Shutter Speed and Photography: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know

In this article, we’re going to discuss the ins and outs of shutter speed in photography. We’ll take a look at how changing to a slower or faster shutter speed affects the outcome of your image and ways you can use it to be creative with your photography.
surfer photographed using fast shutter speed

Surfer – fast action shot

This action shot was photographed during a surfing contest and I used a very fast shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second to ‘freeze’ the action. Notice that even the spray of water droplets are visible because of this fast shutter speed. When shooting sports like this it’s super important to capture the action at it’s peak

What is shutter speed and how is it calculated

Shutter speed is the length of time your camera’s shutter is open or the amount of time your sensor (or film) is exposed to the light.

Typically this is calculated using seconds or fractions of a second. For example, a ⅛ shutter speed means one-eighth of a second and 1/500 means one five-hundredth of a second. As one piece of the Exposure Triangle, knowing how shutter speed works with ISO and aperture is a critical factor in controlling how your images turn out.

Santorini long exposure

I photographed this image using a very long shutter speed of 30 seconds – notice how the clouds show movement and the ocean looks still. This type of photography is called Long Exposure Photography and I love it!

Long exposure image of Santorini

How shutter speed affects exposure (exposure triangle)

The exposure of your image depends on 3 things: Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO. We call this The Exposure Triangle.

Exposure Triangle and how shutter speed, aperture and ISO affects exposure

The exposure triangle

SHUTTER SPEED: A slow shutter speed will let in more light and a fast shutter speed lets in less light. Notice how at 1/15th of a second (very slow shutter speed) the image is a blur and at 1/1000th of a second (very fast shutter speed) the image is very sharp.
APERTURE: An open aperture lets in more light while a closed down aperture lets in less light. Notice how at f/1.4 (fully open aperture) we get a very shallow depth of field with subject sharp but background soft and at f/22 (closed down aperture) we get a deep depth of field with foreground and background sharp.
ISO (sensitivity of image sensor): A low ISO lets in less light and a high ISO lets in more light. Notice how at 100 ISO (very low sensitivity) there is zero noise in your image and at a high ISO of 3200 there is more noise making your image less sharp and clear.

One of the best ways to learn how shutter speed affects exposure is to take photos at different settings.

Start by keeping your ISO and APERTURE constant: Use ISO100 (very low ISO with no noise) and if you want everything in focus use between f8 – f16 for your aperture (broader depth of field). Set your shutter speed slow at first to see what happens to your image.

Here is a list of outcomes using f8 and ISO100 at different shutter speeds.

  • Starting shutter speed of 1/60th of a second – exposure is good (properly exposed image) – there are details in the shadows as well as the highlights. See image below right in the middle.
  • Let’s slow the shutter speed down to 1/30th of a second (half the previous speed): At this setting, your highlights will start to be blown out or overexposed. Here is where setting the highlight alert on your in-camera preview display can help you see when this happens (also known as the blinkies). Your image is now 1 stop over exposed.
  • Let’s slow it down even more to 1/15 sec – 2 stops overexposed – All white or bright areas will be completely blown out and overexposed but can see the details in the shadows.
  • And even slower to 1/8 sec – 3 stops over – almost everything is overexposed, you may still see a little detail in the shadows
Diagram 1: How shutter speed affects exposure
  • Back to the starting shutter speed of 1/60 second where your scene is properly exposed
  • Let’s increase the shutter speed to 1/125 sec (twice as fast as the starting speed). At this setting, the sky looks good but your shadows will be getting dark and losing detail. Your image is now 1 stop under-exposed.
  • Even faster shutter speed, 2 stops underexposed1/250 – The entire image will be mostly dark unless you have bright white areas like in waves and that will still show details
  • And faster, 3 stops underexposed1/500 – Your entire image will be dark and unusable.
Diagram 2: How shutter speed affects exposure

Remember the lower the shutter speed, the more light is let in to expose the scene in your camera (or your film). The more you raise the shutter speed the less light is hitting the sensor (exposing the film) and it darkens the scene.

How shutter speed affects image sharpness

Take a look at this video to get a better understanding of how shutter speed affects the sharpness (or softness) of your images.

Use the Exposure Triangle above as reference… A slow shutter speed will let in more light and a fast shutter speed lets in less light. Notice how at 1/15th of a second (very slow shutter speed) the image is a blur and at 1/1000th of a second (very fast shutter speed) the image is very sharp.

The Essence:

  • The amount of time your shutter is open is called shutter speed.
  • Shutter speed dictates whether your images will be sharp or blurred.
  • Slow shutter speed is one in which the shutter is open for a longer period of time
  • Fast shutter speed is when the shutter is open for a short period of time

General rules for shutter speeds in photography

One of the questions many photographers ask when starting out is: What is the best shutter speed to use? The old rule-of-thumb to remember is to keep your shutter speed equal to your focal length when hand-holding your camera. For example, if you’re using a 400mm lens you don’t want your shutter speed any slower than 1/400 to avoid camera shake and blurry photo’s.

I’ve come up with a new rule to be on the safe side and to compensate for non-full-frame-sensor-camera’s… Brent’s Shutter Speed Rule: Use double the shutter speed compared to the focal length of your lens. So if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens then use 1/100 sec shutter speed.

Here are some simple guidelines based on what you are photographing.

  • 1/2000 sec: Use to capture birds in flight
  • 1/1000 sec: Good for photographing sports action
  • 1/500 sec: Capture your kids playing or freezing the motion of a moving car
  • 1/250 sec: Anytime you have people moving, jumping and dancing, this will help stop the action.
  • 1/125 sec: For portraits, this is a good rule of thumb in order to avoid blurred images
  • 1/100 sec: Keeping your camera above this speed helps to avoid any camera shake
  • 1/60 sec: Once you start using 1/60 or less it’s time to get out and use the tripod
  • 1/20 sec: You can use this speed to blur water or people walking
  • 1-3 seconds: Creating blur and smoothing out moving water and waterfalls
  • 21-30 seconds: This is where you can start in order to capture the night sky with stars
  • 10 minutes: To create star trails this is the baseline exposure time.
Bird photography - use a longer lens and fast shutter speed

Bird photography

I photographed this Lilac Breasted Roller in Africa while leading a photo safari. Shot using a 500mm lens (long telephoto lens) and because I was hand-holding my lens I used “Brent’s shutter speed rule” which is 2x the focal length of my lens which equals 1/1000 sec shutter speed.

Notice how sharp the image is – even without a tripod. That’s because I used a fast enough shutter speed. Click on the image and check it out closer – see the catch lights in the eye?

Using a slow shutter speed I managed to capture an unusual image

Fire dancers – Fiji (slow shutter speed)

I love photographing performers and this show was spectacular. I decided to use a very slow shutter speed of 0.4 sec (almost half a second) to capture the fire twirling and movement made by these fire dancers. When photographing something like this make sure you set your camera to shutter priority mode and then experiment with different shutter speeds throughout the performance. So much fun!

Experimenting with shutter speed – how slow can I go?

In this video you’ll see how changing your shutter speed will affect your subject and surrounding elements. I’m photographing my model in a small waterfall kicking and splashing the water.

You’ll notice how the shutter speed changes the look of the water droplets. Slower shutter speeds will also blur the model’s movement.

The Essence:

  • For hand-holding: Shutter speed = 2x focal length of the lens (to cover smaller sensor camera’s that have a magnification effect on lens)

What does using a fast shutter speed do to an image?

The main thing that happens when you use a fast shutter speed is that you freeze the action or stop any motion that is happening in your frame. By using 1/125th shutter speed or higher the shutter opens and closes quickly, causing the subject that is in motion to be captured mid-motion.

You can also use faster shutter speeds to show a bit of motion combined with some portions of the image totally frozen. This is good to use when shooting sports for example if you want to focus on a person running or a player jumping. Keeping the subject in focus, sharp and stopped but having the background blurred helps to create the setting and tell the story of that particular moment. If you want to completely freeze the action using a shutter speed of 1/1000 will do that.

Remember though… the faster the shutter speed, the less light is let into your camera. This is fine when out shooting in the sun, but if you’re shooting indoors and want to capture the action then you may run into problems with not enough light and having to crank up your ISO so high that you start seeing noise in your images. The alternative is to introduce artificial light – flash!

Photographing action sports use a very fast shutter speed

Surfer aerial display – (very fast shutter speed to freeze action)

I captured this surfer at his peak – pulling off an aerial manoeuvre in a local surfing competition (King of the Box). Here I used a very fast shutter speed of 1/1600 sec to freeze the action, shot with a 500mm lens, hand held. Click on the image to see the water droplets close-up.

The Essence:

  • Higher shutter speeds (faster) mean the shutter is open and closed quickly
  • Faster shutter speeds freeze motion
  • Your sensor/film is exposed to less light when you use a higher shutter speed

How does a slow shutter speed impact an image

Anytime you want to show the motion of your subject you’ll want to slow the shutter speed down. Slow shutter speed means the shutter is open longer, allows in more light and anything moving will blur. For example, if you’d like to show the movement of waves or a swirl of water, set your focus, make sure to use a tripod and keep your shutter speed at 1/8th or lower to show the motion of the water. Using a self-timer or remote trigger will also help reduce any camera shake. Using an f16 aperture will ensure that everything is in focus.

Using a slow shutter speed is a creative way to show what’s happening in a scene and capture that in your image. How does one capture the wind or waves? When you photograph with slow shutter speed you can actually see the motion, the blur of the grass or the waves.

Using a very slow shutter speed of 10 seconds I was able to capture the bubble movement

Bubble movement

Often when photographing waterfalls and cascades these are foreground elements that we miss if we don’t take the time to slow down and get into sync with our surroundings. Here I noticed the bubbles and wondered what this scene would look like if I slowed down the shutter speed and created a long exposure image. I used a 10 second exposure to capture these shapes – on a sturdy tripod of course. I used f/11 aperture for a large depth of field on a 20mm wide angle lens.

The following are examples of how the shutter speed will affect the appearance of moving water in an image.

  • ⅛ second slows the motion of the water but you’ll still see detail and movement, splashes and water drops.
  • ½ second is a good mix of motion and stop action.
  • 1 second will smooth out the water but will still show movement in the foreground (see image below)
  • 4 seconds smooths the water out almost completely and creates ghosting of the movement
  • 8 seconds will flatten out the water and create a smooth, smoke-like looking effect.
Using a slow shutter speed of 1 second gives the falls a dreamy look

Winter Niagara – (slow shutter speed to show movement of water)

Captured this image with a slow 1 seconds exposure using the snow and railing to steady my camera because I didn’t have a tripod on me at the time. The night lights on the falls change colour every few seconds – I like this colour because it contrasts with the evening sky. Shot at f/8 aperture on a 30mm lens.

Mermaids, models and shutter speed

Starting at 1/1000th of a second and moving through to 1/30th-1/15th of a second, this video shows you the differences in the water. You’ll learn to control the look of the water by controlling your shutter speed.

The Essence:

  • Slow shutter speed allows for intentional blurring of your image
  • You can show the motion of your subject or surroundings using slower shutter speeds
  • Create dreamy looking images by using slow shutter speed to capture the motion of water

Using a strobe light with shutter speed to create unique images (dragging the shutter)

Adding a strobe light into the mix of slow shutter speed and motion can make for some very creative images. You can do this by using a slower shutter speed of 1/6th of a second which will show the movement and adding in the strobe which will freeze part of the movement.

When using this technique you’ll want to make sure your ambient light is just right and expose for that light. You’ll end up with a result that is partially sharp and in focus and partially blurred which makes for interesting images.

Using a flash (strobe) as well as slower shutter speed makes for a very interesting action shot

Action photography with a twist

Normally I shoot action photography at a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action, but sometimes it’s fun to shoot at a slower shutter speed to show movement (blurring). Adding a strobe (flash) will create an image that shows movement (blurring) as well as sharp areas where the flash touched my subject. This is called ‘draggin’ the shutter’ and it’s a very creative way to show action.

Here I used 1/30 sec shutter speed while panning with my subject as he jumped his skateboard over a mini-ramp and did a ‘kick flip’ trick. I chose an aperture of f/8 to allow my flash to illuminate parts of his skateboard, shoes, arms and face. Notice how I set up my exposure to be 1 stops under-exposed for the ambient light so that my background was a little darker than my subject – this allows him to really POP! Shot using a very wide angle lens of 10mm on a crop-sensor camera, equivalent to 15mm on a full-frame camera.

What dragging the shutter means

This term, dragging the shutter, refers to when you use a longer shutter speed than you would normally choose for a scene. This term is most often used in conjunction with flash photography. The aperture and power level of your flash controls the exposure of the light coming from the flash. Your shutter speed controls the exposure of the ambient light. More ambient light is let in the longer your shutter speed is.

Dragging the shutter in a studio setting

Why would you want to use a longer shutter speed? Sometimes when you use a flash it creates a dark background behind your subject. When you lower your shutter speed (drag the shutter) you allow the light from around your subject to brighten up the background while your flash lights up/exposes your subject.

Using the flash and dragging the shutter also helps to freeze your subject while still showing motion in the image.

Twirling dancer

This image comes from my popular course – Mastering Shutter Speed where I photograph a dancer in my studio using the dragging the shutter technique to show movement as well as keeping part of the image sharp. Shot at a slow shutter speed of 1/6 sec and a mid range aperture of f/8.

The Essence:

  • Dragging the shutter means keeping your shutter open longer
  • Use this technique to help expose for the ambient light
  • Longer shutter speed used with a flash will freeze your subject and still show motion

Using neutral density filters to affect shutter speed – creative use of shutter speed

You’ve seen the images of tourist spots where it appears there are no people and you think how did they manage to be there when there weren’t any tourists? Right? You could spend hours in Photoshop removing all the people or you can use a 10-stop Neutral Density filter that allows you to slow your shutter speed way down.

Long exposure Athens

Using a 10 stop ND filter to get rid of tourists and add movement to the clouds is a trick I like to use at high-traffic tourist spots. Here I used a 30 second exposure (very slow shutter speed called Long Exposure Photography) on a 20mm lens and a very sturdy tripod.

Using an ND filter to get rid of tourists and add motion to the clouds

Which photo filter do I need?

Questions about which filters are best for you and your photography? Take a look at this video as we walk through the different types of filters and what they do.

Creating long exposure images during the day

To do this you’ll need a tripod, a sunny day and your filter. An ND filter blocks most of the light coming in your lens and allows you to create long-exposure images with slower shutter speeds in order to ‘ghost’ the people or make them disappear completely.

Be sure to block the eyepiece so no light gets in there as well. Experiment with exposure times to get the look you want, usually, 2-6 seconds will work for creating the ghost effect. Longer times of 2-3 minutes will create the illusion of there being no people.

Stacking filters (ND and Polarizing filter)

Go through different settings and see how a filter works for landscape photography. Using a circular polarizing filter, neutral density filter, graduated ND filter and a 10-stop ND filter you’ll see what each does to change the image. If you are interested in more here is a course on using filters for landscape photography: Free Landscape Photography Course

Using an ND filter to photograph this landscape image

Long exposure Byron Bay

Here I used a 10 stop ND filter to remove tourists and add movement to the clouds and ocean. A 30 second exposure (long exposure) on a 21mm wide angle lens at f/13 aperture for broad depth of field using a tripod.

The Essence:

  • ND filters block the majority of the light on a sunny day
  • You can use a 10-stop ND filter to ‘remove’ people from crowded spaces
  • Using ND filters can create the ghost-like and smooth water landscapes

How do I properly use shutter speed for a scene with bright light and dark light?

There are a few things you can do. One is to take two photos, one that is exposed for highlights and one that is exposed for the shadows. Then you would combine them in post-processing and blend them together so you have the best of both worlds. Enabling spot metering is another way to determine exposure by the ‘middle ground’ of the scene, giving the highlights less weight. Changing your composition or position is one of the easier things you can do. Frame the shot to include less of the bright space or less of the dark areas depending on what your subject is.

Panning and shutter speed – blurring objects in motion

Using panning in conjunction with shutter speed is a great way to show motion and movement. Panning is when you move your camera with your subject to create a background that is blurred and a subject that is in focus or frozen. Think about images you’ve seen of car racing, runners or running animals that use this technique.

Here are a few tips for getting the best panning shots.

  1. Use a shutter speed of 1/30 to capture a good amount of action and stillness.
  2. Pre-focus on the area where you want to capture the subject as you follow it with your camera.
  3. Experiment with your shutter speed to figure out what works best for just the right balance of motion and subject in focus.
    This will depend on factors such as how fast your subject is moving and which lens you’re using.
  4. Adding light from a flash into the equation is another way to freeze your subject and keep your background totally blurred (dragging the shutter).
Moving my lens (panning) adds a sense of movement to this action shot

Panning action photography

By moving my lens (panning) and following this group of surf lifesavers as they spring down to the surf adds a sense of movement and action to my shot. Shot at a shutter speed of 1/50 sec using a longer 350mm telephoto lens. Notice how I’ve broken my shutter speed rule here – that’s because I’m adding intentional lens movement. Notice how I left space for my subjects to move into – a good composition rule to follow with sports photography.

In this video, you will learn how to photograph action and movement with a wide-angle lens. There are plenty of tips and tricks for creating impactful images.

What is the slowest shutter speed you can handhold and get sharp images?

The general rule for hand-holding your camera and still getting sharp images is that your shutter speed should equal your lens focal length. If you are photographing with a 400mm lens the slowest shutter speed you can use would be 1/400. Any slower than that and you’ll start introducing camera shake into the image and it will not be tack sharp.

Brent’s rule for hand holding: Shutter speed = 2x focal length of lens (to cover smaller sensor camera’s that have a magnification effect on lens)

Are you holding your camera correctly?

Need a few tips to know how to best hold your camera? Check out this video and see how the pros do it.

No tripod – no problem

There are things you can do if you find yourself without a tripod and want to photograph with slower shutter speeds.

  • Use your body and camera strap, hold the camera and tuck your elbows in against your body.
  • See what’s around you that you can place the camera on, the ground, a rock, anything that will allow your camera to not move.
  • Image stabilization features on many cameras also help and usually give you 1-2 stops more. So with a 400mm lens, you can likely shoot with 1/200 – 1/100 shutter speeds.
  • You can also choose Faster shutter speeds and increase your ISO to help if needed.

The Essence:

  • Use your body and camera strap to stabilize yourself and your camera
  • Place your camera on the ground, a rock or another secure surface
  • Choose faster shutter speeds and increase ISO if you need to

Shutter speed for portrait photography

Typically the rule for photographing portraits is a shutter speed of around 1/100th of a second or more. This varies though depending on many other factors. 

Variables such as the light, whether or not you’re using a flash, other light sources, which lens you’re using, if you shoot from a tripod and even who you are photographing can all be a determining factor in what shutter speed you choose.

TIP: If you’re photographing kids then use a faster shutter speed of 1/200 sec or more because kids tend to move around a lot.

The shutter speed will also change if you are producing more creative portraits. You may want to slow it down and add a bit of motion to your images.

Studio portrait photography

I photographed this portrait in my studio using artificial lights (strobe). I used a shutter speed of 1/160sec to make sure my model is tack-sharp using a 100mm lens and didn’t introduce any lens shake.

Shot at a shutter speed of 1/160 sec in a studio
What are some of the most common mistakes photographers make when composing portraits? This video will walk you through what they are and how to fix them.

The Essence:

  • Use a faster shutter speed when photographing people 1/100 sec or faster
  • 1/200 sec when shooting kids (they move more)

Breaking the rules – when ‘blurry’ is good

We all try to and were likely taught that tack sharp images are what we should be striving for. Rules are meant to be broken though, especially when creating art or trying to enhance your image in different ways. Showing motion of your subject or the background is a great use of slowing down the shutter speed.

One way is to blur the background using a panning technique in order to keep the subject sharp. Another example would be to use a fill flash with a slow shutter speed which captures both the action and creates enough blur to show movement in the image.

Using panning and slower shutter speed to show motion

Action photography and breaking the rules

Here I broke my rule and used a slower shutter speed of 1/40 sec on a 170mm lens (Brent’s rule says I should have used around 1/300 sec to stop camera movement).

By moving my lens (panning) and following this surf lifesaver as she prints to the finish I add background blurring which gives my image a sense of movement and helps the viewer focus on the subject instead of all the bright and colourful objects in the background.

When to use a tripod

Using a tripod is one of the simplest ways to make sure you’re images are sharp. The ideal situation is to use one in low-light situations whenever you can, that way you can shoot at very slow shutter speeds and still capture sharp images. You’ll want to be sure to use a tripod when creating long exposure images.

Another rule of thumb is anytime you need to set your shutter speed below Brent’s rule hand-holding (Shutter speed = 2 times focal length of your lens), is the time to use your tripod.

Photographing night shots and sunsets is a good time to use your tripod as the light is either diminishing or it’s completely dark.

Milky way photography – shooting the night sky

When I photographed this image of ‘Tin City’ I waited until close to midnight during a new moon to get the milky way to really show up.

I got my friends to use a flash light to ‘light paint’ the side of that shack and the sand dune in front of me.

A sturdy tripod is a must when shooting stars. Shot using a very slow shutter speed of 20 seconds and wide open aperture of f/4 on my 17mm wide angle lens using an ISO of 3200 to let in enough light.

Photographing the night sky - you'll need a very sturdy tripod

Which tripod should I choose?

Struggling with all the choices of tripods out there? Take a look at what you can do to make a tripod choice that will work best for you.

The Essence:

  • It’s OK to break the shutter speed rules
  • Showing motion and blurring is a great creative choice
  • Use a tripod whenever it’s practical especially in low-light conditions

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Photographing the night sky - you'll need a very sturdy tripod

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Shutter speed mistakes and how to avoid them

  • Images that are too blurry. It can be a fine line between intentional camera movement and showing motion and images that are blurred too much. Make sure to have your subject in focus if you are trying to show the motion of that subject as in a sporting event or automobile race.
  • Not capturing any of the motion at all. If your shot looks like it’s frozen in time and you didn’t intend it to be that way, slow your shutter speed down until you are seeing the amount of blur or motion you want.
  • Not enough movement. Sometimes in trying to capture motion we don’t quite get the shutter speed slow enough. This produces an image that makes it appear out of focus and not intentional as it should.
    It’s a balance and takes some practice to figure out what works best in order to get the desired effect. Adjust your shutter speed in small steps until you create the look you were looking for.
  • Over-exposed images. This is an easy one to have to happen and also easy to fix. When we slow the shutter down that means we are letting in more light and creating the possibility of over-exposing our shot.
    Changing our shutter speed is usually our go-to fix for this, but when we want to create motion or blur that won’t work. You can also fix over-exposure by lowering your ISO, reducing your aperture and just playing around with your metering mode.

Shutter speed is a very important part of your photography

Whether you’re trying to create sharp and focused landscapes, capture an epic sunrise, photograph sports events or the perfect portrait, using your shutter speed can help in any number of ways.

Use it to be creative, to show motion by blurring aspects of your image. Freeze motion to catch that one moment in time. Create moods, evoke emotion and produce dreamlike scenes, just by taking control of your shutter speed.

Summary

  • Shutter speed is the length of time your camera shutter is open or the amount of time your sensor is exposed to light
  • The exposure triangle is important and shutter speed is just one piece of that triangle
  • Slow shutter speed is one in which the shutter is open for a longer period of time
  • Fast shutter speed is when the shutter is open for a short period of time
  • Hand-holding without blur: Shutter speed = 2x focal length of the lens
  • Faster shutter speeds freeze motion
  • Slow shutter speed allows for an intentional blurring of images
  • Dragging the shutter means keeping your shutter open longer
  • Longer shutter speed with a flash will freeze your subject
  • Neutral Density filters affect the shutter speed by blocking the light
  • Using panning with shutter speed will blur objects in motion
  • Stabilize your camera with a tripod or other method when shooting slow shutter speeds
  • Typical rule for portrait photography is a shutter speed of around 1/100th of a second

Did you enjoy this article? Check out these related articles, too:

More Resources

Here are even more great resources on this subject:

  • CANON: What is shutter speed?
  • Do This Now

    Please leave me a comment below – I’d love to know what you think. Brent

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