeds are used by photographers in many genres for creative purposes since motion blur can result in intriguing and beautiful shots. Using slow shutter speeds intentionally sometimes is called long exposure photography.
Nature photography is a great way to experiment with longer shutter speeds. For example, you’re shooting a stream of water such as a river or a waterfall with a long shutter speed. The moving object (in this case, water is moving) will be blurred. All still parts of an image will be clear. The water looks soft as you capture movement with a long shutter speed. That is why you should definitely experiment with that.
Long shutter speed is also often used in night photography. It is used not only because of the lack of light but for similar artistic purposes. If you shoot a road at night with cars moving at a long shutter speed, you will be able to capture light trails. What’s more, setting your shutter speed at 15 or even 30 minutes might help you work with night sky photography. It will result in mesmerizing pictures of stars in the sky. Many astronomy photographers use this trick when it comes to shooting ‘falling stars’ (a meteor shower).
While some beginner photographers heavily rely on their intuition when they start their journey with photography and hope to learn everything from practice, sometimes you really need to know the basic theory on the most important photography settings and notions. They might be really hard to understand in practice, without a proper explanation. Hopefully, this article will help you understand the enormous role shutter speed plays in exposure and photography in general and give you the inspiration to experiment with this setting yourself. Keep in mind to move on to learn more about the exposure triangle to see which other factors will influence your shots in addition to shutter speed.