Introduction to shutter speed

In photography, shutter speed affects a lot to a photo’s quality. 

In my early days in photography, I’ve had thousands of bad photos due to bad settings of shutter speed. And the most unfortunate things were that those moments would probably never happen again for the second time. 

The photos might look okay in the camera screen, but you might feel disappointed after viewing those photos in the computer later. Therefore, good understanding of shutter speed is important, especially if you want to avoid those disappointment.

Shutter speed indicates the opening time of a camera's shutter. And it determines the photo exposure.

shutter speed illustration

Exposure Control

Shutter speed is one of the controls that contribute to a photo’s exposure, apart from aperture and ISO.

That means shutter speed controls the amount of lights entering into the camera. The longer shutter speed opens, more lights get into the camera. And the opposite applies as well.

Look at the examples below. While I maintain the aperture and ISO the same, using faster shutter speed will get me darker photos.

In addition, though shutter speed is written as 60, 125 and 250 on camera, they actually mean 1/60 s, 1/125 s and 1/250 s. While 1″, 15″ and 30″ mean 1s, 15s and 30s. I believe you have noticed ‘bulb’ in the shutter speed dial too. It actually means the shutter will remain open until you release the shutter button. This bulb setting helps a lot in long exposure photography.

Shutter speed settings can freeze and blur the subject of a photo.

Shutter speed control motion

Motion Control

With any settings of shutter speed, your subject will appear frozen or blurry in the images. 

This is a pretty direct translation; the faster shutter speed you use, the subject will appear frozen and the slower shutter speed you use, the subject will appear more blurry. 

In most situation, faster shutter speed is a preferable choice because you’ll always want sharp photos. Using slower shutter speed will only give blurry photos i.e. subject is blur, and you’ll be frustrated. You have to understand the nature of your subjects in order to use the correct shutter speed settings.

As a general rule of thumb, the minimum shutter speed setting should be 1 / focal length. For example, if the focal length is 200 mm, shutter speed should be at least 1/200 s. Though camera technology has evolved and image stabilisation has been introduced, this practice is still valid and it should be a good habit for photographers.

Generally, people use faster shutter speed like 1/500 s, 1/1000 s or faster for sports or wildlife photography, due to the fact that the subjects move very fast.

On the other hand, slower shutter speed such as 1/3 s, 10s or slower is used in landscape or night photography, which the subjects are static such as buildings, rocks etc., or blurry subjects are desired in the resulting images.

Changing the shutter speed requires adjustment in Aperture and ISO.

shutter speed exposure triangle

Exposure triangle

Understanding how exposure triangle works is very crucial as a first step towards exposure mastery. 

At any particular ISO, composition of shutter speed and exposure determine the exposure of a photo. Increasing the shutter speed by 1 stop will reduce the lights entering into the camera by half. To compensate this, aperture needs to be opened by 1 stop, meaning that lights entering into the camera will increase by half.

This is how the exposure triangle works. It maybe a bit confusing, so here is an example.

I took a shot at shutter speed of 1/30 s and aperture of f8, and my exposure worked fine. But then, I noticed my subject was blurry and I needed to use faster shutter speed. I changed the shutter speed to 1/60 s so, what aperture should I use?

Back to the definition, going from 1/30 s to 1/60 s means that I increase the shutter speed by 1 stop (less lights get into the camera). To compensate this, I need to use bigger aperture, so more light will get into the camera, but how much? By 1 stop as well. So, for aperture of f8, 1 stop smaller (bigger aperture) is f5.6.

Shutter Speed increment by settings of 1/2 stop or 1/3 stop

You may notice that shutter speed 1 stop equivalent is either double of half the current setting. For aperture 1 stop equivalent, you may refer to my aperture post.