Cameta 101: Understanding Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is one of three ingredients that creates the exposure you’re looking for. One of the most exciting things about shutter speed is freezing action, like a biker in mid-air or a wave crashing into the shore. Alternatively, you can shoot at a very slow shutter speed to show the beautiful blur of a waterfall. You can use it to show speed, make an artistic statement, or simply freeze an exciting moment in time.

This article will give you a clear understanding of what a shutter is and different speeds to shoot at depending upon the situation. Also, if you’re unsure about where the shutter speed is located on your camera then don’t worry, I’ll show you three different ways to locate it.

What’s a shutter?

Put simply, the shutter is like a curtain in front of the sensor that opens to expose the image sensor to light. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is exposed to the sensor. The amount of time the shutter is open is the shutter speed or exposure time.

Measured in seconds or fractions of a second

OK, now you know what a shutter is and that is has to do with exposure time. How is it measured? Well, it’s measured in seconds and fractions of a second. For instance, 1″ = 1 second; and 1/30 = one thirtieth of a second. A lot of DSLRs have a Bulb mode that keeps the shutter open for the length of time the shutter is pressed. It’s good to use a shutter release cord or remote shutter release so you can get the sharpest picture possible when using bulb mode.

What’s a good shutter speed to freeze action?

If you’re shooting birds flying, race cars whizzing by or even a girl riding a mechanical bull, then you want to shoot at a fast shutter speed. Fast enough that it will capture a split second with absolute clarity. To do this it’s best to shoot between 1/250 and 1/8000 second.

1/1250 SECOND

If you shoot at a shutter speed that’s too slow then your moving subject will be blurry just like the picture below (although to create a sense of motion, you may want to do this… it’s all up to you).

1/60 SECOND

What shutter speed should I use to shoot static subjects?

If I’m shooting a landscape or a portrait I usually stay between 1/30 and 1/125 second. A quick guide is to shoot at least as fast as the focal length of your lens. If you’re shooting with a 50mm lens then shoot at 1/60 second or faster. Don’t forget that this is just a good starting off point, and that you should shoot at the shutter speed that works for your situation.

Where can I see the shutter speed on my camera?

There are three different places to see the shutter speed you are shooting at:

  1. The viewfinder shows your shutter speed on the bottom left of the image, although it usually won’t be displayed as a fraction. For example, if the number is 250 then your shutter speed is 1/250 sec, and if it says 2″ then your shutter speed is 2 seconds.
  2. If you’re shooting in Live View mode, the LCD will show the shutter speed on the bottom left. If you don’t see it press the info button until it pops up. The image below shows that the shutter speed is one thirtieth of a second.

  1. The top LCD display shows the shutter speed in the top left. In this case it says 30 which means it’s set at 1/30 sec.

When should I use a tripod?

When you’re shooting slow shutter speeds slower than 1/30 second you’ll definitely want to use a tripod. Blurry waterfalls, star trails and night shots require a tripod so that everything isn’t a big blur. Also, when you’re using a long lens and shooting objects that are far away you want precision that you can only get with a tripod. Birds and motorcycles are subjects that will need a tripod.

1/1250 SECOND
1/15 SECOND

What is Shutter Priority Mode?

This mode lets you choose a shutter speed and the camera adjusts the aperture and ISO in order to get a good exposure. If you’re shooting at a slow shutter speed this means that the shutter will be open for a longer time and lets more light in. The aperture or lens opening will be automatically adjusted to a smaller opening and the ISO will be adjusted to be at the right light sensitivity. These three things make up the exposure triangle which may seem a little confusing right now, but for now, you just need to understand that in “S” or “Tv” (for Canon cameras) mode you can pick a shutter speed and the camera will do the rest of the work for you.

1/125 SECOND

Closing

Shutter speed is one of three camera adjustments that affect the exposure time. If you have an understanding of what the shutter is and how to finagle the speed to get a certain effect then it will open up a lot of photography doors to you.

For me, I always get excited when I can capture the blur of a waterfall. Being in front of a waterfall in person is really loud and the water is just speeding by. Thanks to the magic of photography, I can slow it down and create something unlike anything I saw in person. It’s also really exciting to freeze a motorcycle in the air. They are so fast that you hardly realize how high the motorcyclist is going or where their body is while in mid air. It’s pretty cool to be able to look back and see that moment of being air born.

Also, if you’re unsure what shutter speed you’re shooting at then look in your viewfinder, on the LCD screen or on the top LCD. It’s measured in seconds and fractions of a second. If shooting manually and adjusting everything is a little confusing then pick a shutter speed, put the camera in Tv mode, and the camera will make all the adjustments for you.

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