Shutter speed, aperture and iso form the absolute basics of photography. But basics or not, it is really important to get them right, for both beginning and more experienced photographers. So what is shutter speed? And how can you control this to create the most beautiful images? This tutorial discusses all you need to know about shutter speed, and how you can use it to your advantage to unlock more creativity!
What is shutter speed?
The shutter of your camera is a little mechanical sliding door in front of your sensor. So shutter speed is literally the time the shutter, or this sliding door, is open. Once it is open, light will fall onto your sensor of your camera. This sensor register all this light and combined this into one image: your photo.
By setting the length of the shutter speed, you can determine how much light is allowed into your camera and onto your sensor. You can imagine that the longer this shutter is open, the more light can come into your camera. The other way around: the shorter your shutter is open, the less light is allowed in. This is important, because you want to ensure that you get a well-exposed photo which is not too dark, or too bright. You want everything to be shown the way you see it with the naked eye: you want the perfect amount of light to travel into your camera.
The image on the left is too dark: the shutterspeed was too short = under exposed. The middle image is too bright: the shutterspeed was too long = over exposed. The right image was taken with the perfect shutterspeed = perfect exposure…
Just imagine that it is very dark around you: in that case you have to allow more light into your camera to ensure that everything shows up nicely exposed. You can do this by, for example, turning on a light, using a flash, or by setting a longer shutter speed. Because the longer your shutter is open, the longer light can travel into your camera.
So, in short:
Short (fast) shutter speed: the sliding door in your camera is open for a very short time, and therefore very little light is allowed onto your sensor.
Long (slow) shutter speed: the sliding door in your camera is open for a long time, and therefore a lot of light is allowed onto your sensor.
How is shutter speed displayed?
The shutter speed is indicated on your camera as a part of a second. For example, if you see 100 on your camera display, it means that your shutter speed is 1/100 (one hundredth) of a second. So if you see 250, it means the slidingdoor in your camera opens for 1/250 of a second. This is very fast. However, modern cameras can sometimes photograph up to 1/8000 (an eight thousandth) of a second!
On the other hand, you can also choose to keep your shutter open for a long time. This then may become longer than a second. You will then see 1″. This means 1 second. If you see 2″5, this means 2.5 seconds. A camera can often be set to a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds.
What is the correct shutterspeed?
The brighter the object and the surroundings you want to take a photo of, the faster your shutter speed needs to be, so the shorter your camera lets in light. On the opposite: the darker it is around you, the longer you want your shutter to open to allow light into your camera for a longer period of time.
Your camera automatically measures how much light is needed to optimally display your photo. This is done by the light meter. Read more about your light meter here. So don’t worry, you don’t have to set or choose the shutter speed yourself. (you can, but don’t have to!) However, you can do more with your shutter speed than just taking care of a perfectly exposed photo.
Setting your shutter speed
The way you change your shutterspeed depands on the kind of camera you have. If you have a wheel on top, you will see the setting Tv (Time Value) for canon users, or S (Shutterspeed) for Nikon, Sony, Panasonic and other users. If you select this option, you can manually change your shutterspeed. Your camera will set all the other important settings automatically. Some cameras have a dedicated wheel for the shutterspeed. You will find it on top of your camera. Just turn it to your preferred value to set that specific shutterspeed.
On the left Canon (Tv). In the middle the dial that most brands use (S). And on the right the dedicated shutterspeed dial.
You can play around with your shutterspeed to unlock creative effects. If you, for example, want to photograph something that moves, and want to take a pin sharp picture of it, you have to make sure you have a fast shutter speed. The faster your shutter speed, the less time a subject has to move in ‘real life’, so the less the subject moves in your photo, the sharper the subject will show up on your photo. It will look like you subject is frozen in time.
A fast bird:
This also means that you have to use a very short (fast) shutter speed for a subject that moves very fast (for example a flying bird). If you apply this, you will see that the wings of the bird show up on your photo as if they were not moving at all. You will see the details of the feathers etc
Now, if, with this same bird, you were to use a shutter speed that is slightly slower (longer), you will see that the wings do not appear sharp at all. They look as if they were painted with a brush and with long strokes. We call this motion blur. This can give you a really interesting effect!
Is there a right or wrong? No, it’s up to you what you prefer! You can be as creative as you want! It is however important that at least one main part of your photograph is sharp. In the example of the bird, if you ensure the head, the eyes and the beak are sharp and not moving, but only his wings are in motion, you will create a wonderful effect. If the head of the bird is in motion as well, this will probably not be nice because the entire picture looks out of focus. So you have to experiment to see what the perfect shutterspeed is to accomplish this.
The left bird shows movement whilst the head is sharp and in focus. This is because of a slow shutterspeed. Do you see the movement of the wings? The right bird is frozen in time, as if it doens’t move: a fast shutterspeed. You can actually see the feathers.
A dreamy waterfall:
Now let’s look at the example of a waterfall.
The water of a waterfall moves at very high speed. We see this with our naked eye as one mass of water falling down. However, we do not see the individual droplets. If you photograph a waterfall with a fast shutter speed, you will see exactly that: the water is portrayed as thousands of drops. Is that a nice effect? Also that is a personal preference.
However, if you were to choose a slower shutter speed, you will see that the water is being blurred out, the way we see it with our naked eye. See the example below to see the difference.
Short shutterspeed (1/60) on the left vs a long shutterspeed (1/6) on the right.
Stability is key!
Keep your hands still … do not shake!
It is important you realize that if you use a slower shutter speed, you also need to keep your camera very stable. Because if you move your camera during the time your shutter is open, your photo will be blurred.
It is therefore important to prevent this. You can do this by following the techniques described HERE.
If you want to take photo’s without using a tripod or something else to stabilise you camera, you can follow this rule of thumb: the minimum shutter speed you need to be able to photograph handheld without support, without getting motion blur, is the length of your focal length (read HERE about the focal length of your lens).
So if you shoot with a lens of 20 millimeter, you can shoot handheld up to a shutterspeed of 1/20. If you zoom in a lot, for example to 300mm, you have to use at least 1/300 of a second to prevent camera shake. Some lenses do have build in stabilisation, which enables you to handheld with lower shutterspeeds. However, if you follow this rule of thumb you should be safe.
So if you want to photograph a waterfall, and make sure the water shows up nice and blurry on your photo, you will probably have to put your camera down somewhere. It will be almost impossible to shoot this image by holding your camera in your hands. Use a tripod, or put your camera on a wall or on some stones. It makes sure your camera won’t move which gives you the sharpest results!
The relation between shutterspeed, aperture and iso
Now (and here comes the next phase of your knowledge about photography) you can’t just choose any shutter speed you want. If you choose too fast a shutter speed, your photo will be too dark (underexposed). If you choose too slow a shutter speed, your photo will be too light (overexposed).
So, going back to the example of the waterfall: if you want to photograph that waterfall with blurry water, it is important to ensure that your photo is not overexposed because your shutter is open too long. You do this by adjusting your aperture and iso value (or by using a ND filter, but that’s something for another time).
To understand the combination of shutterspeed, aperture and ISO value, and even the use of different filters, you should join one of my 1 day photography workshops. These interactive and fun days are fully designed to improve your photography.
Discover my workshops here
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