Learning Photography: Shutter Speed - CB Friedland

Shutter Speed is one of the three components of the Exposure Triangle. Knowing what Shutter Speed is and why it is important is key to understanding how to take a properly exposed image. ~CB

Learning Photography: Shutter Speed

Shutter Cycle

Depressing the shutter release button on your camera begins the shutter cycle. This sequence includes the opening, the closing, and the reset of the shutter to be ready for the next image. When the shutter is open, it allows light to pass through the camera and where it hits against the sensor (or film), causing it to capture the permanent image. How long the shutter remains open is what is known as the Shutter Speed.

Previously, we began our examination of the Exposure Triangle by talking about what ISO is, and how it affects your images. In this post, we will do the same for Shutter Speed. The conversation around Shutter Speed is much more straightforward to present, however.

Measure How Long the Shutter is Open

The measurement of Shutter speed in seconds, or fractions thereof. It works in conjunction with ISO, and Aperture to achieve proper exposure of your images. As you would expect, holding the shutter open for a tiny fraction of a second, does not allow much light into your to camera. The longer it is kept open, the more light that is let through to the sensor.

If you look at the shutter speeds on your camera, you should notice that there is the same doubling pattern that we saw in ISO. As you increase your shutter speed to faster settings, with each change, your shutter stays open for half as long. For example, going from ½ to ¼ of second shutter speed, the shutter is open half as long, decreasing by half the amount of light sent to the sensor. The opposite holds true as well.

The Effect Shutter Speed has on Your Image

Besides helping to determine the level of light in your image, shutter speed changes the way movement appears in your image. At fast shutter speeds, any action is frozen, capturing an instant of time. At slower shutter speeds, any motion is not frozen and appears as a blur in the image. Keep in mind; it is typically expected for the subject of your image to appear in focus and not blurry.

Freezing Motion

When should you use a fast shutter speed? As I just said, faster shutter speeds will freeze the action in your photos. These settings are ideal for sporting events, windy days, portraits of children, and scenes with low-level lighting. To stop simple motions, for example, someone slowly waving to you, your shutter speed should be set at or faster than 1/100 of a second. For more action-packed scenes, like someone frantically waving to you, shutter speeds of 1/1000 of a second or faster will be needed. Another thing to keep in mind when thinking about your shutter.

Another thing to bear in mind when thinking about your shutter speeds is that most photographers can handhold a shot for ~1/60 of second without any camera shake impacting the quality of their image. If you encounter a situation where you have low-level lighting conditions and do not have a tripod, you will have to counterbalance this with adjustments in ISO and Aperture (or both) to eliminate any camera shake. I will explain how to do this with more detail in the Exposure Triangle article.

Blurring Motion

When should you use a slow shutter speed? There are a couple of instances where slow shutter speeds are beneficial.

The first way is to use creative blurring to bring a sense of motion to your image. Instead of stopping all action in your frame, create impressive effects by allowing movement to become blurred.

Another way is to pan (move the camera in the same direction and at the same speed that the object is moving) along with your subject. Your subject in the image will be frozen, while the background will be blurred.

The second way you can use slow shutter speed to your advantage is to smooth out the details in moving objects. For example, long shutter speeds can be used to add a smooth silkiness to flowing water, such as waterfalls, fast-moving streams, or even the waves of an ocean. 

Add Shutter Speed to Your Creative Toolkit

There will come the point where you will move past just capturing moments in time, and where you will begin to share your creative vision with your viewers. Mastering the different ways to use Shutter Speed will provide you with an incredible range of creative tools in your toolkit.

Take the time now, while you are still learning to explore long exposures. Go out and shoot car light trails or moving water. These are just a couple of fun examples to give a try.

Besides long exposures, practice capturing fractions of time as well. Dropping items into liquid and photographing the resulting waves and splashes is both incredibly challenging, but very cool to do as well! Experiment. Try anything and everything, but most of all Just Shoot and have fun!

My Challenge to You

Deliberate practice is the best way to understand how different camera settings will impact your images. The next two challenges are great exercises to see how Shutter Speed affects your pictures.

1.  I would like you to grab your camera and stand near where there is a lot of activity. Set your Shutter Speed for the fastest that your camera will go. It is typically somewhere in the thousands of a second. Take a picture of the action. Keep doing this as you slow your shutter speed by one setting each time you shot. (Also notice that your camera indicates fractions of a second as a single quote, and a whole second with double quotes.) Examine your images and look for where motion begins to blur in them. Was your Shutter Speed open long enough that any motion completely “ghosted” itself out of the frame?

2.  Using this same process, determine the Shutter Speed you can handhold your camera and still freeze action.

Wrapping it Up

Adding Shutter Speed to your creative toolkit is a valuable tool to have at your disposal. It opens up a myriad of opportunities to create evocative images which tell a story. Take the time to master this lesson. It is one of the vital components of the Exposure Triangle. As always, if there are any questions or comments you might have about today’s post, please add them to the comment section below, or you can email me. You can also find me on Facebook, and Instagram.

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