Shutter Speed

The single most useful tool in photography is not PhotoShop or Lightroom. The single most useful tool in photography is your brain! It’s time to learn the basics of photography starting with shutter speed.

The shutter speed controls how much light is allowed to reach your lens.  Technically the light reaches your camera’s image sensor, which is where the picture is captured. The range of shutter speeds depends on the particular model of camera you’re using. This is why we mentioned that you can’t take good pictures with a point-and-shoot camera. The shutter speed cannot be adjusted. Some professional digital cameras allow shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/8000 of a second. Can your point-and-shoot camera do that? Didn’t think so!

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While remembering that the shutter speed technically controls how much light is allowed the reach your camera’s image sensor, it’s easier to remember that what’s mostly affected is the shutter’s speed. A faster shutter speed lets in less light because the shutter is open less time than at a slower shutter speed. Think of your kitchen faucet. If you turn it on for a brief second, only a little water comes out. If you turn it on for a few seconds, a lot more water comes out. If your camera were a faucet, the shutter speed would control how long the water comes out.

Years ago no one could photograph the wings of a hummingbird because the bird’s wings beat at an estimated 1.000 times per minute. That’s almost 17 times per second. In order to photograph the wings of a hummingbird, you would need a shutter speed of no less than 1/17 second. For today’s cameras that’s a snap.  Years ago it was impossible.

When you use the automatic setting on a camera, the camera determines the aperture and shutter speed. That means your photographs are limited to the range of possibilities set by the camera itself. To expand your opportunities, you need to manually set the shutter speed (and probably the aperture.)

Let’s break down a few shutter speeds:

1/125 second means 1/125th of a second. That’s 8 times faster than the speed at which a hummingbird can flap its tiny little wings.

1/60 means 1/60th of a second.

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1/30 means 1/30th of a second.

1/15 means 1/15th of a second.

1/8 means 1/8th of a second.

Moving to a faster shutter setting allows more light into the lens and will result in a brighter picture. How many times have you taken a picture that looked ‘washed out’ because there was too much light? Had you known the basics, you could’ve chosen a slower shutter speed resulting in less light in the picture.  Simple, huh?

Controlling the amount of light that enters the lens (image sensor) can allow you to take some incredible pictures. We constantly have people ask how to blur water in natural settings such as waterfalls and brooks.  Slow down the shutter speed! Slowing down the shutter speeds creates the blur effect. Increasing the shutter speed allows you to photograph fast-moving objects such as race cars and the wings of a hummingbird!

We’ve all seen those incredible night shots of city lights with red streaks where cars have whizzed by.  How did the photographer achieve such an effect? Shutter speed! Slow shutter speeds create a time lapse effect. The less light present in the setting, the longer shutter speed you need to use. If the light is really dim, you might need to use a shutter speed as long as 5 minutes.  You can do it if you know how!

We’ll explore more options with shutter speed in our lesson “Putting It All Together.”

Receive a free Certificate of Completion for this photography course. Pass a 40-question test on this course with a score of 70 or higher and receive a certificate of completion. Visit our Basics of Digital Photography Certificate of Completion Program page for more information.

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