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What is Shutter Speed?

 1st Apr 2020

Learning the different functions of your camera can seem like an overwhelming task when you first get started. Every upgrade comes with a host of new features supported by spanking new software! You don’t need it all. Cameras don’t take pictures because photographers do.

That being said, there are a few core features that I do encourage you to get to grips with because it will make a huge difference to your images. Here we are going to look at understanding shutter speed and how to use it effectively.

What is a shutter?

Let’s start right at the beginning. Shutters on cameras are the same as shutters on houses. The shutter is a curtain that blocks the camera sensor until you’re ready to take the photo. When you take the photo, the shutter opens and lets light hit your sensor. 

The technical definition is…

“In photography, a shutter is a device that allows light to pass for a determined period,
exposing photographic film or a photosensitive digital sensor to light in order to
capture a permanent image of a scene”

What is shutter speed?

I am a big fan of shutter speed because your shutter speed is the most flexible exposure control as there are loads of them to choose from. For the most part shutter speeds are chosen to get the correct exposure for whatever aperture you set on your camera.

Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open which means how long light is exposed onto the sensor. In layman’s terms it’s the length of time it takes to take a photograph. The length of the shutter speed gives you different effects. For example, if you have your sensor exposed for a longer time then motion blur is the result. This can be used really creatively but we will get into that a bit later. A speedy shutter will do the opposite and any motion will be frozen in the image...this can be really useful when you want to capture a crashing wave or something similar.

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How to use shutter speed

Shutter speed is measured using seconds and fractions of seconds. The higher the number, the higher the speed.

For example, 1/1000 is much faster than 1/30.

We already know that a speedy shutter stops motion. If you photograph a runner at a fast shutter speed you will get a clear image of the runner in whatever position he’s in when your shutter is open. Whereas if you photographed the same runner with a slow shutter speed you would have a blurred image compiled of several movements made during the time the shutter was open. 

Look at this photo I took in Vietnam. See how the water is beautifully blurred giving it a really mystical feel? 

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That’s thanks to a slow shutter speed. You can see a blur in the leaves at the top as well which indicates there was a breeze but everything else is clear. In contrast, here is a photo taken with a fast shutter speed;

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This mob of mopeds was on the move but thanks to the quick shutter speed you only see the moment it was taken. The speed of the shutter depends on your subject because it’s all about freezing the image so your shutter speed will be faster for a hummingbird than it will for an owl.

Slow shutter speed is usually longer than a second and you’ll probably need to use a tripod to get sharp images. Longer shutter speeds are great for low light situations because it gives your camera the opportunity to get more light in.

Star trails are a really great way to experiment with slow shutter speed. If you find a place where there is low light pollution and set your camera up on a tripod and leave your shutter open for between 30 minutes and 3 hours you will get varying levels of star trails which are really magnificent and a fantastic way to understand shutter speed!

Further information

Here is a summary of information that could help you figure out shutter speed;

    •    A long shutter speed is longer than a second
    •    A fast shutter speed is used to freeze action and is fractions of a second
    •    You can usually have your shutter open for up to 30 seconds without using a remote
    •    Most DSLR cameras shoot up to 1/4000 of a second
    •    Shutter speed is on your LCD and shown as a number or fraction
    •    Use a tripod if you’re opting for a slow shutter speed to minimise camera shake

Shutter speed is a critical function and understanding it will improve your skill as a photographer - remember to get out there and practice!

Even if you’re just starting out I would always recommend understanding your camera as the first step. Controlling your shot makes you a photographer. Shooting and hoping does not.

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