What is Shutter Speed? [Complete Beginner’s Guide]

Do you have blurry images? Chances are, you are not using the correct shutter speed setting.

Shutter speed, along with aperture and ISO, makes up the core foundation of photography. And one that you should thoroughly understand if you want to take better images.

It is one of the ways to control the amount of light to your sensor and, therefore, adjust the brightness and looks of your image. You can even convey motion or freeze a moment just by using the correct setting.

We prepared a little infographic at the end to better aid you on this topic.

What is Shutter Speed

What is Shutter Speed?

What is shutter speed?

The amount of time your camera’s shutter opens up is what we call the shutter speed. For that reason, it is sometimes called the exposure time.

Whenever you press the shutter release button, the camera’s shutter opens up and lets in light. The light that passes through within that period of time is then collected by your camera’s image sensor.

shutter release button

shutter release button

It doesn’t matter whether you’re using a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera; both systems have a “mechanism” to let light in. In DSLR’s case, it uses mechanical mirrors. Mirrorless cameras achieve this through electronic shutters.

How Shutter Speed works:

When you look at your camera’s shutter speed settings, you’ll probably see numbers such as 30,60,120, etc.

These numbers represent the time your camera’s shutter remains open.

Specifically, how long the shutter will be open in a fraction of a second.

For example, 30 means 1/30th of a second, 60 is 1/60th of a second, and so on.

However, you will also see numbers such as 1” or 10”. The double apostrophe symbol signifies that you have left the “fraction of a second” realm, and you are now using one full second of exposure time.

How Shutter Speed works

How Shutter Speed works

Going at a faster shutter speed (higher denominator) will yield lesser light. That’s because you are closing the shutter faster. For example, 1/60 is faster than 1/30.

Using lower shutter speed will reduce the brightness and more motion blur. We’ll discuss more of this later.

Shutter Speed and Stops:

“Stops” is how we quantify how much we increase(or decrease) the amount of light we are gathering whenever we adjust the exposure value.

Let’s take ISO as an example since this dial is pretty straightforward.

If you want to double the amount of light, let’s say from ISO 200, you will adjust it to ISO 400. This is an example of a full stop. Shutter speed works the same.

Adjusting it to a higher “denominator” or lower fraction(depending on how you see it) means you are exposing your sensor to light at a much shorter time. In other words, you are adjusting it in a faster setting.

Shutter Speed and Stops Adjustment Guide

Shutter Speed and Stops Adjustment Guide

The fastest shutter speed settings you can get depends on the camera model itself. Most DSLR or mirrorless cameras can handle around 1/4000 or higher.

The same goes for slower shutter speed settings. Some camera lets you expose at 30 seconds max; some only allow 5 seconds. But most camera models give you the option for Bulb Mode.

Bulb Mode:

Bulb Mode allows you to open your shutter as long as you hold the shutter release button.

This may require you to have a shutter release cable to execute effectively. Other cameras, like the mirrorless systems, allow you to do this via a phone app or through the touch screen.

There are different scenarios where you may want to use faster or slower shutter speeds. We’ll look more into that later.

Shutter Priority:

Shutter Priority is a setting in your camera that lets you control the shutter speed while leaving the aperture and ISO on automatic mode.

Different camera manufacturers have different terms for this mode. It is fairly easy to spot as this is a separate dial in your camera.

It’s usually labeled “Tv” on Canon and Pentax or “S” on pretty much any other brand.

In this mode, you only need to worry about getting the right shutter speed for your specific composition. This mode has a lot of use cases, especially if the image you are trying to compose has an emphasis on motion.

Keep in mind though that while automatic modes such as this provide great ease when shooting, it should not be used on all of your shots. Always remember the phrase “right tools for the job.”

There are times when you need to get off of auto modes and shoot in manual. I find myself shooting in manual mode most of the time. That’s because I mostly shoot landscapes.

It really is a case to case basis.

For example, sports photographers might not have the luxury of adjusting each exposure dial before they miss a shot. In this case, it makes sense to use shutter priority.

But landscapes photographers tend to maximize image quality by reducing as much noise before they shoot. They have quite a bit more time to really dial into the exposure controls and use the lowest ISO possible.

How shutter speed affects the brightness:

The longer the shutter remains open, the more amount of light is gathered by your camera’s sensor. Hence, giving you a brighter image while faster shutter speed setting means less light and therefore render a darker image.

As illustrated in the image above, you’ll get brighter when using a slower exposure time. And you’ll end up with a darker image with faster shutter speed.

But, be very careful because shutter speed does not only affect the brightness…

Shutter Speed and Motion blur:

Shutter speed has a lot to do with motion, a LOT. Your camera records everything for as long as the shutter remains open.

This means that every micro-movement is recorded too.

Imagine if your exposure time is set to 3 seconds, and you are photographing a person snapping a finger. What do you think her fingers look like?

You will see blurriness or “streaking” because your camera recorded all those movements done within the 3 seconds exposure. This is called the motion blur.

Faster shutter speeds allow you to “freeze” the moment. This gives you an image without any motion blur, even if the subject is in mid-air.

While slower shutter speeds introduce more motion blur within your image. This is what you’ll use for long exposure shots and works best for subjects with uniform movements.

Motion Blur vs. Camera Shake:

Motion blur is different from the camera shake. It may appear only on some portion of your image while camera shake can affect the whole image.

Camera shake can disrupt the light signals being recorded in your camera. This causes the lights to align into some parts that it shouldn’t.

Motion blur is different from the camera shake

Motion blur is different from the camera shake

It usually occurs due to a lack of stabilization. Or not using enough shutter speed to match your focal length. We’ll discuss more on this in a bit.

Anyway, motion blur only disrupts the light signal on areas where the movement is faster than your shutter speed.

Like camera shake, motion blur shows up to your image if your shutter speed is slow. But, it only appears to the portion of your image where the movement is faster than your shutter speed settings. Objects that don’t move should still be nice and sharp.

Check out this photo of a drone.

The blurriness you see only happens at the drone’s rotor blade, but the rest is nice and sharp.

Motion blur can be pleasing to the eyes and can be used to convey movement in your photos. Heck, you can even capture motions that you will never see with your naked eye.

Both camera shake and motion blur can be reduced by using faster shutter speed.

Shutter Speed and Lens’ Focal Lengths:

Focal length not only affects the field of view. It also affects other aspects of your image, but that is for a different blog post.

Focal lengths can help you “zoom-in” or “zoom-out” into your image without physically moving. Different lens focal lengths are useful to properly frame your subject.

Longer focal lengths let you “zoom” into the subject. Or, as most call it, a “tighter shot.” On the other hand, shorter focal lengths give you wider shots or “zoom-out” look. It lets you capture more objects within your frame.

However, every little movement will be intensified as the lens’s focal length increases. In return, intensifying every little camera shake.

The truth is, hand holding a camera completely still is not possible. Things like breathing and muscle movements are just virtually impossible to avoid. This is especially true if you’re bending your knee for composition’s sake.

Even if you think that your hands are steady, there are still a few slight movements that you might not even notice. And all of these are being captured by your camera.

You have two options here.

Use some sort of stabilization or apply the reciprocal rule.

Reciprocal Rule: How to take sharp photos when shooting handheld without stabilization

The reciprocal rule is like a guideline for “safe” shutter speed. It gives you an idea of the slowest exposure time you can use while still eliminating blurriness due to camera shake.

Applying the rule is pretty easy.

Your shutter speed should be equal or greater than the reciprocal of your lens’ effective focal length. For example, if you are using a lens at 50mm, then the “safe” shutter speed is 1/50th of a second or faster.

One key term here is the effective focal length.

There is a term called crop factor for each camera sensor size. I will not go into the nitty-gritty of this term in this article, but I’ll give you the gist:

The images created can have a more “zoomed” look depending on the sensor size. Smaller sensors can only capture a smaller portion of an image compared to bigger sensors.

You first have to calculate for the effective focal length before applying the reciprocal rule.

For example, you are using a 50 mm lens on your 5D Mark III camera, which is a full-frame camera. Full frame cameras have a 1x crop factor.

Getting the effective focal length is pretty simple. You just multiply the crop factor by the focal length.

In this case, that would be 50 x 1 = 50. 50 mm is the effective focal length. Now, get the reciprocal of 50.

The answer would be 1/50th. This would be the slowest shutter you can use without worrying about camera shake.

Okay, but when starting out, you probably wouldn’t buy a full-frame camera because they are a bit expensive. You probably have an APS-C or a Micro Four Thirds camera.

So let me give you an example for both.

Let’s say you are using a 25 mm lens on the Panasonic GX8, which is a Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Camera. This camera has a 2x crop factor.

Let’s apply the formula above:

Effective focal length: 25×2 = 50

Rule of reciprocal: 50/1 is the reciprocal of 1/50.

Therefore, 1/50th of a second is the safe settings for the 25 mm lens on GX8.

Are you getting the hang of it?

Let’s try a Canon APS-C sensor. Let’s say we have a 35mm lens on the Canon 80d, which has x1.6 crop factor.

Again for the computation:

Effective focal length: 35×1.6 = 56

Rule of reciprocal: 56/1 is the reciprocal 1/56.

You might be scratching your head by now since there is no such shutter speed setting. Well, I did say that the shutter speed should be equal to or greater than the effective focal length. Therefore, the “safe settings” would be the closest higher shutter speed, which is 1/60th of seconds.

Pretty easy, right?

But you have to remember, while the reciprocal rule is useful, it isn’t a foolproof method. It’s a great way to measure the needed exposure settings, but it should be used as a guideline only.

If you are planning to print your image on a very large canvas, then you might have to use a much higher shutter speed. But if you’re uploading an image just for web use, then you should be fine.

You can also get away with slower shutter speed if you got an excellent handheld technique.

Other factors like the distance of your subject, image stabilization, and the lens quality can also affect the sharpness.

We tackled how crop factor indirectly affects the depth of field. I highly suggest that you read that one too.

Optical Image Stabilization:

Optical image stabilization is a special feature added to special lenses or cameras.

Basically, this feature enables you to shoot at a slower shutter speed without introducing too much camera shake. It’s as if you are shooting at higher shutter speed. And yes, you can go slower than what you’d typically get with the reciprocal rule.

Keep in mind though that it only helps reduce camera shake.

The amount of light gathered is still the same. And motion blurs will still be apparent if there is something moving inside your frame faster than your shutter speed.

It is also not a replacement for tripods.

There are three types of optical image stabilization:

  • Lens Stabilization – As the name suggests, this is a special feature of a lens. It is often labeled as “IS”(canon), “OIS”(Fuji, Panasonic, Olympus), OS(Sigma), and VR(Nikon), just to name a few. It offers image stabilization within the lens itself.
  • In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) – Newer mirrorless cameras offer this kind of stabilization.
  • Basically, the stabilization is applied in-camera. Giving you the advantage of image stabilization even when using non-stabilized lenses.
  • Take note, though, that in-camera stabilization may not be very effective for longer lenses. Therefore, it doesn’t have a total advantage over lens stabilization
  • Dual – As the name suggests, this combines the two types of image stabilization. It will provide an even more effective optical stabilization. Unfortunately, not many brands offer this kind of stabilization as of now.
  • This video from Panasonic pretty much sums it all.

Optical Image stabilization usually helps reduce shutter speed by around 2-4 stops.

Say we are using a 100mm lens on a full-frame camera. The reciprocal rule states that the minimum shutter speed we should use is 1/100th of a second.

With a two stops image stabilized lens, we can shoot at 1/25th before camera shake becomes apparent. Don’t forget, though, that this will result in a brighter image and more motion blur.

So if something is moving inside your frame quite a lot, some blurs will still be apparent. If you are shooting in a very bright environment, you might also overexpose your image.

How to decide which shutter speed settings to use:

There is no such thing as one size fits all shutter speed settings.

Deciding the right shutter speed ultimately comes down to the story you want to tell. And of course, the available light in your scene.

To get an idea, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you want to convey motion?
  • Or do you want an ultra sharp photo without any motion blur?
  • And how is the available light?
  • Will using higher or lower shutter speed underexpose or overexpose my image?
  • What is the focal length I am using so I can reduce camera shake?

We created a little cheat sheet to some recommended shutter speed settings for every type of shot. Subscribe to our list and get access to our free resource library.

Moving forward, let us give you an idea when you should use fast or slow shutter speed.

When to use fast shutter speed?

We normally want to use fast enough shutter speed for the majority of our shots. We can always use the reciprocal rule to get a starting point and figure out the correct exposure time.

But there are cases where we have to use extremely fast shutter speed.

Here are a few examples:

  • Photographing fast-moving objects like racing cars, birds in flight, or a running man.
  • To freeze motions like jump shots, a punch in boxing, or that awesome high kick.

When taking photos of these kinds of shots, you will need to have fast enough shutter speed. Otherwise, you will end up with a lot of motion blur even without camera shake.

It all depends on how fast your subject is moving.

A running person is significantly slower than a fast-moving car. So you will need to set a faster shutter speed for a moving car than you would on a running person.

Sometimes, we use faster shutter speed than necessary to correct an overexposed image.

When to use slow shutter speed?

Controlling the exposure time is a great way to convey emotion in a single frame.

This is done by slowing down the shutter speed to intentionally create motion blur.

To do this, you basically use extremely slow shutter speed, usually at around 1 second or higher. Go check our in-depth post about long exposure for a step by step guide and the best practices to do this.

Let me give you a few reasons why you might want to use slow shutter speed:

Convey Motion – As a beginner, your first instinct is to use high shutter speed to get sharp photos of fast-moving objects. It works for most cases, but not all the time. Sometimes, motion blur is your friend. Let’s take a moving car photo, for example.

To pull off this kind of shot, you need to show that the wheels are spinning. It is also alright that the background is blurry because it shows movement.

Shots like this are usually taken at around 1/25th of a second. Using super-fast shutter speed will freeze the motions too much. You might not be able to tell if the car is actually moving or parked.

An awesome technique called panning is a great example of conveying movements of your subject.

Show smooth motions – This is one of those shots that you simply cannot see with your naked eye. Waterfalls, for example, are an awe to look at, especially when you are actually there.

But you can make it more surreal by capturing the water ’s continuous movement in a single image.

It’s almost otherworldly, isn’t it?

Conceal distractions – Sometimes, you just want to convey “busyness,” so you take a photo of a busy street. But looking at how your photo turns out, the people are somewhat distracting.

One thing you can do is remove those distractions.

And I don’t mean removing them through Photoshop or any other post-processing technique. I’m thinking of a little more artistic way to achieve this…

Our eyes tend to focus on the sharpest part of an image, which is why the shallow depth of field is very popular.

Well, the aperture is not the only way to guide your viewer’s eye. You can also direct your viewer’s attention by introducing motion blur.

Light Trails – This is another creative use of motion blur in your image.

Basically, you set your shutter at a slow setting and record a moving source of light. You’ll have to anticipate the patterns of light once you record the scene, say for 5 seconds.

It is usually okay to overexpose some parts of your image since you’re subject is the pattern of lights and not its features.

Keep in mind that some light sources can overexpose your image way too much. It can override the attention to itself rather on the pattern.

Just to be clear, light streaking can happen as long as you are using slow shutter speed. The key to pulling this off is to be intentional with the patterns of your moving source of light.

Light Painting – This is pretty much the same as recording light trails. The only difference is, you are in control of your moving source of light.

Unfortunately, using super slow shutter speed introduce a lot of camera shake. And optical image stabilization doesn’t help much in this regard either.

There’s just no way to capture a long exposure shot handheld. For this, you will need a sturdy tripod or monopod. This makes sure that we are only gonna capture movements and not the shakiness.

Putting it all together:

Shutter Speed Cheatsheet

Shutter Speed Cheatsheet

  • Fast shutter speed freezes the motion but decreases the brightness of your image.
  • While slow shutter speed brightens your image but increases the motion blur.
  • Camera shake is different from motion blur. But both can be reduced by using faster shutter speed.
  • Longer lens focal lengths can also introduce more camera shake. Using any kind of optical image stabilization or a tripod can help reduce camera shake.
  • But motion blur still depends on the speed of the moving objects inside your frame. Though it is not the only factor that can affect your image’s sharpness, it is a good starting point to check.
  • Using a tripod or some sort of stabilization is always recommended to ensure sharp images. But if you don’t have one, you can use the reciprocal rule as a starting point to reduce camera shake.
  • The shutter priority mode is very convenient to prioritize shutter speed. But consider the type of shot you are taking as you will have no control over ISO and aperture.
  • This might lead to some problems that will ruin your shots like too much noise or focusing problem due to the very shallow depth of field.

Ultimately, great photos are taken not by your camera but you as the one operating behind the camera. Understanding shutter speed and its effects can take your photographs to the next level.

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