Photography Basics: Shutterspeed

What is Shutter Speed?

In photography, shutter speed or exposure time is the length of time a camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. The amount of light that reaches the film or image sensor is proportional to the exposure time. – Wikipedia

Shutter speed (like aperture) is one of the Three Pillars of Photography. Simply put shutter speed is how longer the shutter stays open when you press the button to take your shot. It’s how long the sensor (or film if we are talking none digital) is exposed to the scene you are trying to capture. Like aperture, using different shutter speeds can effect the image you capture. If your after an action shot, or trying to freeze a moment in time you will need a fast shutter speed. If your shooting landscapes you might want a slow shutter speed.

So What is the Shutter on a Camera?

Camera Shutter

The Shutter Curtain

The shutter on your camera is a curtain that sits in front of the sensor. Unlike the aperture this curtain stays closed until the moment you press the shutter button. Once you press the shutter button the curtain opens and allows the light coming through the aperture to hit the sensor. Once the shutter timer has been reached the curtain closes once more stopping any more light from hitting the sensor.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds, usually in fractions of a second in fact. In the case of fractions, the higher the denominator the faster the shutter speed (i.e. 1/1000 is faster than 1/100). However as the shutter speed slows you introduce risks of camera shake when shooting hand held. Once you get above 1/60 of a second with most lens you run the risk of creating unwanted motion blur if you don’t use a tripod.

The lower the lighting levels of your scene the longer the shutter speed you will need to make sure you get the correct exposure. Sometimes you might want to intentionally increase the length of time the shutter is open to create a certain effect. For instance when shooting a scene with moving water (for instance a waterfall) you might want to create motion blur in the water (often called silky water), to do this you need to increase the shutter speed to over a second.

1/2 Second Exposure

1/2 Second Exposure

6 Second Exposure (creating "silky water")

6 Second Exposure (creating “silky water”)

Similarly if shooting a scene involving people you will probably want to be shooting with an exposure time of around 1/15 to 1/30 depending on how steady you can keep your hand, personally I will always aim for the shutter speed to be 1/60 or above.

The shutter speed you pick will depend on the lighting and the effect you are trying to achieve in the scene. Sometimes you will want a long shutter speed (and may need filters to achieve it) and over times you might want a shorter shutter speed (maybe increasing the ISO to reduce the time you need the shutter open for)

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