Posted by Claire Wade

Shutterspeed is how quickly the shutter on your camera shuts – simples!!

Well, there is more to it than that. The shutter is like a door to your camera sensor. When the door is open, light comes in the through the lens and hits your sensor. When the door is closed, no light can get in.

Imagine your shutter is like a door to a pitch black room. Open and shut it quickly, only a small flash of light will hit the room. But if you open the door for a longer amount of time, the room is flooded with light.

Shutterspeed is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds.

According to Wikipedia,  The agreed standards for shutter speeds are, (s = seconds):

1/1000 s  1/500 s 1/250 s  1/125 s
1/60 s 1/30 s 1/15 s 1/8 s
1/4 s 1/2 s 1 s  

Although my camera (Nikon D5100) goes from 1/4000 seconds to 30 seconds), so check your own camera to see the range you have.

1/1000 seconds is mega fast and 1 second is slow.

So how is it useful?

A very fast shutterspeed catches a small amount of time. So if you you want to ‘freeze a fast moving object, a shutterspeed of 1/500 s and 1/250 s will give you a sharp image (in normal lighting conditions). of a fast moving object such as a car. Use slower shutter speeds such as 1/60 s to get motion blur.

Motion blur shows movement. For example, if you have motion blur on a car, the body of the car will be sharp, but the rotating wheels will blur and this shows movement.

You will need faster shutterspeeds if your camera is handheld (as opposed to using a tripod). This is because no matter how steady your hands are, even your heart beat will move the camera enough to blur your photo out of focus. I’ve heard varying opnions on how slow you can go with handheld, from 1/60 s to 1/30 s. If you find that your handheld photos are generally out of focus, try using a faster shutter speed.

Fast Shutterspeed

This photo of the bike shows a fairly fast shutterspeed of 1/250 s. The result is that even though the bike was moving through the air, the wheels are frozen and the individual spokes are visible. If the shutterspeed were slower you would have motion blur on the wheels. If the bike was moving a lot faster, you would need a faster shutterspeed. The settings were: f 6.3 18.0 mm 1/250 s ISO 200

Why use fast shutterspeed?

As stated already fast shutterspeed can freeze fast moving objects. It can also compensate for the photographer’s unsteady hands!

Also, if you are using a zoom lens, the tiniest movement of the camera can cause the photo to be out of focus. So the rule is if your lens is extended at 300mm, you need a shutterspeed of at least 1/300 s. If the focal point is say 200 mm, your shutterspeed should be 1/200 s or faster. This only applies to handheld, if your camera is on a fixed surface or tripod, your shutterspeed can be slower.

Slow shutterspeed

Slow shutterspeeds give milky water effects. Check the image on the left. This was a shutterspeed of half a minute and the tide moved the water in and out a lot. The long shutterspeed ‘flattened’ the water and the individual waves were no longer visible. f 6.3 18.0 mm 30 s ISO 100

Why use slow shutterspeed?

Slow shutterspeed leaves the shutter open for a longer amount of time. If an object moves in front of your camera, that movement will be shown.

Also, slow shutter speed lets in more light, so if you have a dark room (or it is nighttime), leaving the shutter open for longer will allow more light to hit your camera sensor and thus give you a correctly exposed photo. You will need to place your camera on a tripod or on a solid surface to keep it very steady, otherwise your photo will be blurred.

Slow shutterspeeds can also be used for star trails and can show the movement of stars. Another use for slow shutterspeed is if it is really slow, moving objects such as walking people will disappear from your photo. However, if you do this during the day, you will need filters to stop too much light getting into your camera and over exposing your image. We will cover this another time.

Get practising!

So here’s a simple exercise, find a waterfall… if you live in Stoke on Trent there’s a small one at Longton Park that is good for paractise. Set up your camera on a tripod and if the day is bright, have your ISO on 100 -200. If it is a grey day, you may need it at 400.

Set your camera to shutter priority. This is marked with an S on most cameras and AV on a Canon. Take four pictures, one at 1/2 s, one at 1/10s, one at 1/30 and the last at 1/400. If any of the images appear under or over exposed, adjust your ISO. Then compare the four images. They may look like the ones below:


This article is the second in a series of Back to Basics. The first was on Aperture, please click here to see it.