Understanding Shutter Speed: A Beginner’s Guide

Marianne Stenger
9th January 2018

If you want to gain greater control of your images and get sharp photos regardless of the lighting conditions or what you’re photographing, at some point you’re going to have to venture into manual or shutter speed priority mode.

So what exactly is shutter speed and how does it affect your photos?

Every camera has a physical shutter that opens and closes when a picture is taken in order to expose the sensor to the light that’s coming through the lens. So the shutter speed or exposure time controls how long this shutter stays open for and how much light will reach the sensor.

Together with aperture and ISO, shutter speed is also one of the three elements of exposure, so understanding how it affects your photos will help you take your photography to the next level. With this in mind, here are a few important things you should know about shutter speed.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds

In order to effectively control your shutter speed and get the results you’re looking for, you need to understand how shutter speed is measured and displayed. When shutter speeds are under a second, and they usually will be when you’re handholding your camera, they’ll be measured in fractions of a second.

So you’ll see shutter speeds ranging from 1/4, which is a quarter of a second, to 1/250, which is one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a second. These days, most DSLRs can go up to faster shutter speeds of up to 1/8000th of a second or more.

Slower shutter speeds can be measured in seconds, and the longest shutter speed for most DSLRs is around 30 seconds, although longer exposures are possible with a remote shutter release.

A fast shutter speed freezes motion

When you want to freeze motion and get sharp and well-focused action shots, whether you’re photographing a sports event, a child playing or an animal in the wild; you need to use a faster shutter speed.

How fast it needs to be depends on the situation, but it should generally be over 1/500 for things like runners or sports events, and 1/1000 to 1/2000 if you’re photographing faster action such as a bird flying or a car driving by.

A slow shutter speed captures motion blur

Although sharp photos are the norm in photography, there are some situations where you’ll actually want to capture motion in order to give the picture a sense of movement or create other artistic effects such as light trails or blurred water.

There are a few different ways to add motion blur to an image, and these include panning a moving subject, using longer exposures or purposely zooming the camera during the exposure.

Panning is a technique that allows you to keep the subject relatively sharp while blurring the background to add a sense of speed to the photo. In order for it to work, you need to choose a slower shutter speed, usually somewhere around 1/30 or 1/40, and then follow the subject with the camera as it moves.

Longer lenses require a faster shutter speed

If you own any telephoto lenses, you may have already realised that it’s harder to get sharp and well-focused images, especially at longer focal lengths. This is generally down to what’s known as camera shake because it’s nearly impossible to hold the camera completely still.

So if you’re using a 600mm lens, for instance, you’ll need to use a much faster shutter speed than you would if you were using a 35mm lens. One trick for getting it right is to follow the 1/focal length rule, which states that your shutter speed should always be faster than the focal length of your lens. So when you’re using a 300mm lens and hand-holding the camera, your shutter speed should be at least 1/300 or more for tack sharp photos.

Slower shutter speeds require a tripod

If you’re interested in experimenting with longer exposures, you’re going to need a tripod, especially if you’ll also be using a telephoto lens. This is because telephoto lenses are heavier and more difficult to hold still, not to mention that they usually also have a slower maximum aperture.

A tripod will keep the camera still for the duration of the exposure, whether your shutter speed is 1 second or 30 seconds. Tripods can also come in handy for panning, as the tripod will hold the camera straight and steady even as you move it to follow your subject.

Looking for more tips on how to improve your photography techniques? Be sure to check out our 20 essential photography tips for beginners.