Shutter Speed Explained: A Guide for Photographers

Understanding shutter speed is crucial for getting the best possible results out of your camera in manual mode.

Shutter speed determines how long your camera's shutter stays open when you take a picture. For as long as the shutter is open, light is reaching the recording medium in your camera – either an image sensor or film.

Though it’s referred to as shutter speed, you may find it helpful to think of it as shutter duration or exposure time, as we explain below.

Photographing fast moving objects

Photographing fast moving objects with a faster shutter speed.

What Is Shutter Speed?

‘Shutter speed’ refers to the length of time that the camera's shutter remains open. It is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. The longer (or slower) the shutter speed, the more light enters the camera and reaches the recording medium. The shorter (or faster) the shutter speed, the less light enters.

Motion Freeze and Motion Blur

One big advantage of learning to adjust shutter duration is that it enables you to freeze or blur motion in your images when photographing moving subjects. Fast shutter speeds, such as 1/1000th of a second, can freeze fast-moving subjects like runners, skaters, or birds in flight.

On most cameras, the fastest exposure time you can choose is 1/4000th or 1/8000th of a second. This could be a good shutter speed for sports, for example, as long as you are still able to achieve the correct level of exposure.

Shutter speed diagram

Slower shutter speeds, like 1/30th of a second or slower, can create motion blur and give a sense of movement to your images.

Here’s an example of creating motion blur with a slow shutter speed:

Creating motion blur with a slow shutter speed

Shutter Speed and Exposure

Shutter speed is one element of the Exposure Triangle, along with aperture and ISO. In other words, changing the exposure time will (as you might have guessed) affect the exposure level of the image.

If you want to let more light into the camera, you can use a slower shutter speed, but you may also need to adjust the aperture or ISO to maintain the correct exposure. The same applies for increasing the shutter speed.

Shutter Priority Mode

If you want to experiment with manually adjusting shutter speed, but don't want to worry about the exposure, you can set your camera to Shutter Priority Mode.

In this mode, you can simply select the shutter speed you want to try. The camera will automatically adjust the aperture to ensure the right exposure for your image.

This mode is very useful for beginners, but is also used by experienced photographers in situations when the lighting conditions are changing constantly.

Shutter Priority Mode on a camera

Shutter Speed

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It’s essential to understand shutter speed for portraits, landscapes, product photography, food photography, and more. This crucial camera setting allows you to control the amount of light entering your camera, and to capture motion successfully in your images.

Mastering shutter speed is a crucial step for photographers who want to take their skills to the next level. Whether you shoot in manual mode or use shutter priority, experimenting with different shutter speeds will help you to express yourself creatively and achieve results you can really be proud of.

To learn more about shutter speed, download our free 90-page eBook, An Introduction to Photography.

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