Slow Down: Art Of The Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed is one of the three pillars of photography, the other two being ISO and aperture, and it has a major impact on your images. The shutter speed is a measurement of the time the shutter is open, shown in seconds or fractions of a second: 1 second, 1/2 seconds, 1/4 seconds … 1/250 seconds, 1/ 500 seconds, etc. The faster the shutter speed, the shorter the time the image sensor is exposed to light; the slower the shutter speed, the longer the time the image sensor is exposed to light.

But Before We Start….

This article is part of a multi-part series of about photographic Exposure.
1. Introduction: The Exposure Triangle
2. Aperture
3. Shutter Speed
4. ISO

Every camera has a physical shutter that opens and closes to expose the sensor to the light coming in through your lens when you press the shutter button, and depending on how open or closed your aperture is set determines how bright your image will be.  The length of time that this shutter is open is called the shutter speed and also sometimes referred to as ‘exposure time’.  The magic behind a shutter speed change is that we can select a fast shutter speed that freezes any action in a photo, or we can select a slow shutter speed that introduces ‘motion blur’ to any moving objects, like water, within our image.

How to Take Long Exposure Landscape Photos | Nature TTL
Example of Long Exposure (leaving the shutter open for 1+ second)

Combining a panning motion of the camera (left to right, or right to left movement) with a slow shutter speed can be used to give a sense of speed, as in the car photo that opens this article.  It gives a sense of movement to the car, but doesn’t blur out any of the car’s detail if you keep the car in the same spot in the frame as you pan.  

When you are taking a photo with your camera in a semi-automatic (TV/AV) or manual exposure mode, then consideration must be given to the required shutter speed for your subject.  Most of the time we are looking to freeze our subject with a fast enough shutter speed and capture that one singular moment, but sometimes the creative effect of a slower speed can also be desirable.  What shutter speed is fast enough? Well that will depend on your subject!  Further down this article there’s a reference guide that’ll get you started with some typical scenarios.

How to Get a Shallow Depth of Field
Example of Shallow D.O.F. (leaving the shutter open very briefly)

If you are shooting a subject that is in motion, you will get different effects at different shutter speeds, and if you add external lighting such as a flash or strobe you will get a stronger effect. Fast shutter speeds will “freeze” motion, while slow shutter speeds introduce blur from two sources: camera movement (camera shake) and subject movement. In other words, the faster the shutter speed the easier it is to photograph the subject without blur and “freeze” motion and the smaller the effects of camera shake. In contrast, slower shutter speeds are suited to suggesting the motion, such as that of flowing water or other moving subjects. Changing the shutter speed gives you control over whether to “freeze” or suggest motion.

Shutter speed is a measurement of time that a camera’s shutter is open—allowing light, usually after it has passed through a lens and through the aperture diaphragm, to strike a photosensitive surface, like film or a digital sensor.

How To Photograph Fast-Moving Cars - Tom Watson Photographer
Example of Tracking a Subject That is Moving w/ A Fast Shutter Speed


There are ways of practicing with shutter speed and understanding the impact. I generally find using a road as a good example because it gives you an idea on how shutter impacts your photos with a repeatable subject who isn’t going to get tired.

Set your camera to shutter priority and then sit at the edge of the road taking photos at various shutter speeds examining the outcome every time you take a photo. You very quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.

When you are finished, try moving the camera with the cars (panning) and see how that impacts the photos and the backgrounds at slow shutter speeds. Experimentation is the key.

Final Words

A lot of your knowledge of shutter speed will come down to your individual experiences, the subjects you are photographing and how you want to apply your artistic creativity to the photo. Setting your camera to shutter priority will allow you to control the shutter and see what happens when you change it in the field.

Photography is about getting experience; the more experience you get, the better you become at understanding how to apply the knowledge you have learnt. It will seem to take forever initially, but at some point, you’ll look back at your photos from a year ago and realize how far you have come.

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