Friday 5: Shutter Speed

This week we’re looking at one of the most important settings on your camera, the shutter speed. The camera’s shutter is the device that allows light to pass through your lens, aperture ring and to your sensor (or film) for a predetermined amount of time. You can use the shutter to control the way your image looks by changing its settings and understanding the exposure triangle. There’s so many resources out there to help you understand how to take advantage of your shutter settings, and so today I’ve made a list of five of the most important things to know about shutter speed.

1. The shutter speed rule of thumb 

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The rule goes like this … If you are shooting a camera handheld then your shutter speed needs to be greater than the focal length. For instance, in the picture above we see a 35mm lens. According to this rule, we should shoot at a shutter speed higher than 1/35 second, like 1/40 second or up. This isn’t always what’s best for the image but it’s a good rule to start out with. If I’m shooting with a super long lens that has a focal length of 200mm, it’s going to be pretty prone to making blurry images, especially if I’m shooting it handheld. At that long of a focal length, even the smallest bump or movement will be noticeable. The only way to keep the image sharp is to shoot at a very high shutter speed. According to the rule of thumb, we’d want to start by setting the camera at 1/200 second. If it’s still producing blurry images, bump that speed up to 1/250 or higher.

2. Sharpness and blur

OK, so we talked about the shutter speed rule, but there’s more to it than just that. You see, the shutter speed rule helps prevent blurry images as a result of camera shake. But blur from shaky hands is different than blur from a speeding car. Sometimes you might still get blurry images even though you’re following that rule of thumb we just talked about. Why? Because sometimes the subject of your image might not be standing still. For instance, when I took the pictures above it was a very windy day. The Pampas grass was swaying every which way, and so I exposed my image with a super high shutter speed so as to rid the picture of any noticeable motion. But what if you want to see some motion in your image? There are plenty of times where you want the wind, or waves, or traffic to translate in your image. By simply making the shutter speed last longer (1/20 of a second as compared to 1/2000), you can visibly see the movement happening in your image.

3. Ambient light

Most people define ambient light as being the natural light, or the available light. You haven’t set it up; perhaps it’s coming in from a window or the sun bouncing off concrete, or lighting overhead … it’s just there. It’s the light that’s not explicitly supplied by the photographer for the sake of taking pictures. Naturally, this light is typically undesirable. But luckily, shutter speed controls your ambient light! Remember that! SHUTTER SPEED CONTROLS YOUR AMBIENT LIGHT.

When I found that out, it changed the way I shoot. Just like aperture can be used to separate your subject from the background and foreground with blur, so too can shutter speed be used to separate your subject from the surrounding light. In the above photos, I kept every setting on the camera exactly the same EXCEPT shutter speed. I placed two signs in the background at varying distances to show you where the ambient light is, which, by the way, the ambient light in this scenario is coming from the fluorescent lights on the ceiling.  Then, I took four images, only changing the speed of the shutter. The first image was shot at 1/25 second and you can see everything pretty clearly. I have a soft box lighting up the “Intentionally lit subject” paper, and the two “test” papers in the background (as well as the wall) are all clearly lit by the fluorescent lights above. You’ll notice that as the shutter speed increases, the objects lit by ambient light disappear much quicker than the one intentionally lit subject.  Keep in mind I’m only changing shutter speed for demonstrative purposes. If I truly wanted to isolate the center subject from the ones in the background I would change more than just shutter speed; I’d use both aperture and ISO to my advantage.

4. Freezing action

Yay, Frisbee!

The faster a subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed you’ll want to use (assuming you’re stationary). Quick shutter speeds are ideal for freezing action. However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to pictures where your subject is tact sharp but the background and foreground are blurry. That’s done with a panning technique … but that’s worth it’s own blog (at a later time)!

5. Long exposures

1P3A1558Night photography, astrophotography, still-life photography, some landscape photography — they all use long exposures, or very slow shutter speeds to get the images they need. This shot of Evans Hall was shot on a tripod using a 15 second shutter. That means that the camera let 15 seconds of light hit the sensor before it “ka-chinked.” For night shots like the one above, it’s simply too dark outside to get a usable image with a quick shutter.

Using long exposures allow you to get things that wouldn’t be possible on a simple point-and-shoot camera or an iPhone. Here’s a cheat sheet (from digitalcameraworld ) of shutter settings for commonly shot things:



That’s all I got. Go out and experiment with your shutter settings and share your images!




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