What is shutter speed?

Learn the basics about the exposure of your photos

Are you still shooting in automatic mode but do you want to discover more about your camera's capabilities? You can try out shooting in the manual mode, so you’ll be working with the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. In this article, we will explain more about shutter speed. This will answer the questions: what is shutter speed and what does it mean for your photos?

Shutter speed | Manual mode | Tips | Aperture versus shutter speed | Where to photograph?

What is shutter speed?

The shutter speed determines the length of time your camera's sensor captures light for. Some photographers refer to shutter speed as exposure time. Shutter speed is key when you are planning to capture moving objects, such as water, sports or fireworks. When you start shooting, you often start in automatic mode. In the automatic mode you don't have to control shutter speed and ISO. But from now on you will be shooting in manual mode and you will be in charge of the light and movement in your photos.

How do you set the camera to manual mode?

Now that you know what shutter speed is, it's time for the next step. Because how do you set this up on your camera? You start with changing the camera from automatic mode to manual mode. On top of the camera you have a dial where you see various letters/symbols. Usually, it is on automatic mode. The mode in which you can set your own shutter speed is the M-mode. If you don't have one, you can also use the Bulb mode, TV mode or S mode.

Short and long shutter speeds

Shutter speed is shown in hundreds of a second. You can compare it to fractions during math. Shutter speeds that are longer than 1/100th of a second, such as 1/60th or 1/15th, fall under the category of long shutter speeds. All shutter speeds above 1/100th of a second, , such as 1/500th or 1/2000th, are called short shutter speeds. Short shutter speeds are also called fast shutter speeds, because of the short time the camera’s sensor captures light.

What do you use shutter speed for?

A good shutter speed setting allows you to get fast moving objects in focus. A fast shutter speed causes you to freeze the movement. When you freeze the images the movement disappears from the photo. If, on the other hand, you use a slow shutter speed (the number in the fraction becomes smaller) then motion blur will occur, water will become sort of a 'curtain' for example. This can be done either with the foreground or background. (See examples)

Long shutter speed

Short shutter speed

Aperture versus shutter speed

Aperture and shutter speed are two concepts that have much in common. The shutter speed and aperture, along with the ISO, form the exposure triangle. But you can see what the difference is between the two photography terms in the table below.

Shutter speed


Determines the time that light hits the sensor Creates motion blur
Determines the light incidence on the sensor  

Tips for working with a slow shutter speed

When you are working with a slow shutter speed it is important to keep the camera very still. Every little movement will be visible in the final photo. So if you are working with a slow shutter speed, make sure you use a tripod and remote to have absolutely no other movement in your photo.

But do you want a subject in focus and the background out of focus with movement, you won’t have to use a tripod. With this kind of photo you can use a little bit a slower shutter speed and set the focus to the subject.

What and where do you photograph?

If you are going to shoot in an environment where you have poor or low light, you will need to work with the shutter speed to capture the light that is present. To deal with this, you're going to adjust the shutter speed to the available light. While doing this, pay attention to the exposure triangle (the aperture, ISO and shutter speed), because adjusting one side means adjusting all sides to keep balance in the photos.

In addition to where you are shooting, the subject also has a big role. This is because there is a big difference in your shutter speed when you are photographing athletes or race cars, or when you are getting started with portraits. So, always keep this difference in mind when choosing your shutter speed. When you want to freeze the athlete's movements in the photo, you choose a fast shutter speed. If, on the other hand, you want to show more of the movement in your photo, you are more likely to choose a slower shutter speed.

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