What is Shutter Speed? (Fully Explained w/ Cheat Sheet)

There are 3 key elements you need to understand in order to master photography and get the best possible results out of your camera. These are Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO. When in manual mode, you have full control over all of these settings. Each one will give your photo a different “look and feel”.

In this article, you’re going to master shutter speed. This setting allows you to change the brightness of the photo and create some very interesting effects – like freezing action or blurring motion. It also effects how sharp your photos are.

This is all controlled by how long the shutter stays open when taking your photo.

Definition: Shutter speed allows you to control how long the shutter remains open while taking a photo.

So let’s dive into how you can use shutter speed to create stunning photos. But first, a fun cheat sheet that you can print out and stick in your camera bag…

Download the Cheat Sheet! Print this out and stick it in your camera bag.

shutter speed cheat sheet

Download the Cheat Sheet! Print this out and stick it in your camera bag.

What is Shutter Speed and How Does it Work?

Every time you take a photo, you hear the all familiar “click” of the camera’s shutter.

This sound is caused by the opening and closing of the shutter. Which is essentially a small flap located directly in front of the sensor. It works almost like a curtain.

Whenever you click the button at the top of the camera to take a picture, it opens the shutter. Allowing light to enter the camera sensor and create your image. When the shutter closes, the camera stops recording.

Light must always be present in order to record an image. The shutter is what allows light to reach the sensor. But it stays closed at all other times (when not taking a photo).

But here’s where things get interesting…

By altering your camera settings, you can change the length of time that your camera shutter is open. So, for example, you could set a shutter speed of 1/10th of second. Which means the shutter will stay open for 1/10th of a second.

Or… you could take a much longer exposure. Let’s say 10 seconds. That would mean the shutter would stay open for 10 seconds.

Shutter speed is simply how long the shutter stays open at a given setting.

A high shutter speed can be used to freeze fast action like sports. A slow shutter speed (15 to 30 seconds) can be used to blur water, capture dark scenes such as buildings at night, or those amazing pictures of the Milky Way. Once you’ve mastered the basics you can use shutter speed to add some interesting effects to your photos.

How Shutter Speed is Measured

Shutter speeds are often measured in fractions of a second. So for example, 1/3 means a third of a second, while 1/200 means one two-hundredth of a second. (or 5 milliseconds)

Most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can handle shutter speeds of up to 1/4000th of a second. While others go even higher. Up to 1/8000th of a second and faster.

However, the longest available shutter speed on most DSLRs is typically 30 seconds. Although you can use a longer shutter speed by using an external remote.

Let’s break the numbers down a little bit further.

Because shutter speed is often measure in fractions of a second, your camera will often denote these settings likewise. All of the settings from 8000, all the way down to 1 are in fractions of a second. So when the camera says 8000 it means it is 1/8000th of a second. 125 is 1/125th of a second. Etc.

The settings from ‘1’ to ‘30’ are all in full seconds. 1 is 1 second and 30 is for 30 seconds.

‘B’ which stands for ‘Bulb’ mode is a setting for very long exposures. Essentially when you press the shutter button, the shutter will open and will stay open all the while you hold the shutter button down. It will close again as soon as you let go of the shutter button.

When shooting very long exposures a cable release and a tripod are critical in order to avoid camera shake.

How shutter speed affects light

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just saying “I want 1/4000th of a second for this shot” as your shutter speed is directly affected by the amount of light available. In other words, the shutter speed you select will be directly related to the amount of sunlight already available to you.

Your film and sensor have a sensitivity (The ISO part of all this) and require a certain amount of light to get a picture. Too much light and we get an ‘Overexposed’ image where the photograph will be far too dark. Not enough light and we get an ‘Underexposed’ image which will be washed out with little detail.

If you’re using a fast shutter speed, where your film/sensor is only exposed for a fraction of a second you need it to be very bright.

However, if it’s quite dark, you need to expose your film/sensor for a longer time to ensure that the image is captured.

Basic Rules of Shutter Speed

One of the first rules of photography you should learn is what shutter speed you need so you don’t get ‘Camera blur’. Camera blur occurs when the shutter speed is too slow and you’re moving the camera as you take the picture. It looks something like this:

As you can see there are no parts of the image that are sharp.

In order to avoid this, you need to ensure that your shutter speed (on the 1000th side) is GREATER than the focal length of the lens.

If you’re using a 200mm zoom, you’ll need a MINIMUM of 1/250th of a second.
If you’re using a 50mm prime lens you’ll need a MINIMUM of 1/60th of a second

… You get the idea!

However, while this is a good guide, it doesn’t guarantee a sharp picture, you still need to practice how you hold your camera and other techniques to ensure a sharp image.

When should I use a fast shutter speed?

If you are trying to capture a fast moving object and want to stop it in motion, or if you’re using a very long zoom lens, you’ll want to use a fast shutter speed.

Generally a fast shutter speed, would be considered 1/500th of a second and above.

Here is a picture of some coffee being spilled. As you can see it has been “frozen” in time.

This gives us a dramatic view of something that for the human eye would be over before we were even really able to register that it had occurred.

If you’re just starting out in photography and want to experiment, liquid is a great subject to practice on. It’s quite simple to set up a shot like this. Another fun one is dropping stones into a bowl. The splashes that you just can’t see look fabulous when photographed at high speed.

Artistic Motion Blur

Sometimes though, you can get an odd effect when trying to freeze fast moving objects. For example, if you photograph a plane with propellers and these propellers are captured static, instead of the blur your eyes are used to seeing, it can make the image look quite fake, like the plane is somehow hanging in the air instead of flying.

If you photograph a racing car and the foreground and wheels are stopped in motion the image can look quite boring, instead of the high speed, intense motor sport you’ve tried to capture.

This is why we use a little ‘motion blur’ to emphasize that something is moving. The more blur there is, the faster we perceive the subject is moving.

In this image motion blur has been used to show that the cyclist is moving quite quickly downhill.

The starting point for motion blur is generally 1/125th of a second, using a telephoto lens. Remember the slower the shutter speed, the more blur, the faster the subject will appear to be moving.

You’ll need to practice panning, so set your camera to 1/125th and practice following a moving subject while keeping it in the center of the frame as it moves. Then when you’ve got that action nice and smooth, press the shutter button half way through the pan.

You MUST keep moving as you press the shutter button, or you won’t get the movement effect.

To practice, start off at a local park photographing cyclists on a path. Because they are cycling down a pathway you know what their trajectory will be, this makes it much easier!

Slow shutter speeds

There are two main reasons to use a slow shutter speed. One is when you are taking photos in low light. We’ll start off with photographing things in low light.

Have you seen ever those amazing pictures of the stars at night, with a gorgeous landscape with ethereal colours? How about a city at night, with the colors of the city in vibrant colors seemingly the whole city is bathed in artificial light?

These images are captured using a combination of a very slow shutter speed, generally coupled with a high ISO.

For this type of photography a good, sturdy tripod and cable release are an absolute must for low light photography.

To capture stars you’ll need to experiment a lot and more importantly you’ll need to be a long way away from cities as they will glow in the image. Yo’’ll need a shutter speed of no more than 20 seconds. If it’s longer, you’ll often end up capturing the movement of the earth and the stars will be blurred!

Start with city photography, it’s significantly easier, as most of us live near a town of some description. Don’t feel you have to get up high, individual streets can look amazing at night.

To blur moving things.

So, remember we talked about how cool it is to see pictures of things that move very fast, frozen in motion?

Well, the opposite is also true. Some subjects look amazing if you can see their passage of time all in one photograph.

The most common of these are waterfalls.

If you stood here as this photograph was being taken, the water wouldn’t look anything like this.

Here the waterfall looks like a dreamy white fluffy cascade and the surface of the water looking like a sheet of glass.

What you are actually seeing is about 3 seconds worth of water travelling through the picture, creating this gorgeous ethereal effect.

Obviously, the mountains and rocks don’t move during the exposure, just the water.

Most likely though, you’ve seen this effect with ‘light trails’. This is generally one of the first things that a photography tutor will teach a class as an introduction to photography as they can be quite fun and the effects look great.

A setting of around 10 seconds while photographing cars at night will give you these stunning types of effect.

As with all of these, you’ll need to spend some time experimenting to get just the right shutter speed.

Have a go!

Hopefully this has given you a bit of a guideline on how to use your Shutter Speed. Obviously this is just one part of the puzzle to be combined with your aperture and ISO settings.

As with all photography it really is about getting out there and having a go. Practice makes perfect. Hopefully now you’ll have some great ideas of things to photograph to try out your new skills.

Download the Shutter Speed Cheat Sheet! Print this out and stick it in your camera bag.

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