Steve's Photography Tips: Setting Your Shutter Speed

Tips to help you improve your photos!

The previous two Photography Tips posts have looked at aperture and ISO settings, so now let’s move on to shutter speed. If you have been reading the past tips, you have already seen shutter speed mentioned there, and so you may already know that the three are closely intertwined.

When you press the button on your camera to actually take a photo, the button activates the shutter mechanism, moving the shutter to let light into the camera through the aperture, and that light goes either to the film or to the digital image sensor. That button that moves the shutter is cleverly called the “shutter button,” although you probably already knew that.

Most all cameras these days have a manual shutter speed setting, which can be used to control just how fast the shutter is opened. Why is this important? How long the shutter is open determines how much light enters the camera. If there is too much light, the resulting photo looks too bright. If there is too little light, the photo looks too dark. So of course the object is to let in just the right amount of light.

These fancy cameras these days can do all of that automatically, of course, setting the shutter speed as well as the aperture and ISO for you. But that doesn’t always produce the best photo that you could take. Because as smart as modern cameras are, they are often not really that smart. For example, would you want a camera running for president? Maybe you shouldn’t answer that one. Anyway, sometimes it is good to know what the shutter speed setting is for your camera, or even to change it.

Basic Shutter Speed Settings

Shutter speeds are usually shown as a number, such as 200, 30, or even 4000. And these numbers aren’t quite as confusing as the aperture numbers, because the bigger the number gets, the faster the shutter opens and closes. However, a setting of 200 doesn’t mean that the shutter moves at 200 miles per hour. Although I never have taken a radar gun to one to see just how fast it goes, so maybe I could be wrong there. But no, a setting of 200 means that the shutter will be open for 1/200 of a second. The number is the denominator of a fraction of a second. So 1/4000 would be really fast, and 1/30 of a second would be slow. Relatively.

I know 1/30 of a second still sounds pretty fast, and if you try to think about it in terms of a clock ticking, it probably is fast. However, in terms of trying to hold a camera still, 1/30 of a second can be an eternity. If I stand really still, I can hold a camera steady for a 1/30 second exposure, and if the camera has built-in image stabilization maybe even 1/15 second, but that’s about it. And if you are zoomed in tightly on your subject, the long focal length magnifies the slightest shake, so for that 1/30 is probably already too slow. Anything slower than that, and you would need to use a tripod. Or a tabletop. Or a trash can. Or anything else that you can set the camera on to steady it.

The closer the number gets to 1, the closer to one second the shutter stays open. After that, the speed is usually indicated in seconds: 1s, 5s, 30s. Most cameras top out at 30 seconds for settings or if the camera is setting the shutter speed, such as in aperture priority mode, but you can get longer shutter openings by using bulb mode, usually noted as “B”. I used to joke that “B” stood for better, but I guess that depends on how you use it. In bulb mode, the shutter stays open for as long as you are pressing the shutter button, giving you complete control. Or complete guess work, as it usually happens for me.

What’s the Difference?

What kind of a difference does shutter speed make? Obviously, you would need a faster shutter speed on a bright, sunny day than you would need on an overcast day. And you would need something even slower as the sun is starting to go down. Nighttime photography requires really long shutter speeds, and of course a tripod in most cases.

But changing your shutter speed can also be used to create some interesting effects, such as motion blur, where things that are moving appear blurred instead of still and solid.

Here are a couple of examples:

Dunns River Falls Fast-800

In this first photo, water cascades over the rocks at Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica. This one uses a “standard” setting, or in other words I just let the camera choose the shutter speed, which it set as 1/100 second. You can make out the splashing water pretty well here, and that’s fine.

But now let’s change things up a little:

Dunns River Falls slow-800

This time around, I chose my own shutter speed, which was 1/8 second (thanks to the safety rail that I was leaning against). You can see how the water takes on a smooth look here as the camera catches it in motion.

Here’s another water-related example:

Pelican fountain fast-1200

At Castaway Cay, while I was waiting for Laura and Katie to come down Pelican Plunge, I was playing with this fountain thing that would spray water on a pelican or propellers underneath him to make things turn around. I tried to take a photo with the camera choosing the shutter speed, and it chose 1/2000 second, which of course is really, really fast. Nice for capturing the individual water drops, but not what I was wanting.

So I tried again:

Pelican fountain slow-1200

Setting the camera to 1/20 second gave a nice, smooth water flow, even if you still can’t tell that there is a pelican figure there at the top of the post. Those ended up not being my favorite photos, so you probably won’t see them anywhere else, but they illustrated the concept here well, so I’m glad I took them and then didn’t delete them!

Here is one more example of a long exposure, which was also used in the ISO Speed post, by the way:

Nighttime in Bangkok-800

This was a 10 second exposure, obviously using a tripod. And having the shutter open for that long let in plenty of light, while also showing some movement in the clouds. And you can’t see it much here, but the lights of the cars on the street at the lower right look like streaks, thanks to the long exposure.

Drawbacks and Limitations

As has already been mentioned, holding the camera steady can be a limitation, unless you have a tripod or some other way to steady the camera. So make sure that you are prepared for that if you try any kind of a long exposure.

Also, if you are trying to use a slower shutter speed such as to smooth out water on a sunny day, your aperture will only close down so far, so that your photo may look too bright due to the light that comes in. There are ways around this, and we will discuss neutral density filters at a later time.

Knowing Your Shutter Speed

Even if you are using aperture priority mode or even program mode (a discussion of modes is coming really soon, by the way), it still pays to have a good understanding of shutter speed, and having a good feel about how fast the shutter will be, just to make sure that the only motion that you are capturing in your photo is something you are intending to capture.

And don’t be afraid to go out and experiment with different shutter speeds, just to see what all you can do. Because the best way to learn is by doing!

Questions? Comments? Leave them below. And be sure to check out other Photography Tips, too!

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Burnsland is Steve Burns, with generous help from his lovely wife Laura. Steve is a husband, father, photographer, webmaster, writer, podcaster, artist, Christian. Steve enjoys sharing his photography, art, and stories through, from the Burnsland World Headquarters in Tennessee.