“Getting Beyond Auto” Series
Welcome back to the “Getting Beyond Auto” series on my blog. In case you missed it, I launched this series of articles to help newer photographers make the most of their cameras, without investing too much time or energy. This series is exploring, in layman’s terms, several key concepts that will turn your pictures from “just capturing a moment” shots to “I decided to hang this in the living room” shots. I hope you’re enjoying the ride!
The first post in our series provided an overview of aperture, which I described as the setting that controls how focused or blurry, light or dark, and how deep your photo will turn out. Since all the concepts we are exploring in this series are related, I suggest brushing up on the basics of aperture here . Today, we will explore the second piece in the group known as the “Exposure Triangle” – shutter speed.
What is shutter speed?
Let’s break this term apart. First, the shutter. Your camera’s shutter is like the window, or curtain, that separate your camera’s lens from light. When your press the button on your camera to take a picture (also referred to as a “shutter button”), the curtains open and close to allow light to pass through your lens and reach you’re the camera’s sensor. One curtain opens up in synchronization with a second curtain that closes. Shutter speed, then, is the length of time that those curtains permit light to pass onto the sensor (or film) inside your camera. Since a photo, after all, is a concentration of light captured during a set period in time, the amount of light that passes through your lens will affect how your photos turn out. So now that we understand what shutter speed is and why it is important, let’s explore it further.
How will different shutter speeds affect my photos?
A slower shutter speed will cause your photo to look blurry. While this may not sound appealing if you want a sharp image of a still object or person, it can serve you well when you want to capture movement. Professional photographers use slow shutter speeds to capture a variety of situations, such as waterfalls, streaks of light from cars, a turning wheel or a spinning fan. The blurriness created by the combination of slow shutter speed and movement communicates that motion to the photo’s audience. Try this out next time you want to photograph a flock of birds, or a group of children dancing. The other side of this equation, of course, is a faster shutter speed, which will cause objects in motion to appear frozen. Imagine a photo of kids splashing water in a pool, where you can see the still droplets of water in midair. That photo would have been shot with a very fast shutter speed. Keep in mind that the faster the object you want to photograph, the faster the shutter speed you’ll need.
Movement is not the only effect captured by changing shutter speed, though. Since shutter speed controls the amount of light let in to your camera, it can also impact the brightness of your photos. So, if you are shooting outside on a bright, sunny day, you may want to consider a faster shutter speed, to allow less light into your camera. The opposite is true when you are shooting in a darker place. That said, aperture, which we discussed in the first post in this series, also impacts the brightness of your photo (as does ISO, the topic of our next post!), so you can play around with these settings to find the perfect brightness for your photo.
How is shutter speed measured?
Like aperture, shutter speed is measured as a fraction. Shutter speeds that are under one second long will be measured as the fraction of that second. So ¼ means one quarter of a second, 1/20 means one twentieth of a second, and so on. Most DSRL’s currently on the market have a minimum shutter speed of 1/4000th, but some have even faster shutter speeds. The slowest, or longest shutter speed available on most cameras is 30 seconds. How will you know what upper and lower limits your camera can handle? A general rule of thumb is to create a fraction from your camera’s lens focal length. So, for a 200mm lens, you could assume that your fastest shutter speed is 1/200th.
How will you know what shutter speed to use?
Most amateur – and even many professional photographers – won’t succeed in capturing sharp photos with a shutter speed below 1/50th or 1/60th of a second. Shutter speeds between 1/100th and 1 second are generally considered slow. It can be difficult to take a good photo at a slower shutter speed, because your camera will be more susceptible to your hand’s movement. A good quality tripod can be helpful if you’re going for that perfect waterfall image.
Shutter speed “cheat sheet”
While I encourage you to use this article to have some fun testing different shutter speeds, there are ways that your camera can help you in this process. Some lenses have image stabilization, also known as vibration reduction technologies. This setting can help you take pictures at a very slow shutter speed without a tripod, but in my opinion, it is only somewhat useful.
Finally, similarly to aperture, your camera will have an option called “Shutter Priority”. This setting will let you control the speed of your shutter, and the computer in the camera will select the appropriate aperture and ISO in order to let you focus only on your shutter speed. This is a great way to experiment with how the speed of the shutter will impact your image, without needing to control all three settings. Of course, you can eventually “graduate” to Manual Mode, where you set your own shutter speed and aperture. But, one thing at a time!
Was this helpful?
The goal of this series is to help you – the aspiring amateur photographer – learn how to make the best out of your new camera’s many features. I’ve made an effort to relay this information in the most basic terms, so that someone with no experience in photography can understand it. Did you find this helpful? Was anything unclear? Let me know so I can adjust future posts accordingly. My next and final post in this series will give you the basics of the final concept in the “Exposure Triangle”, ISO. Stay tuned and come back soon!
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