Understanding Shutter Speed in photography

January 14, 2023

This is part of a series of articles dealing with the fundamental technical aspects of using a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

In the previous article in this series, we talked about Aperture, what it means and how it can be applied in creative photography work.

In this article, we’ll talk about Shutter Speed.

This setting, even for complete novices, should be familiar: it determines how long the camera shutter remains open for when you press the shutter button or, how fast your camera takes a picture. Like with Aperture and ISO, it forms one side of the exposure triangle.

This setting, set using the appropriate dial on camera, is generally expressed in fractions of a second – for example, a Shutter Speed of 1/200 means the Shutter remains open for 1/200ths of a second when the shutter button is pressed.

In general terms, the darker the scene of the subject of your photograph, the longer the shutter speed should be. The brighter the scene, the shorter the shutter speed.

In order to produce a correctly exposed image: a scene brightly lit with sunlight in the middle of the day requires a faster shutter speed. A scene at night requires a slower shutter.

Motion and movement

How Shutter Speed controls the perception of motion in an image. Image: Camera Harmony

Just as Aperture controls the depth of field of an image, Shutter Speed controls the perception of motion in an image.

Regardless of the lighting conditions, provided you compensate by adjusting the Aperture and ISO as appropriate, a slower Shutter Speed can be used to deliberately emphasise subject movement. Faster Shutter Speeds are necessary to freeze motion in an image.

For example, if a subject is walking in front of you – using a slow Shutter Speed, it’s possible to capture their movement with the scene around them being in focus.

As can be seen with the image above, a slow Shutter Speed of 3 seconds was used to emphasise the movement of the ferris wheel.

It’s also possible to pan your camera with the subject as you press the shutter button, producing an image where the subject is in focus with the background blurred.

Finally, using a fast shutter speed, you can freeze the subject in motion, producing an image with no motion blur.

As seen in the image above – the guitar player has been effectively captured suspended in mid air. There’s still a small amount of motion blur, however, even at Shutter Speed of 1/500th of a second, due to the fast-paced nature of the scene.

As a general rule of thumb, below is a list of applications for common shutter speeds:

  • 1/8000 to 1/500 – essential for freezing motion. Freezing motion of faster moving subjects will require a shutter speed at the higher end of this range, which in turn requires good lighting conditions and/or a bigger aperture.
  • 1/500 to 1/30 – generally the range suitable for handheld shooting in everyday situations. Shutter speeds at the lower end of this range are also useful for panning shots.
  • 1/30 to 1 second – generally a tripod or some other form of camera stabilisation will be needed from these speeds and slower, which are useful for capturing motion and movement in an image in well lit scenes.
  • 1 second to 30 seconds – used to capture light trails, creating blur and other exaggerated movement, generally at night and in other creative applications. Also good for astro and other photography where the scene is very dimly lit.

The appropriate Shutter Speed for a given situation is also influenced by the Focal Length of the lens that you’re using. This we’ll go through in a future article.

That’s the basics of Shutter Speed and how it can be applied in photography. Stay tuned in the coming days and weeks for further articles covering different technical aspects of photography.

Matt Hrkac

Matt Hrkac is a photographer and photojournalist based in Geelong and works across Melbourne and throughout Victoria.


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