Since I’ve done a previous post on aperture/depth of field, I decided it was time to do one on shutter speed. As I discussed in that post, aperture and shutter speed go hand in hand when creating a photo using the manual setting.

What is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed is how fast the shutter closes on your lens, ie: the length of time light has to get into your camera to take a photo.

Recap:

Aperture: size of hole that light travels though

ISO: camera sensitivity to light

Shutter speed: length of time light has to get through aperture hole size

Think of the shutter as a set of blinds… they shut at different speeds, deciding how much time light has to hit the “film” in your camera (or in the case of digital cameras, the sensor). The longer these blinds are open, the more light; the quicker they are shut, the less light.

What Does It Look Like on my Camera?

Good question. The shutter speed on your camera is most commonly the fraction, however when you scroll to change the speed and make it slower, it uses the quotation symbol to equal a whole second. When you see 1/200 or 50″, those are both indicative of shutter speeds. But what do they mean? What is the difference? I will tell you!

Shutter speed is counted in fractions of a second (faster) and whole seconds (slower). For example, if you take a photo and your shutter speed is at 1/200, that means your shutter is open for 1/200 of a second when you click that button to take the photo. If you have the shutter speed at, say, 30″, that means the shutter is open for thirty whole seconds; for lengths like that, you need a tripod! It can also be as simple as 1″, or 1 second.

The standard shutter speed is often designated at 1/60 of a second.

Fast Shutter Speeds

The faster your shutter speed is, the more your photos will be “frozen” in time. For example, with a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second (f/4, ISO 200), I got this:

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You can see individual droplets frozen in the air at this speed. The faster your shutter speed, the quicker it catches movement, whether it be water, people, or anything else. The best measurement of testing is water; it’s what I like to use the most when playing around with shutter speed!

This one was taken at 1/4000 of a second (f/5.6 and ISO a crazy 6400) for the effect I wanted:

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This was out in the ocean and I was standing on the beach; it was a cloudy day. Still, you can see individual droplets of water frozen in the air. I played with this for a long time, with all different shutter speeds.

REMEMBER: the shutter speed will affect the look of a photo when used in conjunction with aperture and ISO. For example, if you make your shutter speed fast (1/400), at ISO 200 and leave your aperture at something like f/14, it will be far too dark! Your aperture is too small and will not let enough light in for a shutter speed that fast; imagine it as a tiny hole in a dark little room and for a fleeting second you open a pinhole and then shut it again. The light doesn’t even make it to the back wall! So if you are increasing shutter speed (or decreasing it, for that matter) you MUST remember to compensate with your other settings. Otherwise, your photo will not work. This takes lots of practice and sometimes some guesswork; however, sometimes you get results you never expect and end up delighted with!

Slow Shutter Speed

So now you know what a fast shutter speed looks like: it freezes droplets of rain, can freeze people in the middle of physical activity or movement, and more. Slow shutter speed has the opposite effect. The slower your shutter speed, the smoother the appearance of things: water becomes a smoky glass, people become a blur of activity. People often despair when they see their photos and that people are blurry or not in perfect focus. However, slow shutter speeds can make amazing photos! It naturally adds an element of movement, activity, and liveliness to a photo; it can capture something more real and fleeting rather than simply freezing a moment in time.

Slow shutter speeds are often designated as speeds slower than 1/60 of a second. There comes a point when it is too slow and a tripod must be used. Slow shutter speeds are often used for photos of lightning storms and starry night skies in order to capture everything; however, I have yet to hunker down outside with my tripod and try this out. I can’t wait to though! And when I do you bet I’ll make a post about it.

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This is not the greatest example of a slow shutter speed photograph, however I have fond memories of this moment. Walking beneath a bridge in Arequipa, Peru, at night, and we stumbled onto these young kids, just playing music and dancing with each other. I loved the way the dresses of the girls moved and tried to capture that movement; however right after I took this photo they started laughing and became embarrassed. Oops! The boy is a bit too blurry for my liking but I love the girl spinning her dress, the laughter in the background, just kids dancing for fun… The shutter speed here was 1/13 of a second (f/4, ISO 800).

I like to catch people in motion with slow shutter speeds. Here is another:

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This was again taken in Peru, the night of a festival in Cusco. You can get a feeling of the emotion and movement of people in the setting, and I think the shutter speed helps with this. Not only because it shows the movement of people, but the low lighting is rich and deep, very unlike the lighting would look if I had used flash or a faster shutter speed. Half the reason I use a slow shutter speed will be for the warm lighting that I want to capture. This often means that movement is also shown, which I am okay with. (shutter speed 1/15, f/4, ISO 1600).

If photographing people moving makes you anxious, try it with water!

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This photo was not too slow of a shutter speed (1/50) however it was moving fast enough to catch a blur, and I kept my f stop a smaller size (f/14).

The great thing is seeing how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all work in concert with each other. When you change one it always means you have to tweak another to get the photo you want (usually).

My challenge to YOU: take your camera and play with shutter speed. First try it on the Tv setting, which is shutter speed priority; this means the camera will figure out the corresponding aperture and ISO for you to get an exposed photograph. Once you figure out that and how shutter speed works on its own, go to manual and play with it and your other settings to see what kind of photos you can make.

Good places to test shutter speeds: rivers and waterfalls, streets with cars, players at sporting events, dances, crowds, parades, and more. In the winter time, try catching snow falling and see how it is! If you are really into it, grab a tripod and set up for a starry sky, northern lights shoot, or even tracing the lights of cars on the street. Let me know how it goes!