There really is no difference between an amateur or a professional photographer when it comes to taking stunning shots. Everyone wants to be in a position to shoot a frame that appears ideal at that moment. But although ambition and knowledge are dependent, they are not equally developed in all categories.

In order to achieve a more professional, higher quality and more successful result, it is necessary to understand what is important for that ideal frame to remain at that particular moment, in the way we experienced it.

What is the camera shutter?

The camera shutter is the next obstacle in the path of light, and it is crucial in photography because it will allow us to take a picture at just the right moment (which is essential to achieving the so-called “decisive moment”).

Shutters are different mechanisms and are divided into mechanical and electronic. The shutter will open for a while and then close to allow light to pass through the camera lens.

Shutter speed and exposure

Shutter speed and aperture of the lens are also known as exposure parameters. Their selection and combinations will determine the total light that will reach the photo medium (i.e., exposure). Along with them, there is the ISO sensitivity of the medium we are photographing, which directly affects whether that light is recorded as it should be. Also, as a photograph, it is important to recognize the scene we were photographing.

In practice, it may be that we have incorrectly specified or set these three parameters, so the result will sometimes be a completely white photo and sometimes a completely black one. Likewise, it may be that the faces of the persons we have photographed will be too dark or that something we consider black will turn light gray. And we can swear we didn’t see it that way. But, unfortunately, the camera saw it.

What does shutter speed control?

Shutter speed is the length of time the camera shutter is opened. In film photography, it is the length of time that the film is exposed to the scene you are shooting, and in digital photography, it is the length of time that the camera’s sensor is exposed to light from the scene you are shooting.

What is shutter speed measured in?

Shutter speed is measured in seconds – or in most cases, in a fraction of a second. The higher the number, the higher the shutter speed. For example, 1/1000 is much faster than 1/30. In most cases, you will use shutter speeds of 1/60 second or faster.

The main reason for this is that at slower shutter speeds, it is challenging to keep the camera so still that the image does not appear blurred due to the camera moving. At slower shutter speeds, the sensor has enough time to register the camera movement, resulting in blurry photos.

If you are using slow shutter speeds (anything below 1/60), you will need to use a tripod or some other kind of image stabilization. More and more cameras come with built-in image stabilization solutions.

The shutter speeds on your camera will usually (approximately) double with each adjustment. This means that you will often have the following shutter speed settings – 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, and so on.

This duplication is handy to keep in mind that the aperture also doubles the amount of light that falls on the sensor with each of its settings. – which means that increasing the shutter speed by one stop and reducing the aperture value by one stop should give you the same exposure levels.

Some cameras give you the ability to set the camera at very low shutter speeds that are measured in seconds (for example, 1 second, ten seconds, thirty seconds, etc.) These settings are used in scenes with extremely low light, where you aim to get some special effects. Some cameras give you the ability to shoot in B (or Bulb) mode, as well. Bulb mode lets you keep the shutter open for as long as you keep it pressed.

How to choose the right shutter speed

When choosing the right shutter speed, you should always ask yourself if something is moving in the scene and how you want to capture that movement. If there is movement in your scene, then you have the option to freeze it (so that it will appear motionless) or to intentionally allow the moving object to be blurred (giving it a sense of motion).

To freeze motion in the image, you will need to select the high shutter speed, and to make motion blur; you will need to choose the slow shutter speed. Which exact shutter speed you choose depends on the speed of the subject in the scene and how much you want the shutter to blur.

Movement in photography is not always bad. Many amateur photographers use only high shutter speeds, and many do not understand why anyone would want to use slow shutter speeds. Sometimes the movement in photography can be very helpful.

For example, when photographing a waterfall and if you want to show how fast the water flows, or when photographing a race car and wanting to express a sense of speed, or when shooting a starry sky and wanting to show how stars move across the sky, and so on.

In all of these situations, choosing slow shutter speed is the right solution. However, in all conditions described, you must use a tripod to prevent unwanted camera movement.

Focal length and shutter speed

Another thing to keep in mind when choosing shutter speed is the focal length of the lens you are using. Larger focal lengths are more sensitive to camera movement, which means you will need to use higher shutter speed unless you have built-in image stabilization in your camera.

The basic rule to keep in a non-stabilized situation is to choose a shutter speed with a different number. For example, if you have a 50mm lens, 1/60 is most likely a suitable shutter speed, but if you have a 200mm lens, you will probably need to use a shutter speed of 1/250.

Shutter speed and other elements

You should not think about shutter speed separately from the other two exposure-relevant elements (aperture and ISO). As you change the shutter speed, you will need to change one or both of these elements to compensate for the shutter speed change.

For example, if you increase the shutter speed by one stop (for example, from 1 / 125th to 1/250), you are reducing the amount of light that falls on the sensor by half. To compensate for this, you will probably need to increase the aperture by one stop (for example, from f16 to f11). Another alternative is to choose a larger ISO setting (for example, from ISO 100 to ISO 400).

If you have high shutter speed, you can “freeze” fast movement, as mentioned above, such as some moment in a sports competition, water splashing, and car movement.

However, the downside is that it will get so much less light to the film/sensor, so there’s a good chance that the photo will be dark. In contrast, you can use slower shutter speed to make up for the amount of light that you will need. But this also has its drawbacks.

The lower the shutter speed, the higher the chance that the subject will move while the shutter is open (if it is movable, or it may affect its movement), which can cause the photo to blur.

In automatic and program mode, the camera itself decides what shutter speed it will use. In those cases, the camera “knows” if enough light has reached the sensor. This way, you won’t always get the photo you want, because the camera doesn’t know if you want it, e.g., to “freeze” the movement.

In manual mode, you can control the shutter speed to get the photo you want. To change the shutter speed, it is enough to turn the shutter speed control dial and watch the numbers change on the LCD status screen to change the shutter speed of the camera.

Shutter speed and digital cameras

In digital cameras, If proper exposure cannot be achieved after adjusting, the aperture value on the recording screen will flash. Although you can record with such values, we recommend that you make the adjustment again. Remember to use a tripod to prevent blur when using a slow shutter speed.

Also, in most digital cameras, when the shutter speed is 1/3 second or longer, after recording, a noise reduction treatment will be applied that will last as long as the shutter has been opened. While processing is ongoing to reduce noise, you will not be able to record. The brightness of the screen image may differ from the brightness of the actual scene you are shooting.

Same in every camera, digital or not, when using higher shutter speed, moving objects such as a running person, a car, or a wave drop appear to be “frozen” on the move. When using slower shutter speed, the recorded motion will be blurred, so the recorded motion image is more natural and dynamic.