Understanding shutter speed

I’ve been writing a few posts on exposure on Bre’s blog recently. We officially stopped the ‘zoom in’ series a while ago, but I thought it would be nice to get back into the topic of exposure and to finish off by summing up all three main elements: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Just to be reminded of what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are all about I’m going to repost the articles I published on Bre’s blog.

So here we go with shutter speed, which plays an important role in achieving some cool effects:
keeping your photos sharp, motion blur, and panning.

As the name already says, shutter speed is about speed. It’s the speed with which your camera captures the photo. If your shutter speed is slow, that means your camera can capture a lot of stuff, which is happening while the shutters are open.
You can imagine it like a window with shutters that you open and close again. Light will flood the room while the shutters are open. The length of time they’re open equals the camera’s shutter speed.
So for example 1/30 of a second is a slow shutter speed (although you might think it seems fast as it’s still a fraction of a second), whereas 1/2000 of a second is fast. So the smaller the denominator (=number below the line), the slower your shutter speed.

Now let’s talk about the first effect, which is probably what you want to achieve most of the time:

In order to achieve a sharp picture your shutter speed has to be fast enough.

• A good starting point is to consider the relation between the focal length you’re using, and the shutter speed. Let’s say you’re shooting on a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be set to at least 1/50 sec (or higher). Or a focal length of 200mm requires a shutter speed of at least 1/200 sec for the photo to turn out sharp. This isn’t a golden rule, your settings can vary from that. It’s just a useful guideline to keep in mind.
• Also think about how steady you can be as a photographer. How still can you hold your camera? A few tips to help with that: keep your arms close to your body, hold your breath while you’re pressing the shutter, and don’t jerk the shutter. It also helps to stand strong, and to have your hand under the lens barrel to create a solid base.
• One more factor to consider: is your subject moving, or is it steady? An object which is steady will be easier to keep sharp and in focus, compared to a subject that’s moving. Movement means your shutter speed needs to be fast enough to freeze things up.

(shutter speed: 1/1600 sec)

Another cool effect is motion blur : when you want to show motion you should use a slow shutter speed. In order to keep the steady objects in focus anyway (like the background), and only blur moving objects you need to be very steady again (see tips above).

(shutter speed: 1/60 sec)

Panning is the hardest visual technique. The idea is to move your camera along with a moving subject while using a slow shutter speed. This will result in the background being blurry, while the moving subject will still be in focus. It’s a good way to emphasize speed and movement.
Your shutter speed should be set to the same speed as the moving subject. Usually a shutter speed of 1/30 sec is a good starting point, but you will probably have to play around with it until you achieve the right kind of blur.
The trick to good panning images is to move your camera at exactly the same speed as the subject, and to keep your subject in focus all the time. This means you should move your camera in the same direction as the subject even before you press the shutter, and keep moving your camera in that direction even after you finished taking the photo. This helps to ensure a smooth panning movement.
(My photo isn’t the greatest example of panning – told you it’s hard ;) But you can look at this one here for example).

(shutter speed: 1/13 sec)

Now, go ahead and try it out for yourself. An easy way to start is to use the shutter priority mode (TV or S), as the camera will set the aperture automatically and you won’t have to worry about it. While I can only recommend ultimately using your camera in manual mode, it’s good to take one step at a time and to start with shutter priority mode.
(Note: some of your images might not turn out correctly exposed).

I’ll keep reposting another couple of articles on aperture and ISO over the next time, and will then write another final post to finish off with exposure - explaining how all three elements work together to enable you to shoot in manual mode.

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  1. I like the way you explain things. Two thumbs up for your blog and photo school :-) It will definitely make me a better photographer. Thank you. And I wish you a happy and peaceful December.

    1. Thank you, that's really nice of you to say, I appreciate it!
      Have a lovely December as well, and and a nice Christmas time. :)

  2. Really appreciated all these posts exaplaining basic principles about photografy! Thanks a lot!