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Photography 101: Shutter Speed

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Ready to move beyond the automatic settings on your DSLR? You need to know three basic camera settings to get manual shooting down, and that’s your aperture, ISO, and shutter speed—which we’re covering in this article. Mastering this setting will help you achieve crisp images, no matter what you’re photographing. 

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about shutter speed. 

What is Shutter Speed? 

Your camera has a mechanical feature called a shutter, a device that allows light to come through. The shutter speed is the length of time the camera’s shutter stays open. This function works with the aperture and ISO settings, which form the foundation of all photography. 

Measuring Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is measured by the length of time—specifically, fractions of a second— represent the time it’s open. So when you look into your camera’s viewfinder, you’ll notice a number that looks like a fraction like 1/2, 1/60, and 1/250. That’s your shutter speed. 

So what do those numbers mean? Those are fractions of a second, so 1/2 setting tells the camera shutter is open for one-half of a second, and so on. 

Different Types of Shutter Speeds

When shooting manually, the shutter speed setting you choose is up to you. What you decide on is based on what you’re shooting, when you’re shooting, and how you’re shooting.

Shutter speeds come in a wide range, with some cameras going as high as 1/4000! But to make things easier to understand, think of the different speeds as three categories: fast shutter speeds, slow shutter speeds, and long shutter speeds. 

Slow Shutter Speeds

Slow shutter speeds like 1/2 or 1/60 are best for low light conditions like night photography because the shutter is longer. This provides more time for light to hit your camera’s light sensor, allowing for maximum light in darker settings. 

Fast Shutter Speeds

Fast shutter speeds are settings like 1/500 or 1/500th of a second. That means the camera shutter closes significantly quicker than at slower speeds. 

Fast shutter speeds are useful for bright lighting, like a clear sunny day. Using it in those types of conditions filters out some of the light, preventing overexposure. Higher speeds are also handy for creating clarity and focus because they essentially “freeze” actions. That’s why they’re necessary for sports photography or dance photography.

Long Shutter Speeds

Long shutter speeds are settings that are longer than one second, with options going as high as 30 seconds. Think of these options as extreme slow shutter speeds. 

Long shutter speeds are most helpful in creating intentional blurring in images. Shooting with long shutter speeds requires a tripod for the most precise photos. That’s because the longer the shutter stays open, the more noticeable motion shaking is. So even though you want some blurring, you don’t want the entire image to be blurry. 

Exposure and Shutter Speed

It’s a common misconception that the shutter speed and exposure are the same. While shutter speed affects the exposure of a photo, it’s not the only determining factor. Your aperture and ISO settings also play into how much light enters the frame. They all work together in what’s known as the “exposure triangle,” so you’ll have to find a balance between all three for the best results. 

Setting Your Shutter Speed

When shooting in automatic, your camera does its best to determine the best shutter speed, aperture, and ISO based on the conditions, but these settings are also limited. That’s why getting used to manually adjusting your shutter speed is the best way to get the results you want. 

While every camera is different, your camera will need to be in manual mode to change it. Once you’re out of automatic shooting, adjust your shutter speed by either selecting Shutter Priority Mode (S) for Nikon or Time Value Mode (Tv) for Canon. Your camera will either have arrows or a dial that you can turn to adjust the settings between lower and higher speeds. 

Using Shutter Speed to Get Creative

When you get the hang of when to use what shutter speeds, you can think outside the box and get creative. Sometimes a slight motion blur is exactly what you need to make a photo more exciting. For example, use a slow, long shutter speed to add dreamy blurs to clouds at sunset and rapids in a river.

Fast shutter speeds also have their place when it comes to creativity. For example, if you’re taking a family’s portrait, use a faster setting to capture them all jumping simultaneously. 

Shutter Speed and Panning

If you’re unfamiliar with panning, it’s when your camera moves from one direction to another, essential for following a subject—like left to right or up and down. Panning is a technique you can employ to add creativity to your pictures. Use the motion of panning in conjunction with slow shutter speeds for an impactful blurred background and razor-sharp central subject. 

Mastering Shutter Speed

Knowing what shutter speeds are and the different options are essential for gaining control over your photography and achieving your desired results. For example, use higher settings to freeze fast movements or go slower for low light conditions. 

Now that you understand the basics of shutter speed, it’s time to put your knowledge to work. Perfect your manual photography skills by going out, experimenting, and of course, having fun!

An excellent way to get started is to pick a spot outside that has a lot of movement, like a water fountain or traffic, and go through different shutter speeds to review the differences. It’s also a good idea to try different settings in bright and low-light situations.

Keep Learning With Anthology

Anthology is a community for photographers of all skills to show off their work, but we’re also here to help you learn. Continue upping your skills with our series of 101 courses on the Anthology blog.


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