All photographers, amateur and professional, want to take great photos. The difference between the two lies in understanding the principles of photography and practice. Photography has three main adjustments; shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Each adjustment is important to constructing a great image. Here we’ll focus on shutter speed and what it can do to help you create amazing images. Understanding shutter speed and how to use it is an important skill when learning to use your DSLR camera.
Shutter Speed – What Is It?
Shutter speed is a very fun setting to experiment with on your DSLR. It determines if the action is frozen in time or blurred. Shutter speed can change the look, feel, and tone of an image. Used with the other two main settings (aperture and ISO) shutter speed can transform an ordinary image into something spectacular.
Shutter speed settings decide how long the shutter is open allowing light into the camera sensor. Fast shutter speed freezes action while a slow shutter speed blurs movement. The blurring of movement is called “motion blur” and is often seen in photos of cars at night (light streaks).
Let’s begin with what exactly the shutter is and why it is important to photography. The camera shutter is like the window blinds that open and close in front of the camera sensor (similar to a window). The shutter speed determines how long the blinds are left open to allow light in through the window to the room (camera sensor). When the camera button is pushed the shutter opens to allow light into the sensor. Once done, the shutter closes preventing light from entering the sensor.
Fast and Slow Shutter Speeds
Fast shutter speeds are just that, fast. The shutter opens and closes quickly limiting the light. Fast shutter speeds are used to capture and freeze action. Typical images using a fast shutter speed are animals, kids, or sporting events.
Slow shutter speeds, however, are slow. The shutter stays open for extended periods of time capturing light longer and blurring the action causing motion blur. Typical images are car lights at night (smears and streaks) and moving water. A tripod is usually required for very slow shutter speeds to prevent camera shake. Camera shake is when the camera moves before the shutter closes causing unfocused, blurred images.
How Shutter Speeds are Measured
Shutter speeds are measured in seconds and fractions of seconds. The smaller the denominator the slower the shutter speed. For example, 1/5th is slower than 1/500th.
On most cameras shutter speed is automatically managed by the camera. DSLR cameras allow you to adjust settings according to your needs using the Mode dial. On Nikons, the S setting allows manual adjustments to shutter speed while the Canon uses Tv for shutter speed. The camera handles all the other settings (aperture, ISO) when using the shutter priority mode. However, using the Manual (M) mode gives you the ability to control all the settings on the camera.
Knowing Which Speed to Use
Typically you want to decide if there is any movement in the shot and what you want to do with that motion. For example, if you are attempting to photograph your daughter’s soccer game you may want to set a fast shutter speed to freeze her running after the ball. In the wrestling image above, I set a fast shutter speed of 1/640 to freeze the wrestlers in mid-air. If you are trying to capture your daughter playing with a hula hoop you may want a slower shutter speed to blur the hula hoop rotations. The train image below has a slow shutter speed of 1/13 helping to create the speed and motion of the train on the tracks.
- Avoid camera shake when not using a tripod by selecting a shutter speed denominator larger than the focal length of the lens. For instance, if using a 200mm lens set the shutter speed at 1/250th but not 1/25th.
- Using a shutter speed less than 1/60th will require a tripod or some other method to avoid shake.
- To freeze the action, speed up the shutter speed. Typically this is 1/250th or higher.
- To blur the action, slow the shutter speed down. Typically this is lower than 1/60th.
- Spend time experimenting with different shutter speeds, aperture, and ISO. It will not take long for you to understand how to use your camera to capture amazing photos.