Digital Photography 101: Shutter Speed

A few weeks ago we talked about the one of the pillars of photography: ISO. This week we’re talking about a second pillar, shutter speed. Shutter speed is the unit of measurement which determines how long the shutter stays open when capturing an image. Shutter speed works with aperture to determine how much light reaches your sensor.

Shutter speeds are expressed in fractions of a second or whole seconds. With each shutter speed increment, the amount of light that is let in is halved.

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So how do you go about selecting a shutter speed? Generally speaking, the faster the shutter speed, the better because the faster the shutter can open and close the crisper, your image will be. The best example of using a fast shutter speed is capturing action without it blurring. Action shots like pouring, dripping, water splashes and sports are all good examples! The longer your shutter is open, the more it’s prone to producing a blurry image. That’s because humans are human. Even if you’re sitting ‘perfectly still’, some natural body movement will happen and those little movements can make your image blurry.

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So why have long shutter speeds at all? There are definitely times where you might want to use a shutter speed of several seconds. Night shots are the best example. If you want to capture an image like lights from passing cars at night, like below, a long shutter speed is what you’ll need to accomplish this type of image. It allows for movement to be captured in a really unique way. Do note that for longer shutter speeds, a tri-pod is an absolute necessity, otherwise you’ll have a totally blurry image.

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But for everyday shots, you’ll probably want them to be crisp, so I typically keep the shutter speed as fast as possible to maintain a crisp image, but don’t be afraid to change it when the lighting situation calls for it.

While shutter speed plays just as important of a role as film speed and aperture, it’s usually the last thing I tweak when adjusting my manual settings. This is where the fine-tuning comes in!

Typically I decide what aperture I want to shoot on (don’t worry, we’ll talk about aperture in just another couple of weeks!) and then I base my film speed off that. The easiest way to get your shutter speed set correctly is to look through your viewfinder and check the light meter at the bottom of the screen. As you scroll the wheel that changes shutter speed, you’ll notice a little bar moving across the bottom. Ideally, when that bar is in the middle, the lighting is perfect — well, according to your light sensor at least. For the most part, it’s pretty accurate, but there’s plenty of times where you’ll have to take a few test shots, and decide whether the image is properly exposed or whether it needs more or less light and adjust from there. At the end of the day, the light sensor is a machine and can’t predict some of the things the eye can see, so use your own judgement!

What’s next? Practice! Go ahead and pull out your camera and check out the light meter when you look through the viewfinder and play around with the changing the shutter speed to see what happens. Like most things, practice makes perfect, so keep practicing and playing with your manual settings. The more you use them, the more familiar you will become with them!

Questions? Feel free to leave them below and we’ll do our best to answer!

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