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4 Steps to Understanding Shutter Speed and its Creative Uses

Why you Should Know what the Shutter Speed does to your Photos

Shutter speed is the most obvious of the 3 factors that create an exposure and has the biggest effect to your photos. With a poor knowledge of how the shutter speed will affect your photos, you’ll end up with blurred results. This post teaches you the right speed for the right situation, as well as how to use shutter speed creatively with artistic results.

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Section 1 – What exactly is shutter speed?

Without going into unnecessary detail as to how shutter speed works, it can be summarized as the exact amount of time that your camera records an image for. You will more often then not be taking a photo within a fraction of a second, as any longer would cause a blurred image in most situations. Shutter speed uses ‘stops’ in the same way as aperture, except it’s a lot more straightforward. Working out half of an exposure is a lot simpler with shutter speed then aperture as you just take the current speed e.g. 1/200, and halve it which, for this example, would give 1/400. All that you need to remember is that the second number has to be doubled to halve the value e.g. for 1/200, the ‘200’ is doubled to give half the value.

Section 2 – Motion blur and freezing.


Provided you’re not doing it for creative effect, you will want to choose a shutter speed fast enough to prevent motion blur in a specific situation. Motion blur is also effected heavily by the focal length of a lens. Telephoto lenses require a fast shutter speed to capture an image without blur as even the slightest movement of the camera will be magnified by the lens. A wide angle lens requires a slower shutter as the details in the image are a lot smaller.

As a rule of thumb, the average person can take a sharp, blur-free image by setting the speed to a fraction of a focal length. For example, to take a photo at 30mm, you would set the shutter speed to 1/30 of a second; any slower and motion blur is likely to occur. It’s worth noting however, that this rule is only relevant to full frame cameras. For a crop sensor, due its magnifying effect, you would be better off choosing a speed of 1/45 of a second.

There are always exceptions to the rule such as image stabilization in your lens which allows you to use a slower shutter speed. As you become more experienced with your camera you’ll gradually improve on vital skills such as holding your camera in the way that suits you best, increasing (among other things) your stability.

Here is an example of creative motion blur.

Freezing is much less of a worry when taking photos. It occurs when a photo is taken at such a high shutter speed (1/500 and above) that the exact moment at which the photo is taken is captured, without any movement blur. I personally don’t like shooting at these speeds as the images produced tend to look flat. Instead, when shooting a fast moving object, I like to include a small amount of motion as otherwise it may as well have been sitting still. This can work, as I have demonstrated in the photo below, where the subject is moving through the air.

Section 3 – The right speed for the right situation

Fast speeds to capture a telephoto image
Because this image was taken using a telephoto lens, it’s important to have a fast shutter speed (1/500). The way I managed to avoid camera shake was to use a tripod and remote release for the camera. This means that I can let the camera sit still and not move when taking a photo.

Capturing a fast moving object in a low light situation
When doing event photography, the artist you’re shooting will likely be moving around on the stage so you have the problem of both low light and a fast shutter. This is usually counteracted by a wide aperture and a high high ISO, which is a compromise really, but it does allow you to capture the image without any unsightly blur.

Section 4 – Creative uses for different shutter speeds

Creative blur
With a remote trigger for the camera and a tripod to hold it steady, you can play around with speeds to create interesting images with the blur being the main point of interest in the photo.

Creative blur with flash
Adding a flash to a photo with blur results in the subject being frozen in the frame, meaning that you can then move the camera around to capture the light and blur for artistic effect.

Panning is where you move your camera to compliment the movements of the subject, resulting in an image where the background is blurred, but the subject is not. This shot was taken from a car moving at the same speed as the train.

Light painting
For light painting, all you need is a long exposure and a light source. This photo below was taken on a 30 second shutter, during which time I set off the strobes onto the beach huts. This fills in the light exactly where you want it and is great for shooting at night.

Light graffiti
A long exposure coupled with a moving, constant light source allows you to add ‘graffiti’ to the image.

Long exposures for low light situations
Because this photo was taken at night, I used a slow shutter speed to gain an even exposure, which can only be made possible with a tripod or somewhere flat to lay the camera.

This photo requires a long shutter, but for a different reason; I had to wait for a passing car to come into the frame and the timing can be very difficult. It took me approximately half an hour of constant readjustments to the shutter speed, position of the camera, and the point at which I took the photo before I eventually accomplished my final image.

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4 Steps to Understanding Shutter Speed and its Creative UsesThank you for reading my post, if you have any questions, please leave a comment below.

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Lightroom Presets (v6) by SLR Lounge

I do 98% of my processing with this package, here's why:

    • Over 300 presets to instantly transform your photography
    • Simple video tutorials to make amazing adjustments easy
    • Get that 'professionally processed look' in seconds

Enter 'expertphotog' at the checkout to save $15!

Check Them Out Now!


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7 thoughts on “4 Steps to Understanding Shutter Speed and its Creative Uses

  1. Megan Forrester

    Any advice on shooting a wedding in a dimly lit chapel? I know it’s similar to the concert situation with the low light and movement. I can’t seem to find the right balance of shutter speed, ISO, and aperture.

  2. ray leigh

    Megan. Shoot at 800 – 1200 iso (depending on your camera) with a 85mm 1.4 lens set at around 3-5.6 (you get a nice “bokeh” also. around 1/120 or less if you can hold the camera steady.

  3. Donald Robitaille

    The picture of the boats and buildings is excellent. I think it would be very beneficial to us beginners what your camera settings were for that picture. I’m guessing the ISO had to be around 1600. Another excellent article and pictures.

  4. Min

    Erm what does the low light condition mean?
    2) When I set high shutter speed,I get a blur picture…What should I need to do else to get a clearer picture?
    3)How to capture the smoke clearly?

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