Photography 101 Tutorial: How To Use Shutter Speed

While aperture refers to how narrow or wide a camera’s shutter opens, the shutter speed determines how long it stays open.  A faster shutter speed lets in less light, and a longer shutter speed allows more light to reflect off your subject and onto the camera’s sensor.  Photography, like our vision, is all about light reflecting off the surfaces in a scene and exposing/recording internally as an image.  As I discussed in my post about aperture, when you’re shooting in Aperture Priority (Av) mode, you select the aperture, and your camera’s built in light meter will measure what the shutter speed should be.  As you decrease the size of the aperture, thus decreasing the amount of light that can reach your camera’s sensor at a given moment, the shutter speed will slow down to allow enough time for the proper amount of light to get through.  If the aperture is larger, thus allowing more light in at one time, the shutter speed is faster to keep from allowing too much light.  Make sense?  I’m going to show this photo comparison again so you can see how a change in aperture affects the shutter speed.  Can you even imagine how fast 1/2000 of a second is?!!  It’s fast, but that small amount of time can make a big difference in your picture. When you have perfected the use of shutter speed, you can design and create custom photo books using your own pictures at

F-Stop Depth of Field Comparison

Aperture Depth of Field Comparison


Besides light and exposure, let’s talk about what shutter speed means to you.  Motion is probably the biggest consideration.  A very fast shutter speed will stop motion, which is great to capture action like sports or running children and animals.  A slow shutter speed can add artistic affects to an image, such as blurring or smoothing moving objects like running water, fireworks, or moving cars and people.  The next series of photos shows the effects shutter speed has on the appearance of moving water.  The speed of the water is also a factor, of course, and this creek was moving along at standard small mountain creek speed.

Shutter Speed Motion Before After, Water Movement

Shutter Speed Motion Comparsion, Water Movement


You don’t always need several seconds to show smooth water motion.  To give you an example of how faster water compares, here’s a close-up of a small waterfall higher up the same mountain. More water is rushing faster and more strongly here.  You can see the rage of the water in the first image, shot at 1/160 of a second, seemingly stopping motion.  However, because the water is so fast, it will blur and smooth out at 1/3 of a second.

Fast versus slow shutter speed

Shutter Speed Comparison, Waterfall Motion


Here’s another example of a scenic photo taken with a fast and then a slow shutter speed.  The effect, whether you prefer the detail and texture in the faster shot or the smoothed sky/water of the second shot, can change the entire mood of an image.  It’s up to you, the image creator, to choose a shutter speed that fits the look you’re trying to create.

Fast versus slow shutter speed

Shutter Speed Comparison, Water and Sky Motion


Okay, so how do you control shutter speed?  Your DSLR and most compact cameras should have a Shutter Priority mode.  You might find it shown on your dial as T or Tv, for “time value”, since shutter speed is a measurement of time. In this mode, you choose your shutter speed, and your camera will meter the light of the scene to automatically adjust your aperture.  When you’re using Shutter Priority mode, don’t forget the impact aperture has on the depth of field in your image. You might want to stop action with a fast shutter speed, but maybe you were also hoping to use a small aperture to show a deep depth of field at the same time.  Depending on the available light in the scene, you might not be able to have it both ways without making more manual adjustments to adjust the light exposure.  This is why I only use Shutter Priority mode when I’m working on images very specific to a slow shutter speed.

You may also bump into a problem during a bright day when you want to show motion, but even at your smallest possible aperture, the light is still too bright for a slow enough shutter.  This is when a Neutral Density Filter could come in handy.  I discuss this in more detail in Photography 101: Filters.

Shooting fireworks is a good time to use a longer shutter speed.  The nighttime backdrop will help prevent over-exposure with a long shutter speed, and you can experiment with various speeds to get different effects.  I wrote a more specific tutorial about shooting fireworks in my creative series if you want to learn more.  This shot was done at 2 seconds, which is a typical speed your camera might choose if you have a fireworks mode.

Shutter Speed Motion, Fireworks

Slow Shutter Speed Motion, Fireworks


There are all kinds of ways to play with light and shutter speed.  I’ll include light art ideas in a post in the creative series, but meanwhile, here I am with a sparkler and 8 seconds on the shutter.

Slow Shutter Speed Motion, Light Art

Slow Shutter Speed Motion, Light Art


Ready to try it out?  Hang on, there are just a couple other quick things you need to know first. 

Learn how to read your shutter speed on your camera’s display.  If you see 2, that doesn’t necessarily mean two seconds.  That might actually mean ½ second.  Two seconds will likely show up as 2”.   The read-out on my current Canon camera is slightly different than even the last Canon camera I had, so refer to your manual to make sure you understand how to read the numbers on your camera model.

*Tripods*  Keep in mind that even when we’re talking about a small fraction of a second, that’s a lot of time in shutter speed speak.  You might think you can hold your camera steady for one second, but you can’t.  Don’t even bother trying unless you’re okay with a blurry photo.  But wait, I bet you have Image Stabilization on your fancy new camera lens.  That’s awesome, and that will help–a little bit.  Marketing will make you think you will never take a blurry photo again because you have Image Stabilization (or whatever similar fancy term your brand uses).  The difference is much less significant than you might think, so I’m going to tell you the general rules for using a tripod versus taking a handheld photo.

The rule I used to live by was to use a tripod for anything slower than 1/60 of a second.  That worked for me most of the time, until I tried to hand hold a heavy telephoto lens.  For. Get. A. Bout. It.  There’s trigonometry (sine, cosine, hypotenuse, anyone?) going on here about how any tiny movement at your camera point will look like a huge blur at further distances, not to mention that the bigger the telephoto lens, the heavier it is.  You have to be Hercules to hold some of these lenses steady!   The best rule you can follow regarding hand-held versus tripod shots is that you should use a tripod for anything slower than the reciprocal of your lens length.  The reciprocal is the fractional opposite (sorry, we can’t avoid the math entirely!!).  So, if you are zooming to 100mm, use a tripod for anything slower than 1/100” (1/100 is the reciprocal of 100–easy, right?).   If you are shooting with an extreme wide angle lens, like my fave Canon 10-22, you can get away with handheld shots at slower speeds.  Once you understand the general idea, you can experiment and adjust for the weight of your camera/lens, your strength and steadiness, your camera’s fancy image stabilization, and the movement of your subject.

Don’t laugh at my elementary graphic, but I’m trying to avoid the trig explanation.  This is a simple look at how even 1 degree of camera movement equals a lot of movement when zoomed in on objects far away.

When to use a tripod

Even the slightest camera movement causes more movement farther away.


*EXTRA TIPS*  Speaking of image stabilization and tripods…  If you are using a tripod, turn your image stabilization (IS) off.  This really might not make a noticeable difference in most pictures, but if you’re zoomed in on something far away, like the moon perhaps, you could lose detail if your IS is on.  I know that sounds backwards, but the mechanics of the IS features in cameras actually causes vibrations and movement within your camera to compensate for any movement you are making, kind of like balancing so you’ll get a steady picture.  If the camera is immobile on a tripod, the IS will actually fight it and cause a slight blur in your photo.  Some photographers will even use a shutter release remote trigger to snap the picture without touching the actual shutter button on the camera, because pressing the shutter button can even cause a slight camera movement.  Using your camera’s self timer is another way to avoid camera movement from pressing the shutter button.

You don’t necessarily need a tripod to keep your camera steady.  If you can set your camera on something to keep it steady, then that’ll work.  Tripods just offer more flexibility.  I’m also a big fan of table-top tripods, like the Joby Gorillapod.   You can stand it up on its 3 legs, or you can wrap the legs around things, such as a fence or tree branch.  They come in different sizes depending on your camera model and weight.  Keep your lens sizes in mind when considering weight, too.  Larger lenses will weigh more and possibly unevenly distribute the weight of your camera/lens combo, thus requiring a stronger tripod.  Another great trick is to use a small bean bag (steal one from your Cornhole game!) to keep your camera steady.   A bean bag will allow more flexibility than just a flat surface, and it’s easy to carry in your camera bag.  You can even make your own bean bag with dried beans or rice in Zip-Loc bags.    I actually took a medium sized makeup bag out of one of my suitcases and used it to hold 2 standard sandwich size Zip-Loc bags of dried rice.

That’s it.  Now go find something that is moving and shoot it!

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