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4 Steps to Understanding Shutter Speed and Its Creative Uses

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Shutter speed is the most obvious contributing factor to an exposure. It has one of the biggest effects on your photos.

With a poor knowledge of how to use the correct shutter speed, you’ll end up with blurred results.

This article will teach you the right shutter speed for the right situation. As well as how to use shutter speed creatively for artistic results.

A close up of a camera aperture

4. What Is Shutter Speed?

We won’t go into unnecessary detail as to what a shutter speed definition is. But let’s summarise it.

The shutter speed is the exact time of exposure: the time that your camera records an image for.

It uses a shutter mechanism, that opens up for that given amount of time. The camera’s shutter is what allows the light to hit the film plane or digital sensor.

The thing we most commonly associate with shutter speed is camera shake. The longer the shutter is open, the more chance your hands’ vibration has to cause visible blurring on the shot.

As a general rule of thumb, a shutter speed value under your lenses’ focal length with cause camera shake. For example, a 300mm lens (without image stabilization) will need a minimum of 1/320th. Similarly, a 50mm lens will need anything above 1/50th of a second.

Anything slower than this will require a tripod. Or, image stabilization, which most telephoto lenses have built-in.

More often than not you’ll want to take your photo at a comfortably shorter speed than that, such as 1/500th of a second (in case of a standard lens). This will help freeze the movement of your subject. But, this largely depends on the speed of your subject and how close you are to it.

In most situations, slow shutter speed results in blurred images.
A chart showing when to use different shutter speeds from fast to slow, for moving subjects to creative blurSimilarly to aperture and ISO, we use stops to indicate changes in shutter speed. But it’s a lot easier to wrap your head around than in the case of f-stops in the aperture.

A stop up in shutter speed (eg. from 1/100 to 1/50) is doubling the amount of light, and a step down (from 1/50 to 1/100) is halving the amount of light.

A colourful race car driving with motion blur background - shutter speed uses

3. Motion Blur and Freezing

Motion Blur

Controlling your shutter speed is a great way to show movement in a still scene. You can create it using a relatively slow shutter speed and panning the camera to follow a subject.

If you are looking to add blur into your image, there are many ways to do so.

Telephoto lenses need a faster shutter speed to capture an image without blur. These lenses pick up and magnify even the slightest movement of the camera. A wide angle lens requires a slower shutter speed as the details in the image are a lot smaller.

This means you can create a blurred image easier with a longer focal length lens.

As I mentioned earlier, the reciprocal rule is a good guideline to give you a speed above which your hands won’t cause blur.

Any slower and motion blur is likely to occur.

It’s worth noting that this rule is only relevant to full-frame cameras. In the case of crop sensor cameras, use the crop factor to get the effective focal length of your lens, and calculate with that.

There are always exceptions to the rule. Image stabilization in your lens allows you to get away with slower shutter speeds.

As you become more experienced with your digital camera, you gradually improve on vital skills. These include holding your DSLR cameras in a way that suits you best. Holding your camera with a correct posture will allow you to increase (among other things) your stability if you do this.

A white car driving, the background is a creative blur - shutter speed and its uses

Freezing

Freezing your subject requires a fast shutter speed. It occurs when you take a photo at such a high shutter speed (1/500 and above) that there’s no motion blur. I don’t like shooting at these speeds as the images produced tend to appear flat.

The faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. For example, a jet plane will require a 1/2000th of a second or higher. A person riding a bike might only need 1/500th of a second.

When shooting a fast moving object, I like to include a small amount of motion. Otherwise, it may as well have been sitting still.

close up photo of a person wearing trainers jumping in a small puddle on the street - using shutter speed

2. The Right Shutter Speed for the Right Situation

Fast Shutter Speed to Capture a Telephoto Image

When using a telephoto lens, it’s important to use fast shutter speed photography (1/500 or faster). To avoid camera shake, I used a tripod and remote release for the camera’s shutter.

This allows the camera to sit still, preventing movement when taking a photo and having sharp images as a result.

There are times when you want to focus on selective focusing or a shallow depth of field. Here, it is best to use the aperture priority mode setting. This will keep the aperture the same, changing the shutter speed to account for the light setting.

If your scene has moving subjects, a shutter speed priority is best. This way, it keeps your shutter speed, fast or slow, the same. But, your aperture will change according to the ambient light in the scene.

Capturing a Fast-Moving Object in a Low Light Situation

In event photography, the artist you’re shooting is likely to be moving around on stage. You have the problem of both low light and a moving subject.

You can usually counter this with a wide aperture and a very high ISO. It’s a compromise, but it does allow you to capture the image without blur.

A concert photography shot of the cheering crowd looking towards the stage

1. Creative Uses for Different Shutter Speed

Creative Blur

To create creative blur, you will need a few items. You need a remote trigger and a tripod to hold the camera steady. Then you can play around with the shutter speed settings.

This can create interesting images in which the blur is the main point of interest. For inspiration, try a fairground carousel.

A stunning night photography shot of an amusement park - shutter speed uses

Creative Blur With Flash

Adding flash to a photo with blur will freeze motion in the frame.

Choose a longer shutter speed. Start with around 1/40, and experiment. Your flash will still only light your subjects momentarily, creating a sharp outline.

In the remaining time of exposure, you can then move the camera around to capture the light and blur for artistic effect. This will create a ghosting effect.

A blurry shot of a group of people walking at night - how to use shutter speed

Panning

Panning is where you move your camera to complement a moving subject. It results in an image where the background is blurred but the subject is sharp.

This shot was taken from a sidewalk, panning the camera while using slow shutter speed photography. The sense of movement is obvious because of this technique.

A person riding a bicycle in the city, the background is a creative blur due to using slow shutter speed

Light Painting

For light painting, all you need is a long exposure and a light source. The photo below was taken on a 30-second shutter, which is a slow shutter speed setting.

During the exposure, I set off flashes of light onto the beach huts.

This fills in the light exactly where you want it and is great for shooting at night.

A night photography shot of a line of small wooden cabins - shutter speed and its creative uses

Light Graffiti

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

Three people surrounded by lighting painting at night

Long Exposures for Low Light Situations

Because this photo was taken at night, I used slow shutter speed photography to gain an even exposure.

Long exposure photography is only possible with a tripod or somewhere flat to lay the camera.

A stunning night photography shot of boats in a harbour with a beautiful pattern reflected in the water
This next photo requires a long shutter speed but for a different reason. The creator of this image had to wait for a passing car to come into the frame and the timing can be very difficult.

It can take some time to figure out the exact settings, because only a specific shutter speed will make the blur precisely as long in the image as you wish.

A man standing on a street at night, a stream of light trails in front of him
Before you go, check out this cool video on creative shutter speed.

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14 comments
  1. 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. 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. 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. 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?

  5. I’m a novice and have been using 1/1000 for some swimming pictures. I turn on auto ISO as well. Are these good things to do for the best pictures?

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