Understanding Shutter Speed and How to Use It for Creative Purposes

Of all the trio that makes up an exposure, shutter speed is the most obvious one. It has the most direct effect to how your photos will look in the end, too. Fail to understand how it works, you’ll most likely find your photos too blurry to appreciate. In this post, we’re going to explain what shutter speed really is and how you can use it to achieve certain artistic results.

understanding shutter speed

What Is Shutter Speed?

In a nutshell, shutter speed is the length of time in which your camera captures a scene. During this time, the shutter of your camera remains open to let the sensor record the image. In most situations, shutter speed of a fraction of second is necessary to get sharp images; Any lower than that will likely turn your subject to a blurred mess. Note that blur is not always bad – we’ll talk about that in the later section of this post.

When creating an exposure, shutter speed works similarly as aperture. It uses the same “stops”, only more straightforward. See a list of speed below:

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

So, if you want to lower the exposure by a half, simply halve the shutter speed. Likewise, if you want to increase the exposure by a half, then double the shutter speed. For instance, shutter speed of 1/250 halved, you’ll get 1/500; doubled, you’ll get 1/125. The faster the shutter speed, the less light enters your camera – the slower it is, the more light comes in.

The majority of today’s DSLR cameras can work their shutter speed up to as fast as 1/4000th of a second, some can even go up to 1/8000th. Meanwhile, the longest shutter speed is typically 30 seconds.

How Fast is Fast and How Slow is Slow?

Generally speaking, fast shutter speed is what you need to freeze a motion. For general photography, it is often 1/500 or above. For very fast moving object like bird, sport car, and the likes, you’ll need at least 1/1000 or above.

Using fast shutter speed to freeze the water and bird’s motion

Slow shutter speed, on the other hand, is the minimum you can handle without letting your hand motion affect the camera, hence blurring the image. You may wonder now, why use slow shutter speed if setting it fast can guarantee sharp images. Well, in a scene where light condition is not ideal, you can’t just use fast shutter speed. Your photos might be blur-free but it’ll be underexposed too. Slow shutter speed is mostly used in low light situation. You might find it necessary to set it so slow that it’s impossible to shoot handheld.

Slow shutter speed is necessary for indoor low light photography, but not too slow so the subject’s motion won’t be blurred

There’s also the term “long shutter speed”. This refers to those slower than 1 second. At this point, it’s entirely impossible to shoot without a tripod. No matter how steady your hand is, shutter speed slower than 1 second will get you something closer to watercolors painting if you insist on hand-holding your camera. Long shutter speed is commonly used for night photography or to show blurred movement along the direction of the motion.

Night photography typically done with long shutter speed

Motion Blur

As pointed out earlier, blur is not always bad. With a bit of imagination, you can use it to make your photos look more artistic. This is why sometimes you will want to use slow shutter speed. For example, the motion of water in a fall or a rapid stream will look more beautiful if it’s blurred, instead of frozen, like the following picture.

Slow shutter speed blurs the water motion while keeping everything else in focus

A moving subject can look more standout too if the background is blurred. You can use the combination of flash and slow shutter speed. Flash helps freeze the subject while slow shutter speed can blur the background, as seen in the photos below.

The bird’s very fast motion is frozen with the help of flash. The bird is in focus while the background is blurred

Know how those amazing light trails photos are taken? Yep, it also uses long shutter speed so that the camera has enough time to record the moving light sources and then blur them all the way.

Long shutter speed for night trail photography

How to Set Shutter Speed

Now that you know the various uses of different shutter speed, it’s time to find out how to set it. In “Auto” mode, your camera adjusts all three factors of exposure – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – by itself. So, if you want to change your shutter speed, you will need to change to semi-automatic mode or manual mode. The former allows you to choose between aperture-priority and shutter priority mode.

In aperture-priority mode, you set the lens aperture and your camera will adjust the shutter speed accordingly. Meanwhile, in shutter priority mode, it’s the other way around; the shutter speed is for you to adjust while the camera will define the right aperture to get an even exposure for you. Which one is better? Well, both modes work just as well so long as you know what you’re doing. I personally like to adjust the aperture and let my camera chooses the best shutter speed.

As for manual mode, well, it’s self-explanatory. You get to adjust all the said factors by yourself. It calls for long experience in photography to use this mode, but once you master it, you’ll find it hard to stop using it. After all, the one who truly knows your preference for your photos is you, not the camera.

We hope this explains shutter speed for you. If you have any question about it, be sure to write it on the comment below. Happy shooting!

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