Shutter Speed Made Simple

In photography, Shutter Speed is the length of time of an exposure, usually measured in fractions of a second and sometimes in whole seconds. The longer (slower) the exposure time, the brighter the resulting image. Conversely, the faster (shorter) the exposure time, the darker the image.

Of course, there is a lot more to shutter speed than simply making your exposure darker or brighter, and you should fully understand how shutter speed affects your images if you want to use shutter speed for creative effects.

This article is designed to be the ultimate guide to understanding shutter speed, and comes from our full-length course, Photography 101. However this article, and all of the education on SLR Lounge, is not designed to be a technical manual, but rather a field guide. We create real-world resources, designed to get you out and shooting as quickly as possible.

For those who are interested, we will include additional technical details and facts at the end of the article. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our official guides to Aperture and ISO, which are of course the other two parts of the Exposure Triangle.

Let’s dive right in, and learn exactly how shutter speed controls your exposure! Then we will move on to mastering the use of shutter speed for creative purposes, such as motion blur and stop-action.

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How Shutter Speed Controls Exposure

Just like Aperture and ISO, the other two parts of the Exposure Triangle, Shutter Speed is measured in whole stops, which are either double or half the amount of light or brightness.

However, unlike ISO (and similar to Aperture), the Shutter Speed numbers can be a little perplexing at first. To avoid confusion, keep in mind that (most) shutter speeds are actually a fraction, such as a tenth of a second, or 1/10. That is why the Shutter Speed numbers appear to go higher when the image itself gets darker. Like Aperture, the numbers “20” or “200” are denominators; the actual shutter speeds would be 1/20 or 1/200 sec.

How does Shutter Speed work as far as light itself is concerned? It’s very simple:

The faster (shorter) the exposure time, the less light is allowed to pass through to the sensor. The slower (longer) the exposure time, the more light is allowed to pass through to the sensor.

A 2-minute long exposure

A 30-second long exposure (2-stops darker)
(Learn more about Photographing The Milky Way)

How does the shutter itself work, mechanically? A camera’s shutter is actually comprised of two shutter curtains which work in sequence; the first one performs the opening action, to expose the sensor and begin the exposure time, then the second shutter curtain performs the closing action, ending the exposure.

Shutter Speed In The Exposure Triangle

Let’s say you have chosen your Aperture for creative reasons related to depth-of-field, and you have chosen your ISO for either creative reasons or simply for optimal image quality, …then your shutter speed is the only setting left in the Exposure Triangle with which you can adjust your exposure to be perfect.

Similar to aperture and ISO, a shutter speed can be adjusted in half or third-stop increments, not just whole stops. Common shutter speeds from 1/8000 sec to 30 whole seconds, can produce a perfectly sharp, high-quality images if the correct technique is used. With that relatively unlimited potential in mind, let’s talk about how to creatively use your shutter speed to achieve your artistic vision!

Creative Use of Shutter Speed

The camera’s Shutter is not just an easy way to create a darker or brighter exposure, of course. Creatively, Shutter Speed is just as important as Aperture in controlling the way an image looks.

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Shutter Speed Animation:

Nikon D5200, Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 DX
150 sec (150″, ~1.5 min) exposure time, f/8, ISO 100, Hoya 10-stop ND filter

Not only do fast shutter speeds help achieve sharpness in general when shooting hand-held, (or using a tripod for slow shutter speeds) but there are also significant ways in which shutter speed can be used to influence the way the entire image turns out.

How To Use Fast Shutter Speeds Creatively

Fast shutter speeds have two purposes: freezing a moving subject or eliminating camera shake. Different subjects require different techniques however, and there are various shutter speed guidelines that can help you achieve your creative ideas.

Shutter Speeds For Freezing Action

Fast Shutter Speeds are most commonly used to “stop” or freeze action. This might be an athlete jumping through the air, or any extreme sports activities, etc. The effect of seeing such a fleeting moment as a static image is a fantastic creative tool.

Sony RX10 ii, 1/800 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100

But, which shutter speeds work for which type of action? The faster the subject, the faster the shutter speed necessary to freeze it. For a running or jumping human subject, a mere 1/400 or 1/800 sec may do the trick quite nicely. For cars or other things that move as fast as 50-100 MPH, however, you’ll want to go even higher, to shutter speeds such as 1/2000 or all the way to 1/8000 if possible.

Of course, if you’re photographing fired bullets, or two fighter jets performing a knife-edge pass at a combined speed of 700-800 MPH, well, you might be out of luck unless you have a camera with an electronic shutter than offer a shutter speed faster than 1/10000 sec.

Sony RX10 ii, 1/2000 sec, f/4, ISO 400

Pro Tip:

Sometimes, you may find yourself shooting certain action subjects where you want almost everything to be sharp, yet certain other parts should be slightly burred, such as car tires or helicopter blades. Why? Because if you completely “freeze” all of the motion, it will look like the subject is standing completely still. This might be creative for live subjects in which the action is understood, however, it can have the odd effect of making mechanical objects like helicopters or airplanes appear as if they are falling right out of the sky!

To combat this issue, you must choose a shutter speed very carefully. Find the minimum shutter speed that will give you sharpness in most of the image, but do not go any faster than that.

Sony RX10 mk2 – Shutter Priority – 1/60 sec @ f/8
Edited in Capture One Pro 11

For most helicopter blades and airplane propellers, for example, that shutter speed is somewhere around 1/50 or 1/150 sec, depending on whether or not your lens has stabilization, and what focal length you’re using.

Fast Shutter Speeds For Avoiding Camera Shake

If you ever find yourself attempting to shoot a static scene from a moving car, train, boat or plane, you may find it even more frustrating than shooting action photos! Even though there isn’t any movement of the subject itself, you’ll have to maintain a fast shutter speed in order to get a sharp image., because you are moving!

Sunset, from the window of an airplane
1/90 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800, hand-held

For slow-moving situations like large boats or airplanes, all you may need is a steady hand and some kind of image stabilization feature, and you’ll be able to shoot at any hand-holdable shutter speed that you might normally shoot at.

For fast-moving or smaller things such as cars or helicopters, you may need to use a shutter speed that is two or three times faster than your normal focal length rule of 1/focal length. So on a 50mm lens, for example, use a shutter speed that is 1/200 sec or 1/400 sec if you can. Even if this means raising your ISO or opening your Aperture – the details of your image depend on it!

How To Use Slow Shutter Speeds Creatively

Slow Shutter Speeds have two main creative purposes depending on the type of photography you’re doing and your overall creative goals. Either way, the end result is, of course, some sort of blurring effect. However, not all blur is the same and neither are the techniques used to achieve them.

Motion Blur Shutter Speeds

First, you can freeze a scene by using a tripod, and use a very slow shutter speed so that a single subject or major element blurs throughout the image. This could be a moving subject such as a human or animal, or it could be a an element such as water or clouds.

Nikon D750, Nikon 24-12mm f/4 VR, Slik 700DX Tripod, 2-sec timer
10 sec, f/16, ISO 100

Great shutter speeds for creating motion blur are 1/2 to 1/5 sec for things like waterfalls or crashing waves if just a little bit of motion is desired. If more motion is desired, 5-10 second shutter speeds might work for moving water, while 1-10 minute or longer shutter speeds might be required to capture motion in very distant, slow objects such as clouds.

Panning With Slow Shutter Speeds

Second, you can use a slow shutter speed for the opposite effect, using what is known as a panning technique. By moving the camera with a subject during a slow shutter speed, you end up blurring the background of the scene, while hopefully retaining a decent amount of detail in the moving subject itself.

Nikon D800e, Rokinon 14mm, 1/30 sec, f/22, ISO 100

Great shutter speeds for panning include 1/100 to 1/200 sec for very fast subjects such as airplanes or race cars, or 1/10 to 1/30 sec for relatively slow subjects such as wildlife, or a runner.

Other Interesting Technical Details About Shutter Speed

Much like a lens’ aperture, shutters are a little bit complicated, however, they are still very easy to understand when broken down to their most basic elements or misconceptions.

The Science Behind Shutter Speed

How does a short or long shutter speed actually affect the brightness of an image? In other words, how does a longer exposure actually translate to “more” light on a digital sensor? To answer this question, we must look at light itself at the atomic level (Photons, that is).

Think of a digital sensor as a receptacle for light, or quite literally, a “light-collecting bucket”. In this situation, a full receptacle is a bright or white exposure, and an empty receptacle is a dark or black exposure. How do you fill up a bucket? You turn the light “faucet” on, for a period of time, and then turn it back off when the bucket is full. A camera’s shutter is the “on/off” switch that attempts to correctly expose the sensor with the right amount of light. Or, fill the light bucket with the right amount of light.

This is, in fact, how each individual pixel on a sensor works. At a molecular level, it collects photons. A pixel that is full of photons registers as a brightly exposed pixel, and a pixel that didn’t collect any photons registers as a darkly exposed pixel.

What Is Flash Sync Speed and High-Speed Sync?

One of the most frustrating and confusing problems with ordinary shutters arises when a photographer begins to introduce flash into their photography, especially wireless flash. This problem is known as ‘Flash Sync Speed’. Simply put, if your shutter speed is higher than the camera’s flash sync speed, your flash photos will show a black bar at the top or bottom of the frame.

Why is this? It’s because all mechanical shutters, (focal-plane shutters, to be precise) operate using a two-curtain system. Both curtains are cocked or spring-loaded; the first shutter is in charge of opening and beginning the exposure, while the second shutter curtain is in charge of closing and ending the exposure. Then, both shutters are re-cocked. See the slow-motion video below:

However, mechanical shutter curtains are simply not fast enough to open completely and then close completely for, say, a 1/1000 second or 1/8000 second exposure. So, how do the shutter curtains accomplish such a fast shutter speed? They literally follow each other across the sensor, only exposing a fraction of the sensor at any given time. So at any given instant, if a flash fires it will only show up on part of the image.

Note the shutter curtains’ movements in the slow-motion video below:

On many cameras, the fastest shutter speed that a (mechanical) shutter can be completely open for is 1/200 sec or 1/250 sec. So, at 1/250 sec or any slower shutter speed, you have no problem with flash photography.

If you want to use a faster shutter speed, however, you must use what is known as high-speed sync, which is a flash feature which repeatedly pulses the flash during the whole exposure, thus illuminating the scene evenly despite the shutter never being fully open.

Canon 5DmkIV, Canon 135mm f/2
1/1000 sec, (HSS) f/2, ISO 100
Wireless strobe, umbrella diffusion & bare bulb

Alternately, you can simply keep your shutter speed at 1/200 sec or 1/250 sec, and use a Neutral Density Filter to “cut” down the brightness of the scene until a correct ambient exposure is achieved. Variable ND filters in the range of 3-6 stops such as the Syrp Variable ND are the most effective, for photographers who wish to use flash in bright conditions at apertures such as f/1.4 or f/2.8. (Note that you would have to use a brighter flash setting, to compensate for however dark the ND filter is.)

Nikon D750, Sigma 35mm f/1.4
1/200 sec, f/1.4, ISO 100, 5-stop ND filter
2X wireless hotshoe flashes, umbrella diffusion

What Is Electronic Curtain Shutter Speed?

So far, we have been assuming that a shutter is a mechanical part of the camera. However, since a digital sensor is, in fact, digital, why can’t the same process of starting and stopping the exposure be performed electronically?

Indeed, it can be! The sensor simply self-controls its exposure time, sometimes by reading the entire image all at once, (for whatever length of shutter speed) and in other cases by reading the image one row of pixels at a time.

This second method makes it easier for the camera’s electronics to manage the image data as it is transferred off the sensor at a very high speed. However, it can introduce artifacts in still images, and an effect known as Rolling Shutter in video footage. The Rolling Shutter effect appears as a faint slant in video footage whenever the camera is quickly panned side-to-side.

Alternately, if a digital camera’s sensor is capable of electronically recording the entire sensor at the same moment, (whether a fraction of a second or slower) it is known as a Global Shutter, and this results in great image quality but requires a bit more processing power from the camera.

In fact, electronic shutters are often capable of shutter speeds that are much faster than ordinary mechanical shutters are, since they are only limited by electronic processing power. In the above example, notice how a hummingbird’s wings are still slightly blurry even at 1/1000 and 1/2000 sec, and are only truly “frozen” when the Sony RX10 ii uses its E-shutter (electronic shutter) to achieve a whopping 1/12800 sec shutter speed. That’s how fast a Hummingbird beats its wings!

How Shutter Speeds Are Displayed On A Camera

As one last interesting side note, many cameras (especially traditional SLRs and DSLRs) do not display shutter speeds in the viewfinder (or on the top LCD) as “1/30” or “1/15” for example. They simply display “30” or “15”. While this might not be a problem for the average photographer who always shoots during the day, there is a possibility for confusion if you’re interested in nightscape or long exposure photography, and don’t pay close enough attention to what your camera is displaying.

I made this mistake the very first time I went out to shoot nightscapes, and then the next day I went to shoot the sunrise. I thought my camera was set to a shutter speed of 1/30 sec, but my camera kept trying to take really long exposures instead. The camera was actually set to 30 whole seconds! I didn’t notice the little quotation mark; the camera was indeed displaying the shutter speed as 30″.

This is becoming less of an issue with cameras where the rear LCD is either displaying information or performing live view, and some mirrorless cameras with an electronic viewfinder, as they will display fractional shutter speeds as 1/30, and whole-second shutter speeds as 30″. However, it’s just something to remember, for those of you who ever find yourselves confused by this.

1/250 sec, f/4, ISO 200

1000 sec, (17 min) ISO 400, f/4

Shutter Speed Summary

Shutter Speed is a relatively simple concept to understand, once it has been broken down into its different mechanical and other aspects. If you have gotten to this point then you have gained all of the knowledge you could ever need in order to fully utilize your camera’s shutter for both technical and creative goals.

Now, the only thing left to do is to get out and take photos, practice, and experiment with new techniques, and share your photos with a community!  SLR Lounge’s  Critique Page and Facebook Group are both excellent places to share the latest creative imagery you’ve made.

Written by Pye Jirsa and Matt Saville