Learn How to Adjust the Shutter Speed on Your DSLR Camera
Today’s cameras are equipped with a mind-boggling amount of features that allow you full creative control over your photography. While the amount of buttons and dials can seem overwhelming to a new photographer, the reality is there are three main features you need to be concerned with: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Mastering these three features is the first step to creating technically correct photographs. In this article, we will discuss shutter speed, which is probably the one you’re most familiar with. But do you know the ins and outs of shutter speed and how to utilize it to its full potential?
WHAT IS SHUTTER SPEED?
One of the most important pieces of your camera is its shutter, which is basically a curtain in front of the sensor. The shutter remains closed until you hit the shutter release button. Once you hit the release, your shutter will open, allowing light to hit the sensor and record the picture you see in front of you.
Shutter speed is simply the amount of time that the shutter stays open to allow light into your camera’s sensor. The longer it is open, the more light is allowed in and the more movement is recorded. The quicker it closes, the less light that enters, which results in a sharper image.
Some people refer to shutter speed as “exposure time,” with a fast shutter speed being a short exposure and a slow shutter speed being a long exposure. If you've ever taken a picture of a child or pet, for example, and part of the subject is blurred, this is a direct result of an inaccurate shutter speed setting.
MEASURING SHUTTER SPEED
Shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds or full seconds, depending on the speed you choose. Most DSLRs have a range of 1/4000 seconds (extremely fast) to over 1 second (very slow).
On your camera settings, you should see it displayed as 1/500 (for example), which is read as “one five-hundredth of a second.” If you’re using a very slow shutter speed above 1 second, it will be displayed as 1″ with the quotation mark designating a full second.
The graphic below might give you a better representation of how to select the right shutter speed for your photos.
HOW SHUTTER SPEED AFFECTS YOUR PHOTOS
So, how does shutter speed work, and how does it affect your pictures? The shutter speed you choose will have a few direct effects on your overall final result.
Most people associate a camera’s shutter speed with the amount of motion blur shown in a picture. The longer the shutter stays open, the more movement your camera is “recording.” Depending on how you use it, this can work for you or against you.
Used purposefully, motion blur can add to the creativity of your image. For instance, some photographers use a slow shutter speed to create the effect of a “milky” waterfall. Others use a long exposure to capture the moving headlights of traffic.
In the photo above, the bride and groom moved sparklers in a heart shape, while I captured the movement using a slow shutter speed. By setting my shutter speed to 1 second (1"), I was able to capture the complete formation of the heart.
Motion blur can be used purposefully to portray the movement of your subjects, but keep in mind that your camera will also record any movement on your end (known as camera shake.) If you’re shooting handheld in low light, a slow shutter will capture any camera shake and leave you with a blurry image. If you can, use a tripod or find a solid surface to set your camera on.
If you’re trying to freeze fast motion for a crisp action shot, you’ll need to eliminate motion blur; stick with a fast shutter speed. Just keep in mind that a fast shutter speed will limit the amount of light coming in.
In the photo above, the boy was moving a lot. I selected a fast shutter speed to allow for a sharp, non-blurry photo.
Exposure Along with movement, the shutter speed has a direct effect on the amount of light let into the camera.
Essentially, a faster shutter speed only lets in a small amount of light while a long shutter speed allows the sensor to take in more light. If you’re shooting in an area with plenty of light (say, an outside sports event on a sunny day), you should be able to capture plenty of light even with a fast shutter speed.
However, if you don’t have a lot of light to work with, a fast shutter speed can result in an underexposed image. To help combat this, you can increase your ISO.
The image below shows a perfectly exposed photo that was taken outdoors in full sunlight, with an ISO of 100, shutter speed of 1/500 and an aperture set to f/2.8. You can learn more about how to adjust your ISO and aperture, as well as the exposure triangle, by reading our additional photography posts found HERE.
FAST SHUTTER SPEED
To capture fast movement, a fast shutter speed is essential. During the fraction of a second that the shutter is open, your camera can take a fast-moving athlete, vehicle or animal and freeze them in time.
TIPS FOR USING FAST SHUTTER SPEEDS
Find good lighting: One of the biggest problems people have when using fast shutter speeds is underexposure. Because only a minimal amount of light can reach the sensor during the time the shutter is open, you want to shoot in an area that is well lit.
Shooting outside on a sunny day while there’s plenty of light should allow you to shoot at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion.
Balance with your ISO and aperture: Unfortunately, weather doesn’t always cooperate and it’s not always practical to shoot outdoors. Many sports events take place inside or in less than ideal lighting conditions. In this case, you can compensate for low light by boosting your ISO.
You can also increase your aperture, creating a bigger opening for the light to come through to the sensor. Again, how ISO, aperture and shutter speed word together in the exposure triangle is explained further in depth on our other posts.
Invest in the right camera: If you’re planning to use high shutter speeds for a significant portion of your work, you’ll want to invest in a camera with fast shutter speed capabilities. This means not only a camera that can reach a high shutter speed, but one with high ISO capabilities to compensate for low light situations.
Some cameras have the ability to reach shutter speeds as fast as 1/8000th and ISO settings of well over 25000.
SLOW SHUTTER SPEED
Used correctly, a slow shutter speed can help you add beautiful creativity to your photos. Because the shutter is open for so long, more motion and light is captured and recorded by the sensor. This makes slow shutter speeds ideal for creative night photography.
TIPS FOR USING SLOW SHUTTER SPEEDS
Use a tripod: Shooting with slow shutter speeds can be tricky. It’s easy to accidentally capture camera shake if you’re not careful – invest in a tripod to eliminate handheld shake. This is essential for super slow speeds like 1 second or higher.
Invest in the right camera: Most DSLRs on the market today will do a fine job at slow shutter speeds when used correctly. However, the more expensive the camera, the more options you have.
Hopefully you found that this explains the basics of shutter speed. Be sure to check out our other articles on ISO, aperture and the exposure triangle as well. For now, check out our tutorial video giving you a more in depth look at shutter speed...
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