Design, Photography, & Fashion

Basic Photography 101: Understanding Shutter Speed

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 3 min read

Shutter speed is one point on the exposure triangle, which refers to the three main factors (the other two are aperture and ISO) that affect the quality of your photos. Shutter speed gives you creative control over exposure, allowing your images to be bright or dark, blurry or sharp.

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What Is Shutter Speed?

The shutter is the device that quickly opens and closes to let light pass onto your camera’s image sensor, thereby creating an image. The shutter is a series of interlocking metal slats, like an iris. Shutter and aperture go hand-in-hand, as they are part of the same mechanism: Shutter speed controls how quickly this shutter opens and closes, while aperture controls how wide the shutter opens. How long the shutter remains open determines your image exposure, which is the amount of light that hits your digital camera’s sensor.

What Is the Difference Between Fast and Slow Shutter Speeds?

Shutter speed is expressed in units of time: fractions of a second or several seconds. A higher (or faster) shutter speed allows less light to hit the camera sensor or film strip (if using an analog camera). Conversely, a lower (or slower) shutter speed allows more light to pass into your camera.

The focal length of your camera’s lens can help you determine a base shutter speed. For example, if you have a 50mm lens, start shooting with a shutter speed above 1/50 and play around from there.

When to Use Fast Shutter Speed

A fast shutter speed allows less light into the camera. Use a fast shutter speed in bright lighting conditions, like on a sunny day, to minimize the chance of overexposure (the presence of too much light, which results in a blown out image with little detail). You can also use a high shutter speed to create sharp images and freeze movement, like a car driving past or a person running.

When to Use Slow Shutter Speed

Slow shutter speeds allow more light into the camera, which makes a slow shutter speed great for nighttime or low light conditions. At these slow speeds, you will need a tripod to avoid camera shake or a blurred image. You can also use a slow shutter speed to create images with blurred movement, like ocean waves that appear as a mist.

How to Set the Shutter Speed on a Camera

Setting your shutter speed manually allows more creative flexibility with your photography. Most digital cameras allow you to set shutter speed manually in one of two ways:

  • Manual Mode: Set via the setting dial on top of the camera or within the settings on the viewfinder, and indicated as “M” on most digital cameras. Manual mode allows control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
  • Shutter priority. Written as “S” on many cameras. In shutter priority mode, you set the shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the corresponding aperture and ISO for the surrounding lighting conditions.

Watch Jimmy Chin’s Tips for Using Shutter Speed

4 Ways to Use Shutter Speed Creatively

  1. Burst Mode. Hold your camera’s shutter button down to go into burst mode, where multiple images are fired off in quick succession until you release the button. Burst mode is great when used with a fast shutter speed (around 1/1000) for capturing dramatic, fast-moving moments—like in sports photography or wildlife photography.
  2. Long Exposure. Long exposure images, done with a long shutter speed, result in intentionally blurred photographs. For example, a nighttime street scene in which the cars appear only as streaks of light, or a waterfall that appears only as a smoky, white blur. Find our tips for perfecting long exposure photography here.
  3. Light Painting. Use a slow shutter speed (over 2 seconds) and a flashlight to “paint” a photograph—writing a word or drawing a simple symbol in light. Find our complete guide on light painting photography here.
  4. Panned Image. A panned image gives the illusion of speed by following a moving subject, like a person running or a bird flying. Panned images require a slow shutter speed (over 1 second) and a tripod in order to track moving objects with the camera smoothly.

Learn more about photography with Jimmy Chin here.