Shutter Speed Tutorial


Shutter Speed is one of the two settings on your camera that control exposure (Aperture is the other). Shutter speed does more than control the exposure level of the photograph, however. It also controls how movement is depicted in your photographs!

If you are photographing a completely stationary subject, like a still life or a building, then shutter speed is not that important. Just set the one needed to get correct exposure. If you are photographing something that is moving, then shutter speed is critical. You can choose to completely freeze all movement, or you can choose to allow the moving subject to be blurred (Yes, there are times when you'll want to do that!).


What Is The Shutter?

The shutter is a mechanical device in the camera that opens and closes to control how long the sensor or film is exposed to light. Most of the time, you'll use shutter speeds of less than a second. Those shutter times are expressed as fractions of a second. Most modern cameras have shutters that can be set for exposure times as long as 30 seconds for work in very dim light.


Standard Shutter Speeds

Cameras manufactured after about 1960 use a standard progression of shutter speeds for the times shorter than one second. These are:

1  12  14  18  115  130  160  1125  1250  1500  11000  12000  14000  and  18000 of a second.

The standard shutter speeds are exactly one stop apart; so going from one speed to the next higher speed will give one stop less exposure, and going to the next lower shutter speed will give one stop more exposure. Most digital cameras also allow you to set intermediate speeds at 13 stop increments.


The Bulb Setting

In addition to the timed shutter speeds, most cameras also have a shutter speed called Bulb, also known as B (older cameras just had the letter B on their shutter speed dials, while modern cameras spell out the word on their LCD screens). The Bulb setting requires you to keep the shutter release pressed during the entire exposure. The shutter opens when you press the button, and stays open until you release it. This allows VERY long exposures, but you must time the exposure yourself using a wristwatch or a timer app on your phone. I have done very low-light work with exposures as long as 5 minutes!


Lets look at some examples

The photographs below were made at different shutter speed settings. The subject is a waterfall in the Foellinger–Freimann Botanical Conservatory in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The photographs contain a lot of stuff that is not moving: the rock, the plants, the building. It also contains the flowing water. Pay attention to how the water's appearance changes in each example.


Photograph of a waterfall made with a one half second exposure.


Photograph of a waterfall made with a one tenth of a second exposure.


Photograph of a waterfall made with a one fortieth of a second exposure.


Photograph of a waterfall made with a one hundred and twenty fifth of a second exposure.


Photograph of a waterfall made with a one two hundred and fiftieth of a second exposure.


Photograph of a waterfall made with a one five hundredth of a second exposure.


Photograph of a waterfall made with a one one-thousandth of a second exposure.



We started with a long exposure: 12 of a second. We ended with a very short exposure: 11000 of a second.

Look at how the moving water is rendered. We can see here that short shutter times stop action, and long shutter times allow action to be blurred. Photographers often want to freeze action; and if you're photographing wildlife or a football game, you probably will want to use action-stopping shutter speeds. Sometimes, however, blurred movement is better!

Look at the water in the photos made with short shutter times. The water is completely frozen; even tiny droplets are frozen in mid-air! The water actually looks like an ice sculpture. Ice, of course, is water in its solid form. That looks wrong in this photograh; the water is in its liquid state and is flowing. It is not ice, and shouldn't look like ice!

Now, look at the photographs made with long exposures. The water is blurred, suggesting the movement that is taking place in the real world.


So, What Shutter Speed Should You Use?

When deciding what shutter speed to use, notice that there are multiple possibilities. In the examples above, you can see that there are intermediate steps in between the extremes of "totally blurred" and "completely frozen."

You will also notice that there are points of diminishing returns. There isn't that much difference in these examples between the 12 of a second and the 110 of a second images. On the other end of the scale, there isn't a lot of difference between the 1500 and 11000 of a second images. The shutter speeds that constitute the points of diminishing returns will vary depending on how fast your subject is moving.

The water moving over this little waterfall is not moving very fast. A 1500 of a second shutter setting is high enough to freeze its movement. If you were photographing an auto race, where cars can go 200 miles per hour or more, then you would find that even with a 1500 setting, the cars will probably be very blurred! You would need an extremely short shutter time, like 14000 or 18000 of a second to freeze that kind of high-speed movement.


Shutter Speed And Camera Shake

Another thing to consider is whether you will use a handheld camera, or one mounted on a tripod. A tripod will hold the camera totally steady, no matter what shutter speed you use; but a handheld camera will not give sharp photographs with long shutter speeds. A human is incapable of holding perfectly rock-steady still, especially when holding something like a camera that needs to be absolutely immobile.

Just as fast shutter speeds will freeze the action of moving objects in the photograph, they will also freeze any movement of the camera due to your unsteady hands. If you use a long shutter speed with a tripod mounted camera, and something in the scene moves, then the moving object will be blurred; but everything else in the photograph will be sharp. If you use a long shutter speed with a handheld camera, and you are not steady, everything in the photograph, even non-moving objects, will be blurred from the camera movement during the exposure.

What shutter speeds are suitable for handholding? I cannot give a clear answer, since several factors go into determining what shutter speeds you can handhold.

  1. Your own ability. Some people are steadier than others.

  2. The lens you're using. Because long lenses magnify any camera shake, it is harder to handhold a telephoto lens than it is to handhold a wide angle lens. You'll need to use a higher shutter speed with long lenses, and very long lenses are basically tripod-only lenses.

  3. Image Stabilization (IS). Many cameras have a feature called Image Stabilization. Different camera companies use different names for it. Nikon, for example, calls it Vibration Reduction (VR). Some camera bodies have it built in to the camera. They move the sensor to compensate for camera shake. This is often called IBIS (In-Body Image Stabiliation). Some lenses have IS built into them. These lenses have a system that moves some of the glass in the lens to compensate for camera shake.

    Note that IS does not compensate for subject movement; a moving object in the photo will still be blurred when you use IS with a long shutter speed. It only compensates for camera shake.

There is a general rule of thumb for handholding that works for most people. The longest shutter speed you can handhold is 1X with X being the lens's focal length (or the zoom setting if you are using a zoom). So, if you are using a 100mm lens, then 1100 of a second would be the longest shutter speed that you can handhold.

With practice, many people can handhold at longer speeds than this. People with health issues that make them shaky may find that they must use shorter shutter speeds than that formula suggests. Image Stabilization, if your equipment has it, also helps.


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