Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sunny Smith's Guide to Understanding Your Camera: Shutter Speed

It's time for another edition of Understanding Your Camera!

For a long time I've wanted to help other bloggers understand their cameras better. I see so many people struggling to get the photos they want for their blog, so this series is my attempt to help. Over the series I am going to be breaking down each part of the camera that you can manipulate to get the photos you want! Some of the different sections that we will look at are aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance. Today we're going to look at shutter speed.

Shutter Speed: the basics
Shutter speed measures how long your camera's shutter is open. The longer the shutter stays open the more light reaches the camera's sensor and the more movement is picked up in the photo. Shutter speed is measure in seconds.

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The first photo was shot at 1/60th of a second. You can see that the leaves in the first photo are blurred because the leaves moved while the shutter was open. The second photo was shot at 1/1250th of a second. In this photo the leaves are frozen in air, because the quicker shutter speed didn't give the leaves time to move while the shutter was open. 

If your subject is coming out with motion blur (not to be confused with out of focus blur caused by aperture), you need to raise your shutter speed to freeze the action. 

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 When you raise your shutter speed, the shutter stays open for a shorter amount of time; this means that your photo will be darker, since their isn't as much time for light to reach the camera's sensor. The first picture (no edits) is how the 1/1250th picture above looked before it was brightened to match the unedited 1/60 picture. When you lower your shutter speed, movement will be frozen, but the pay off is a darker image.

When you're in a really bright environment, raising your shutter speed is a good strategy to fix an over-exposed picture. The same goes if you're in a darker environment; lowering your shutter speed will help an under-exposed picture look brighter. 

How low can you go?
Since a lower shutter speed will make a picture brighter, it's tempting to use a lower shutter speed. However going too low will make your picture have movement blur, not from the subject, but from your hands. It's hard to hold your camera steady for an extended period of time. Depending on how shaky your hands are and how heavy your camera is, you can probably go as low as 1/50th of a second while hand holding your camera. Personally, I don't like to go below 1/80th of a second because my hands are naturally more shaky. 

Using your flash will allow you to go a bit lower with your shutter speeds, because the flash will help freeze the motion.

Here's an example of a photo I took a long time ago that was never used because it's blurry. None of the edges are crisp, because I had my shutter speed too low for me to hold the camera steady (obviously the building wasn't the one moving). 

If you have a tripod or a surface to place your camera on, you can put your shutter speed as low as you'd like. All you have to worry about is motion blur from your subject. 

PRO TIP: When using a tripod (or make shift tripod), put the camera on a two second timer before pressing the shutter button so the camera has time to settle from the movement of you pushing the button. 

Shutter speed is fun because there's lots of ways to experiment with it. Instead of trying to get rid of motion blur, you can open your shutter longer and embrace the blur for artistic reasons. 

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In this photo, I used the flash to create a flash curtain and left my shutter open for 1/10 of a second. The flash freezes the subjects, but the longer shutter speed allows for a motion blur which is how you get the "ghosting" effect. It's a bit faint in the picture above, but I outlined it, and you can see it in the transparency of the figures.

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In this photo, I used a longer shutter speed (aprox. 5 seconds). While the shutter was open, I had my friend "paint" the light streaks by using an old book light to trace the circles in the air behind the subject who sat still and held a little red LED light in her hands.

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In this photo, I left the shutter open for 30 seconds. You can see the motion blur in the clouds, but the water has gone still. Since the shutter was open for so long the lapping of the waves blurred together, creating the still water (it would never be that calm in real life). Leaving the shutter open this long also allowed the most amount of light to get to the camera's sensor (it was just after twilight). 

If you'd like to see more pictures with longer shutter speeds, feel free to check out these posts on A Splash of Photography. I hope that you found this post helpful in understanding your camera's shutter speed controls. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments!


  1. Oooh this so useful!! Thank you Sunny! I could never understand how to work shutter speed and what it does. I guess I'll need to experiment a bit.

    I alos nominated you for a few awards ^_^ Enjoy

    1. Good luck experimenting! It's the best way to learn:)

      Thanks for the nominations!! I'm always so flattered!

  2. Thanks Sunny! I could never understand what that dial did...

    1. Haha, glad to be of service. Hope you understand the dial a bit better now:)

  3. Thank you for this! ^ ^ So helpful.


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