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Learn Photography: Understanding Shutter Speed (and how to master it)

What is it, what does it do, and how to get creative with it

What is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed is a function of the camera body – the part that exposes the sensor (or film) to light for a specific amount of time. Understanding shutter speed is one of the more straightforward aspects involved in learning photography. It can also be used in a variety of creative ways to create unique and eye-catching photos.

mechanical shutter in a camera, understanding shutter speed while learning photography
A mechanical shutter in a camera body. The sensor is behind it and the lens will be mounted in front.

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Types of Camera Shutter

Depending on the type of camera, the shutter will be mechanical or electronic. A mechanical shutter is a physical shutter that opens and closes to expose the sensor. An electronic shutter is a bit like a virtual shutter: the sensor powers on and off to expose the sensor. 

Almost all mirrorless camera brands (such as FujfFilm, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, Canon, and Nikon) offer the option of using a mechanical or electronic shutter in newer camera models. A DSLR – which still uses a mirror – has a mechanical shutter or (less common) a sort of hybrid mechanical-electronic called “Electronic Front Curtain Shutter”, or EFCS. 

There are pros and cons to electronic or mechanical shutters. However in the vast majority of common real-world use (and in travel photography), both will serve you well. Everything detailed in this learn photography post will apply no matter what type of shutter your camera offers.

Introducing: The Wanderstruck Lens

This is part two of The Wanderstruck Lens 4-part PhotographyFoundations series: Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, and The Exposure Triangle. Be sure to subscribe to receive notifications as each part is published.

How is Shutter Speed Measured?

Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or fractions of a second. A quarter of a second will be shown as 1/4, not 0.25. A long exposure time of several minutes – such as 4 minutes usually displays as 4″ on the camera. The longer the shutter is open, the “slower” the shutter is. And in reverse, the less time the shutter is open, the “faster” the shutter is.

two photos to compare the effects of shutter speed when photographing moving water
L: Slower shutter = a nicely blurred waterfall R: Faster shutter freezes most of the spray from a crashing wave

Usually, in a brighter scene (like a sunny day) a fast shutter will be used, anywhere from 1/250th of a second to 1/2000 of second. There are of course exceptions, but in most situations a bright scene = a faster shutter speed.

In a darker scene (like dim light at dusk), a much slower speed is used, since there is less light available. In this case, the shutter speed could be anywhere from 1/50th of a second to several seconds long. Again, it is possible to make adjustments to other settings to allow a faster shutter speed in dim light.

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Does Shutter Speed Affect Anything Else?

Unlike aperture, which affects how a photo looks in several ways, shutter speed has a pretty straightforward function. It does not affect depth of field nor the amount of noise (or grain) in a photo. Shutter speed isn’t affected by focal length or focus distance, which play a big role in aperture. However, focal length and shutter speed relate in whether motion shows in an image or not. Keep reading to learn how an image’s sharpness is impacted by shutter speed in several ways.

Is Shutter Speed Important?

While it may seem at first that shutter speed doesn’t have much impact on the image besides exposure, there is one very important part of the photo that is affected by shutter speed.

When you see motion blur in an image, it’s because the shutter speed was slow enough that the motion registered across the sensor. Often when we think an image is out of focus or that focus missed its target, it’s actually because the shutter speed was just a little too slow.

On the flip side, sometimes motion blur is the goal. It adds energy and interest to a photo, and is attention grabbing. We don’t see motion with blur using our eyes, so it lends a dreamy or surreal element to the photo. 

Does the Shutter Type Matter?

crashing waves captured up close - frozen in motion - with a fast shutter speed
Even with a small aperture of f/11 and modest ISO of 400, a shutter speed of 1/1000 was more than enough to freeze this crashing wave.

Broadly, whether your camera uses an electronic or mechanical shutter doesn’t matter. There are benefits to both, particularly for certain types of photography. For travel photography in particular, either works just fine. Advanced mirrorless cameras typically have both available.

A few benefits of an electronic shutter include not having to worry about wear and tear on a physical mechanism and a faster maximum shutter speed. A mechanical shutter’s fastest shutter speed is about 1/8000th of second (still incredibly fast) but an electronic shutter can be as fast as 1/64000th of a second! 

However it is rare to need anything faster than 1/8000 outside of rare or highly specialized situations. It’s more useful to have a camera that allows you to use extremely slow shutter speeds – several minutes long or more. Insanely fast shutter speeds also need a tremendous amount of light for proper exposure.

An electronic shutter is also silent, so won’t draw attention with the distinctive CLICK of a mechanical shutter. This is especially useful in travel photography or event photography. If you like that CLICK, you should be able to turn on an electronic shutter sound in your camera’s settings.

How to Know if Your Shutter Speed is Fast Enough

There is an approximate rule that the shutter speed should never be less than the 1/effective focal length. Effective focal length is the equivalent focal length based on the 35mm (or full-frame) format. With the introduction of digital cameras, especially mirrorless, smaller sensor sizes became common to lower costs as well as the size/weight of a camera setup.

Two of the most common camera sensor sizes that are smaller than 35mm are APS-C and Micro 4/3 (MFT) – though other smaller sizes exist such as in compact point & shoot cameras or in your Smartphone. When a sensor is smaller than 35mm, it has a “Crop Factor” – the amount by which the full-frame size is reduced. An APS-C has a crop factor of 1.5x, MFT has a crop factor of 2x.

comparison of camera sensor sizes

From the left: Medium Format sensor, found in high end cameras typically used for professional work with exacting technical standards. Sensor sizes smaller than 1” are found in ultra-compact cameras, action cams (like a GoPro), and Smartphones. There is a big difference between 20 MegaPixels on a 35mm sensor and a 1/2” sensor – but that’s a whole post on its own!

So a 35mm lens will actually be approximately 48mm on an APS-C sensor and 70mm on an MFT sensor. Using a 35mm lens, that means the minimum shutter speed on the APS-C should be 1/50 or faster, and on the MFT 1/70 or faster.

Good quality image stabilization (IS) technology can lower this by half or more. With good technique and advanced image stabilization, it is possible to capture a sharp hand-held photo at much slower shutter speeds than without IS.

Once the subject or photographer is moving, the shutter speed will need to be progressively faster. The 1/Focal Length rule applies assuming both the subject and photographer are still. If the subject is also extremely still, image stabilization (as mentioned above) still allows for sharp images at slower speeds than this standard. But keep in mind that IS does not reduce or prevent blur from a moving subject.

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Advanced Shutter Speed Techniques in Photography

Shutter speed isn’t just about freezing motion or the exposure triangle. When using a more advanced camera combined with specific techniques, varying shutter speeds can be used in a variety of creative ways. 

Panning

One of the most fun ways to use slower shutter speeds is in panning. It takes practice to get the movements and timing right, but yields a really unique image.

photo of woman in red jacket using a panning technique and slower shutter speed
While there is some motion blur in the subject, panning with her as she walked renders less motion blur on her vs the background

The key to a successful panning image is smooth movement that matches the path and speed of the subject. It’s best using a medium to long focal length and larger aperture to create a bit of subject-background separation. There may still be some motion blur from the subject, but the goal is to have a sharp or nearly sharp subject but significant motion blur of the background.

Slow Sync Flash

example of slow-sync flash used to capture a couple leaving their wedding reception
Without slow-sync flash it would have been impossible to capture this couple without very high ISO or extreme motion blur

One of the most advanced techniques utilizing a slower shutter speed is combining it with what’s called “Slow Sync Flash”. It’s most commonly used in dark or low-light settings. 

The flash will “freeze” the subject while leaving a bit of a halo or light trail. At the same time, the slower shutter speed allows the background to “burn in”, or be exposed correctly. 

This is used often in event photography but can be used creatively when taking travel portraits. You do need to be close enough that the flash illuminates the subject. With a built-in flash about 8 feet would be the maximum distance to get the desired effect. An external flash can allow the subject to be as far away as 20 feet and get the effect.

It can also work when photographing a still subject, like people or food. This won’t show the halo or trail but will allow the subject to be well lit and the background to render appropriately. It takes a good bit of practice and patience to master this technique, but it’s a blast to play with. If you use this technique to photograph food, be sure that your camera flash won’t be disruptive to people around you.

cinematic portrait of Sam Hargrave (actor, stunt coordinator, director) in formal dress with sword, created using off-camera flash
Using off-camera flash and a slower shutter allowed for dramatic lighting of the subject with a moody background. Without the flash, the background would have been overexposed in order to get proper exposure of the subject.

Remove People from an Image

This use of slow shutter is an effective way to “remove” people from a scene with no or light editing. It’s especially useful when photographing busy or crowded locations – especially in travel photography.

A tripod is necessary for this technique, and most likely an ND filter as well. The shutter speed can be anywhere from several seconds to several minutes. Sometimes the desired effect can be achieved with a single exposure, other times you may need to use photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop to combine a few images and “empty” the scene completely.

The colorful Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal
Despite going in late November, Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal was still busy. This is a combination of techniques. Several long exposures “removed” people from sections of the scene, which I then merged together in editing.

High quality Hoya ND filters

Another benefit of longer shutter speeds in crowded spaces is using a shutter speed just long enough to blur motion but not remove it entirely. This brings a sense of energy to the scene without rendering people or vehicles sharply. 

The blurred elements can also be used to obscure undesirable parts of the scene – trash bins, parked cars, signs, etc. With vehicles at night it looks especially cool, as the lights on the cars will leave colorful trails in the image.

night shot of bridge in Budapest, yellow tram blurred by long exposure
Again, several techniques. The long exposure – handheld with the benefit of image stablization – blurs the tram and creates light trails.


Highlight Motion

Allowing water, foliage, clouds, and any moving element in the scene to blur results in an image that stands out. It can be used to create a dreamy feel, show the passage of time, or communicate chaos.

a subway train blurs past in the underground subway stop in NYC
A slower shutter blurs the subway train in a Manhattan subway station
the massive metal statue of the kelpies (a horse head) in Scotland looms with  blurred clouds in the background
A 13 second exposure time creates a blurred effect in the clouds on a windy day in Scotland

Alternatively, utilizing an extremely fast shutter will freeze motion. This can have amusing results – like a dog mid-air catching a ball – or allow us to see things that we can’t with the naked eye.

A hiker leaps across rocks in a shallow river while hiking in the north Georgia mountains, USA
A faster shutter of 1/220 was needed to freeze this hiker leaping from one rock to the next
seals perched on rocks as waves crash up from the ocean
At 1/900th of a second, the crashing waves are frozen in place

How to Set Your Shutter Speed

There are a few ways to change your shutter speed depending on the situation and the photo you want to create. This is why taking the time to study your camera manual and get familiar with all your available camera settings is so important. You’ll know what’s available as an option and how to access it quickly, increasing your confidence and reflexes while out taking photos.

close up of digital camera mode dial
Here you can see Tv (shutter priority), M (manual mode), and a Sport/Action mode represented by a running figure.

Shutter Priority Mode

Looking at the top dial of your camera, you can change to Shutter Priority Mode, often represented as Tv (time value). This tells the camera you want to keep the same shutter speed. The camera will then adjust the aperture to keep the correct exposure. 

You can also choose auto-ISO, which means the camera will also change the ISO if needed. If you don’t want your ISO to change, then set your ISO. The only setting the camera will change automatically then is the aperture. 

Manual Mode

For total control of all three exposure triangle settings, use Manual Mode. You will choose your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Exposure compensation will not be used in Manual Mode. In order to keep an eye on correct exposure, you can turn on the histogram overlay. 

If the histogram is bunched far left, your image is likely to be underexposed so you will need to adjust one of the three exposure triangle settings to allow more light/exposure and maintain a correct exposure. 

histogram of a photo to demonstrates distribution of light and dark tones
Here the histogram pushes to the left since dark tones are dominant. If it were bunched more left with little to none in the middle range, it would mean my image is significantly underexposed.

If the histogram bunches far right, then the inverse is true: the image is going to be overexposed so you need less light/exposure. Manual mode is best used in situations where the lighting in the scene is fairly constant.

Bulb Mode

The last shutter speed setting option is called Bulb Mode. Depending on the camera, it will be accessed in Manual or Tv mode, though sometimes a menu setting is needed. Bulb mode is typically for exposures longer than 30 or 60 seconds (depending on the camera), when you time the shutter speed yourself. You will press the shutter button to start the exposure, then again to end it. 

Since touching the camera will introduce shake, it’s best to use a physical or remote shutter release like Pluto Trigger (which I have) or the app (if available) for your camera model. A tripod will be needed for this as well. When your camera is on a tripod be sure to turn off image stabilization.

Sport or Action Mode

If you are still learning photography and not quite ready for the above modes, you can choose to use Action or Sport mode. Most entry level and “prosumer” cameras will have this option on the top dial. It’s usually representing by an icon of a running person. 

This is an automatic setting, and whether you have any control over other settings like aperture or ISO depends on the exact camera model. Using this mode tells the camera to prioritize using a fast shutter speed, however the shutter speed may still vary some. 

How to Choose the Right Shutter Speed

Now that you have an in-depth understanding of shutter speed, the next step is learning how to choose the best shutter speed for your photo. The right shutter speed is the one that meets your technical and creative needs while creating a correct exposure.

Do you need to freeze motion?

Are you trying to create a crisp image with no motion blur at all? The faster the subjects are moving, the faster your shutter speed needs to be. A person walking can be captured sharply at a slower shutter speed than if they are running. This will take some practice, but start with the fastest shutter speed you can use, especially if you need to react quickly to a fleeting moment. Motion blur is extremely difficult (and often impossible) to fix in Photoshop.

What lens are you using with what sensor size?

A wide-angle lens (16mm focal length) on a full-frame sensor will give you more shutter speed latitude than a long lens (100mm effective focal length) on a micro 4/3 sensor with the same scene. The first setup will allow capturing a sharp shot of a person jogging at around 1/100th of a second whereas the second will likely require a shutter speed of 1/500th or even faster.

Will image stabilization help?

If shooting a landscape hand-held, image stabilization will be extremely helpful if nothing in the scene is really moving. However, when trying to take a sharp photo of a person jogging image stabilization will only help reduce camera shake from you. It won’t reduce motion blur of the jogging subject, so you’ll still need a faster shutter speed. The exception is if you are panning to show movement, in which case IS can help. Check if your camera has a panning setting for image stabilization, which will help even more.

Choosing the Best Shutter Speed – Travel Photography

What shutter speed is best for travel photography?

Since there are endless scenarios in travel photography, there is no single “best” setting. A busy street scene – where you want to freeze motion – may require a faster shutter speed like 1/200th of a second. A calm landscape scene on the other hand may only need 1/50th of a second. 

What shutter speed is best for street photography?

In street photography there are two approaches when choosing shutter speed. wide or medium focal lengths are most common here (24mm – 50mm effective focal length), as this allows for visual context. To freeze motion in the scene, try to keep a shutter speed of 1/100th or faster. To allow a bit of motion blur or use a panning technique, a slower shutter speed from 1/50th to 1/2 second will work well.

What shutter speed is best for landscape photography?

Typically photographing landscapes means a smaller aperture (less light) and lower ISO (also less light), so shutter speed will also be slower. When hand-holding for a landscape photo, use IS. You’ll be able to use a faster shutter before having to make adjustments to the other exposure triangle settings. 

With a tripod, as long as you want or don’t mind moving elements blurring, a slower speed (1/2 to several seconds or more) provides the best result in most cases. This is especially true when shooting at golden hour or blue hour, when there is less available light.

What shutter speed is best for travel portraits?

Travel portraits may be of your travel companions or people you meet along the way. You’ll want to work quickly, especially when asking a stranger for their time. A wider aperture is generally best for portraits (f/5.6 or wider), so a faster speed can be used. This will also eliminate motion blur from the subject moving. 

What shutter speed is best for travel photography at night?

To freeze motion at night or in low light situations, you’ll likely need a high ISO (800 or higher) to use the necessary shutter speed for a sharp shot. Using this with a wider lens is a good combination. 

If motion blur in the scene is what you want – or at least don’t mind – you can use a lower ISO and/or wider aperture with a slower shutter. Handheld, a city at night could be captured with shutter speeds of 1/20th or less.
On a tripod, much like landscape photography above, there’s no real limit to how slow a shutter you can use. Just remember that the slower the shutter, the more blur you get.

What shutter speed is best for night skies?

To capture night skies with sharp stars, you’ll be using the 1/focal length rule. Even faster is better. So a 24mm effective focal length needs a shutter speed of at least 1/30 otherwise star trails will start to form.

If you DO want star trails, the longer the shutter is open the better. The minimum is 30 seconds, but upwards of several minutes will provide the most dramatic star trail images. 

How Does Shutter Speed Affect the Exposure Triangle?

When shutter speed goes up or down, in order to keep the exposure the same, one or more of the other exposure triangle settings will need to change as well. For example: correct exposure at 1/500th second, f/8 (aperture), and ISO 400. If the exposure drops to 1/250th a second, there is twice as much light hitting the sensor so if neither of the other two settings changes, the image will now be over-exposed (incorrect exposure). To keep the same exposure, the aperture could be changed to a smaller aperture size (f/11) or the ISO lowered to 200.

To learn more about the exposure triangle and other advanced photography skills, join the Wanderstruck Too list to be notified when new photography learning and travel posts go up.

image for pinterest sharing learn photography understanding shutter speed

Understanding Shutter Speed Glossary

Shutter Speed

How long the shutter is open to expose the camera sensor. Measured in fractions of a second i.e. 1/500th of a second, 2.5 seconds, etc. 

Fast Shutter

Refers to a very short speed such as 1/250 or faster

Slow Shutter

Refers to a long speed, such as 1/20 longer

Bulb Mode

The shutter must be pressed (physically, with a shutter release, or using a camera’s app) to start and end the shutter open/close. Used for long exposures typically over 60 seconds.

Slow Sync Shutter

Also called dragging the shutter. Used with flash to balance the ambient light (non-flash whether artificial or natural light source) and freeze the motion of anything lit by the flash. 

Focal Length

The length in millimeters from a lens’s optical center to the camera sensor. This dictates the angle of view: wide angle (takes in more of the scene) such as 16mm, medium (such as 50mm, similar to human field of view), or long (such as 200mm) which captures a “slice” of the scene.

Effective Focal Length

The apparent focal length of a lens, based on 35mm sensor size compared to a smaller sensor size. A 50mm lens on a 35mm (or Full-Frame) sensor effectively becomes 75mm on APS-C and 100mm on Micro 4/3 – the field of view becomes progressively narrower.

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