Understanding shutter speed in DSLR photography is essential to being able to take a variety of different photos.  Shutter speed works with Aperture and ISO to expose the photo and when all of them are used in the right combination, make a properly exposed photo.  In this article, shutter speed will be explained in several different ways to hopefully demystify it once and for all.

What is Shutter Speed – Definition

Shutter speed is defined as the time the shutter on the camera stays open.  What this means is after you depress the shutter button to take the picture it is the time the shutter is open and letting light into the camera to take the picture.  Shutter speed is usually expressed in relation to seconds and typically displayed as a fraction, i.e. 1/100. When you decide to have the shutter open longer than 1 second the shutter speed is expressed as 1” or 1”3 for 1 and ⅓ seconds.  The infographic below shows how shutter speed affects photos.

How Does Shutter Speed Affect Photos

Shutter speed affects photos in a couple different ways.  First it affects how much light is being let into the camera and second, it affects how long the exposure is.  Below I will show you in photos how those two different scenarios affect the photos.

Lighting Affects of Shutter Speed

The infographic below shows how shutter speed choices affect how much light is hitting the sensor of the camera.  

As you can see in the graphic above, the longer the shutter is open, the more light is being let into the camera.  The opposite is also true meaning the shorter the shutter is open the less light is being let into the camera. The photos below depict how those scenarios affect the outcome of your photos.  

The photo above is an example of an underexposed photo.  The photos where all shot with an aperture of f8.0.  The shutter speed for this photo was 1/800.  So the shutter was closing very fast and therefore not allowing enough light onto the sensor to properly expose the photo.

The photo above is an example of a properly exposed photo.  Again the aperture is set to f8.0 but the shutter speed is now 1/60.  

The photo above is an example of an overexposed photo.  The aperture was set at f8.0 and the shutter speed was set at 1/15.  This slow of a shutter speed allowed an excess amount of light to hit the camera sensor, therefore overexposing the photo.  All three photos in this lighting example were taken at the same time of day with the same aperture and ISO.  The only variables were the shutter speed to demonstrate the affect shutter speed has on photos in terms of light.  

Exposure Affects of Shutter Speed

The exposure affects of shutter speed play into the lighting effects of shutter speed but can be used to enhance your photos.  When you have a very fast shutter speed, i.e. 1/250, the effect on the photo is to freeze time. This occurs in a lot of the sports photos that you see.  The opposite happens when you have a longer shutter speed, i.e. 1” (1 second). The effect is to collect light (giving the illusion of collecting time). You will be able to see this in the photos below.  But first and infographic to hit this concept home.

The photos below will better show this concept.

The picture above shows how motion can be blurred or visible using shutter speed.  The shutter speed in this image was 1/25.  

The image above shows a unique example of both blurred and frozen motion using shutter speed.  The shutter speed on this image was set to 1/200.  She is frozen in her handstand but you can still see movement in her feet.  

The image above shows motion completely frozen in time with a shutter speed of 1/800.  You can see this in two instances in the photo.  The first is the individual water drops in the breaking waves and the second is the mid-air freezing of the jumping.  (Captures joy at its finest!)

How to Choose the Right Shutter Speed

So now that you know what shutter speed is and how it affects your photos, how do you choose the right settings?  Below are three scenarios and suggestions for shutter speed in those scenarios.

Sports Photos

When you want to capture photos of fast-moving subjects such as persons playing sports or birds flying you will want a fast shutter speed.  This means a shutter speed of 1/100 or greater. This will effectively freeze the subject in the photo. The exact shutter speed you choose will depend on the aperture and ISO settings of your camera as well.  Generally the brighter or more light in the scene the higher the shutter speed.

Portrait Photos

When you want to capture portraits, the shutter speed will help you compensate for the lighting conditions.  For example, if you are taking portraits, outside, and want to use a really low aperture setting to get a blurry background you will probably want a pretty high shutter speed setting to account for the light that is hitting the sensor of the camera.  Alternately, if you are indoors and don’t have external lighting sources you will want your shutter speed low to avoid an underexposed photo.

Night Photos

Capturing photos at night can be tricky.  You will definitely be using a slower shutter speed to get as much light as needed for a properly exposed photo.  You will also certainly need to be using a tripod for night photography. The reason is that whenever you have the shutter speed open for an extended period of time ( I would say longer than 1/30) any vibration in the camera will cause blurriness in the photo.  So even the depressing of the shutter button can cause the camera to shake enough. For photos such as the fireworks photos below you will want a shutter speed of over 1 second (this image was 2 seconds). This is because the camera needs to collect the light from the sparkler so to speak to produce the image.  

The easiest way to play around with shutter speed and not worry about the aperture or ISO settings is to use the shutter speed semi-manual mode on the camera.  On the Canon, this is the Tv mode and on the Nikon, it is the S mode. Once you are in these modes you will want to set your ISO to auto. In this configuration, you will select the shutter speed and the camera will select the ISO and aperture for a properly exposed photo.  I encourage you to do this so you can really get a feel for how shutter speed affects the photos.

So there we have it, Shutter Speed explained.  Hopefully, you have learned what shutter speed is and how it affects your photos.  If you want to learn more about how to use your camera, I have developed a course that will take you from Auto to Manual.  In the course, there are almost 10 hours of video instruction and 10 cheat sheets to help you get more confident using your camera off Auto.  You can check them out using the links below.

Download 4 of the 10 DSLR Cheat Sheets included in the course to make taking great photos easy!

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