What is shutter speed in photography?
By BBC Maestro
From f-stops to shutter speed, when it comes to photography, there are many technical terms that can throw people off. But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. With a little explanation and practice, you’ll learn just how easy it is to take photographs you love.
In this article, we’ll explore what shutter speed is in photography and how understanding it will make you a much better photographer.
What is shutter speed?
Shutter speed refers to the length of time that a camera's shutter remains open when taking a photograph. It is one of the three fundamental elements of exposure in photography, alongside aperture and ISO.
So, what does shutter speed do? The primary function of shutter speed is to control the amount of light that enters the camera and reaches the image sensor or film. Ultimately, it dictates how much light is in the final photograph.
When the shutter is open for a longer duration, more light is allowed to pass through, resulting in a brighter exposure. On the other hand, a shorter shutter speed restricts the amount of light, resulting in a darker exposure. It’s important because, in different environments, you may require more or less light to get the image you want.
How to use shutter speed in photography
Shutter speed is typically measured in fractions of a second, but on most cameras today, it’s displayed as a whole number. Why do you need to know this? Well, it’s important to understand how it’s measured, and how your camera displays it so you can achieve your desired shot.
Shutter speeds measured in whole seconds (such as 1s or 10s) represent full seconds during which the shutter remains open. You’ll likely see these displayed on your camera as 1” or 10” for example (the quotation marks represent a second). These are known as long or slow shutter speeds. They are often used in low light conditions or when you want to create a motion blur effect.
Shutter speeds measured in fractions (such as 1/10, 1/500) indicate the fraction of a second the shutter is open. These will likely be displayed as 10, 500 in your camera. Here, the smaller the number, the faster the shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds are typically used when trying to freeze action, capture sharp details or minimise motion blur.
Let’s explore some instances when you’ll want to use either high shutter speeds or low shutter speeds.
When to use high (long/slower) shutter speeds:
Night photography – think cityscapes, nightclubs, or the streets after dark. In these instances, using a long shutter speed will bring in enough light to brighten up your final image. It will help you pick up more details of buildings, figures, and light trails from moving cars or vehicles in your images.
Capturing moving water – whether it’s waterfalls or rivers that captivate you, using a long shutter speed (anywhere up to 30 seconds) will help you capture that ethereal, silky-smooth effect of flowing water like the image referenced below. If it’s crisp water shots you want, opt for a faster shutter speed to minimise blurring.
Astrophotography – if you’re a stargazer, a longer shutter speed may be your greatest friend. Stars, galaxies, and planets (if you’re lucky to spot them) are often such faint light sources that they require a little work to capture on the best of cameras. Using a low shutter speed can help enhance the visibility of dim objects and capture extra detail too.
Motion blur photography – long exposures can be used to intentionally blur moving subjects. Think about photos of trains passing or a sports car racing on a track. Or even bustling crowds in city squares. Often, they have a blurred effect to enhance the element of movement. Many of these will have been taken using long shutter speeds (around 1/8 to 12 seconds).
It's also worth noting that to achieve a good photo using a long shutter speed, you may need to use a tripod or stabilise the camera to avoid unwanted camera shaking. This is because long exposure times are prone to pick up more movement.
When to use low (shorter/quicker) shutter speeds:
Sports photography – quick shutter speeds are essential for capturing fast-moving subjects at sports events. They allow you to freeze the action, getting clear and detailed shots of the athletes in front of you. Try using a shutter speed of 1/500 or higher in these cases. Most DSLR cameras today will have shutter speeds as high as 1/4000 – so if it’s sports photography you’re passionate about, a DSLR might be a good option.
Wildlife photography – any David Attenborough fan should understand how unpredictable wildlife photography is. Trying to capture animals in motion is a true skill. Using quick shutter speeds will help you achieve detailed shots of birds in flight, running animals, or any other quick movements in nature. In these instances, a safe shutter speed to experiment with would be 1/500 and above, but generally, the higher the better.
Street photography – in street photography, every second counts. You never know when your next photo-worthy moment will arrive. Maybe a stranger playfully leaps over a puddle, or two friends meet in a warm embrace. Whatever it is that triggers your creative drive, using a quick shutter speed will help you capture all the detail of that exciting moment.
Event photography – for weddings, concerts, or any event with a crowd, a quick shutter speed can help you clearly capture performers, dancers, and people mingling with one another. Try shutter speeds from 1/100 to 1/500 for these instances.
Portraiture – this depends on the overall artistic decision of the photographer. Many photographers prefer to use quick shutter speeds in portrait photography. Mainly because this allows them to capture the person in front of the lens in detail. Think about the faces on the covers of fashion magazines or beauty billboards, if you can spot a sharpness to the image, then it’s most likely been taken using a fast shutter speed. For still models, try a shutter speed from 1/10 to 1/100.
How to choose your shutter speed
Now that you have an understanding of how shutter speed works, here is a series of factors to consider when choosing your shutter speed.
Assess your lighting - if it’s brighter, use faster shutter speeds. And in low-light environments, use slower shutter speeds or bring in extra light sources for support.
Consider your subject and movement - if you’ve got a moving subject, choose whether you want to freeze the action or create a motion blur effect. If it’s a still image you want, choose a faster shutter speed, and if it’s the blur, choose a slower shutter speed.
Set your aperture and ISO - shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all work together to determine the overall exposure of an image. It’s generally recommended to set your aperture first, based on your subject’s depth of field, then adjust your ISO and shutter speed accordingly.
Experiment and adjust if necessary - start with an initial shutter speed and take test shots. You can then review the images to assess whether your settings are right. If not, you can make adjustments and test again. Keep doing this until you’ve achieved the shot you’re going for.
Finding the right shutter speed can be a bit of a guessing game, but there’s no better way to learn than through experimenting yourself. So, get out there and get practising. If you’re excited to learn more about photography, take a look at portrait photographer, Rankin's BBC Maestro course.