Understanding Shutter Speeds

What is the Shutter in your camera?

  • When you take a picture and you hear that “click”, that is the sound of your shutter opening and closing. Imagine the concept like shutters on your window. You open and close the shutters to control the amount of light entering your room. Same idea goes for the camera.

What is Shutter Speed?

  • Shutter speed is  about TIME, the amount of time it takes for light to enter your camera, how long it takes to let light through the camera.

How is Shutter Speed measured?

  • Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or fractions of a second, which will look like these examples:
    • 1/80 – means one eightieth of a second. Most cameras will just show  the number “80”
    • 1/100 – means one one-hundredth of a second. Most cameras will just show the number “100”
    • 1/400- means one four-hundredth of a second. Most cameras will just show the number “400”
    • 1″ – means one full second.  Most cameras will show ” 1″ “
    • Shutter speed can have bigger and smaller numbers, but you got the point, right?
    • Because your camera is usually only showing the bottom part of the fraction, the BIGGER the number, the FASTER the shutter speed, the LESS light enters your camera. This means that your exposure is SHORTER, the image will be DARKER. Imagine this: the faster the shutter opens and closes, then obviously, less light comes through. If you stand in front of your window and open/close the window shutters fast, you have less light entering the room.
    • Fast = less light = big number.
    • The  SMALLER the number, THE SLOWER THE SHUTTER SPEED, the MORE light enters your camera. This means that your exposure is LONGER, the image will be BRIGHTER. Imagine this: the slower the shutter opens and closes, then obviously, the more light comes through. So, if you stand in front of your window and open/close the window shutters slowly, you have more light entering the room.
    • Slow = more light = small number.

How to control Shutter Speed?

Just like controlling the amount of light into your room by opening and closing the window shutters, you can control your shutter speed and how much light enters your camera. Essentially controlling your shutter speed is one part of controlling your total Exposure.

  • Most camera’s will have a “Shutter Priority” function on your camera. You can choose your shutter speed and make it fast or slow by turning the dial. Your camera will automatically adjust the rest of the exposure settings.
  • You can control it on “Manual”, but this will take more practice because you will have the manually control the rest of the exposure components (Aperture and ISO).

Why would I want to understand Shutter Speed? Isn’t it easier to just shoot on “auto” or “program” and let the camera do it all the thinking for me?

  • Certainly on most occasions, letting the camera do all the thinking for you will give you good results.
  • BUT, in order to take your photography to a higher level and more CREATIVE CONTROL, you must learn shutter speed.

OK, so what exactly does this Shutter Speed thing-y do? How will it give me more choices and creative control?

  • Shutter speed controls MOTION and MOVEMENT.
  • By controlling the amount of TIME the shutter is OPEN, you control the amount of TIME you capture the MOTION.
  • When you’re photographing anything that moves, from people to objects to food, there can be some cool stylistic results.

Examples of Shutter Speed controlling motion:

WATERFALL: Shutter Speed freezing water movement and pretty blurred water shots:

  • The fast shutter speed at 1/800 (bigger bottom number), freeze the water motions. But as you slow the shutter speed (decrease the bottom number) , you start to blur the motion of the water. Finally, the slowest shutter speed (at one full second) gives that magical, dreamy look, kinda like the shots you see in gorgeous nature photography
  • So, you selectively choose your style: freeze the motion of the water for a detailed, sharp shot. Or blurr the water, for a pretty shot.

There are Two Main Purposes of Controlling Shutter Speed

  • The primary reason – To Capture Motion. Either by freezing motion with a fast shutter speed (bigger number 600, 1000, etc.) or by allowing continued motion with a slow shutter speed (30, 10, 1″ etc.).
  • To adjust the Exposure when shooting in Manual.  A faster shutter speed (bigger number) will let in less light, the image will be darker.  A slower shutter speed (smaller number) and the image will be brighter.

Final Thoughts on Shutter Speed: In order to really start understanding, you have to practice.  Reading about it will only allow your brain to get so far.

  • Find the Shutter Priority Mode on your camera (some point & shoots may not have this option).
  • In Shutter Priority, you will be telling the camera what shutter speed you want to shoot at, and it will adjust the rest to get what it thinks is the correct exposure (usually this will at least get you close to a decent exposure.)
  • POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Reminder, beware, slower shutter speeds will also pick up small movements of the camera (the dreaded Camera Shake). The slower the shutter speed is, the more you have to focus on being steady.  Eventually it slows to the point where you’ll need a tri-pod or something to rest the camera on to get a clear picture.

Now go shoot something moving.  Water flowing. Kids running.  Dogs chasing butterflies.  Whatever.  Change the shutter speeds and see how it changes the image.