Shutter Speed: What It Is (And How To Make Use Of It)

So here we go again discussing about the basics of photography, this time about shutter speed.

Are you feeling discouraged?

Here’s the audio version if you’d rather listen to the article:

You wanted to take better pictures. So you bought yourself a brand new camera, and you couldn’t wait to unbox it.

You wanted to hold onto those fleeting memories. Memories of your kids playing while they were still little. Your best friend’s wedding. Or you wanted to be able to show your friends and family how beautiful your last holiday or hike was.

But now that you’re holding your brand new toy in your hands, you’re starting to second-guess your decision. All those buttons are confusing you.

So you hop onto the internet in search of a solution. You decided to start with the “basics”. At least that’s what they call it. Basics?! To you it sounds like a foreign language.

Now you wonder: Why should I care about shutter speed, how can it affect my pictures and what do I need to know about it? Let’s find out… 

Long exposure, slow shutter speed and smooth water
Waterfall picture, taken with a slow shutter speed

What Is A Shutter and What Does Shutter Speed Mean?

 So how does a camera takes pictures anyway? Right now, you might be wondering why you should be caring about that. After all, you could set your camera to Auto and forget the rest, right?

 Not quite.

 At least not if you’re planning to learn about photography. And understanding shutter speed and its importance will make the trip a lot easier.

 At least if you think about the learning experience as a trip; or a holiday.  Of course you do, why wouldn’t you?! And you’re going to have so much fun along the way!

 OK, I’ll stop rambling and give you the definition of shutter speed you came for (drum rolls!):

How Light Gets Into Your Camera

Your camera has a shutter which controls the amount of light that gets through. Then, the light touches a light-sensitive sensor or film at the back of your camera.

 You can imagine that the shutter is like a curtain which opens and closes very fast. Don’t worry about the technical details for now, you don’t need to know them to take great pictures.

 Imagine that you open a curtain and let the sun flood a dark room with light. You can visualize how, the longer you leave the curtain open, the more light gets into the room.  Shutter speed is the name for the time it takes for the “curtain” to open and close.

 The same happens inside a camera. If the shutter stays open for longer, more light will hit the camera’s film or sensor.

Slow shutter speed, long exposure of dripping water
Long exposure: Shutter speed of 4 seconds of water dripping from rocks

How Your Camera Controls Exposure Length

The shutter speed describes how long the shutter stays open. This will usually be a fraction of a second up to several seconds, minutes or even hours in case of long exposures.

Now you may be asking:

Are shutter speed and aperture the same? What about ISO?

Let’s find out!

The Exposure Triangle

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are the three components of the exposure triangle. They all influence the exposure of your pictures. 

Shutter speed describes how long the shutter “curtain” stays open for. The aperture of your lens is a hole in the middle of your lens.  Its variable size lets in more or less light into your camera. I will cover aperture in a separate article.

ISO describes a particular film’s sensitivity to light. At the same exposure, raising the ISO means using a faster shutter speed. Changing the ISO settings on your digital camera has a similar effect.

So far, so good. You’re on your path to becoming a photography Jedi master!

Let’s move on to the next level.

Can shutter speed affect the depth of field?

Depth of field describes everything that will be sharp in your photos from front to back. Depth of field depend on your camera’s aperture. This means that shutter speed doesn’t affect your pictures’ depth of field.

 At least not directly. If you change your shutter speed and don’t want to change the ISO, you will also change the aperture.

Take for example the following two photos of a little rock in a river. I changed the exposure from 0,4 seconds to 1/125 seconds to see how different it would look.

As I was taking pictures in Aperture Priority Mode, my camera automatically adjusted the aperture between the two photos. The picture on the right has “frozen” the water. On the other side, the adjusted aperture made only the very front of the picture sharp and everything else is very soft.

Exposure: slow shutter speed of 0,4 seconds
0,4 seconds at f/36
Exposure: fast shutter speed of 1/125 seconds
1/125 seconds at f/3.2

What is the difference between shutter speed and frame rate?

Have you heard the expression frame rate?

  1. Shutter speed describes how long the shutter stays open in photography.
  2. Frame rate on the other side has something to do with film making. It describes how many frames your camera records per second.

For now, you don’t need to worry about frame rates unless you want to create videos. Keep an eye open for a future article on time lapse photography 😉 

Have you ever wondered about how those little cameras work inside our mobile phones? Let’s have a look!

How Does Your Smartphone Take Pictures?

Now you may be wondering if your smartphone and your camera take pictures the same way.

 Smartphone cameras take pictures by emitting an electric impulse. This simulates the effect of an actual shutter . Your DSLR or mirrorless camera on the other side has got a mechanical shutter.

Lake mountains mobile phone (1)
Mobile phone picture, sharp from front to back because of the small sensor

When I first started out with photography a long time ago, we didn’t have to worry about this. On the other side, I’ll be the first one to say that it’s amazing to be able to go for a hike and take pictures with a smartphone.

 How exactly can you adjust the shutter speed on your smartphone? Usually, you can adjust the shutter speed by using a pro mode and pushing a slider from side to side.  Check your phone’s manual to confirm. You could also install a third party app for more creative control.

Crocus mobile phone aperture
Because of the mobile phones' small sensors, you need to be close to your subjects if you want to have a blurry background

How Do You Adjust the shutter speed on Your DSLR Or Mirrorless camera?

By now you’ve got a pretty good understanding of the basics of photography. Now, you would like to know how to adjust your camera’s shutter speed. 

It’s not possible to adjust the shutter speed on most entry level compact cameras. But you will be able to do so on most more advanced DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

 You can adjust the shutter speed by rotating a command dial on your camera. You will be able to see the current shutter speed in the viewfinder.

Confusing Numbers

Fractions of seconds are displayed as whole numbers. So, for example, a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second will be displayed as “200” in the viewfinder.

 This can be confusing at the beginning. And shutter speeds of 1 second and longer will be displayed as a number with with quotes behind them. So a shutter speed of 30 seconds for example will usually be displayed as “30””.

 Of course, the way the shutter speed is displayed will depend on your exact type of camera. For more information, I recommend that you read your camera’s instruction manual.

 Most cameras use “shutter priority” (Tv), “aperture priority” (Av) and “manual mode“. In shutter priority, you can adjust the shutter speed. Your camera will then adjust the aperture to keep the exposure constant. 

How Does Changing The Shutter Speed Affect Your Pictures?

So now you know how to adjust the shutter speed. Now you’re wondering what shutter speed you should be using. At the beginning, you will want your balanced exposure in your pictures.

 In this case, you can use your camera’s auto setting. You can also use any of the other semi-automatic settings like Tv or Av. In these modes, your camera will balance out the exposure of your photos.

 You can also set your camera to manual mode to see the effect of different shutter speeds on the end-result.

 If you keep the aperture and ISO constant, a long shutter speed will let more light in than a slow shutter speed. An example of a long shutter speed would be thirty seconds. On the other side, a fast shutter speed would be one thousandth of a second.

Relatively fast shutter speed
Relatively slow shutter speed

So why did I mention manual mode anyway? Let’s find out!

What Are the Creative Uses of Shutter Speed?

You might be asking if you should always use your camera’s Auto settings. Well, it depends on your intent.

 When I first started out with photography, I assumed that there was one correct exposure for all photos. Surely, deviation from this “correct” exposure would have to be considered a failure?!

 I’ve since realized that opinions on the correct exposure differ. Some people indeed say that you should always strive for an even exposure.

 But the beauty of photography is that we can all express our view of the world in different ways.

 That’s where creative freedom comes into play. You should definitely try for yourself and see what kind of exposure you prefer. Oftentimes, it will also depend on your current mood.

 A dark exposure for example tends to be quite gloomy, pensive and sad. A bright one could be a symbol for hope, happiness and joy. Don’t let other people’s’ opinions stop you from exploring your creativity!


Which shutter speed for sports, freezing motion and handheld pictures?

 So this is where you will be glad to have a good grasp of the basic concepts of shutter speed. Otherwise, you would find it hard to make fast changes while taking pictures.

 Let’s say that you’re taking pictures of your kids running in the garden. Let’s also assume that you would like to have crisp photos of your kids and avoid blurry memories.

 In this case, you should choose a fast shutter speed. This could be anything from 1/100th second and faster. You will need to take several photos and test which shutter speed is the most appropriate one.

If you’s limited because you’re in a dark room, you could choose a bigger aperture, a higher ISO or use a flash.

 Don’t worry if this sounds a bit overwhelming, you will see that soon, this will feel like driving a car. It all becomes second-nature after a while, but you will need to practice.

 Stabilized lenses and camera bodies are helpful. They allow you to use slower shutter speeds than in the past.

 There is an old rule of thumb which is still valid today. The slowest handheld shutter speed should be inverse to your lens’s focal length. I would go even further and double that number. 

So, if your focal length is 50mm, the traditional rule would dictate 1/50th second. To be on the safe side, it would be safer to use a shutter speed of at least 1/100th second.

Which shutter speed for waterfalls and low-light photography?

By now, I’m sure that you’ve noticed that I love landscape photography. And I particularly love moody light, sunrises and sunsets. They all have one thing in common, and that’s usually pretty low levels of light. So if you want to take a well exposed picture in these conditions, you will need to increase your shutter speed. Let’s take the example of a waterfall early in the morning, also called the blue hour.

Depending on the ISO and aperture settings you choose, you will need to set a slow shutter speed. This is because it’s still quite dark during the blue hour. This could be half a second for example.

Sometimes you have to use a certain shutter speed. In this case, you will need to adjust your ISO or aperture settings.

Which shutter speed should you use for fireworks?

Taking pictures of fireworks can be quite challenging. 

This is because they’re happening so fast that it can be hard to get the composition right.

 Here is a good rule of thumb. With your ISO at 100 and your aperture set to f/10, try a shutter speed around half a second and adjust from there.

Which shutter speed for the stars?

I’m fascinated by the night sky. Often when I go camping, I can’t sleep because I love to sit there lost in the middle of nature. It makes you feel so small and it’s a humbling experience. I love to bring back memories to remember the experience.

 Like the moon, the stars are moving through the sky. Assuming you want them to be sharp you will have to set a shutter speed of no more than 20-30 seconds. Again, this will depend on the kind of lens you’re using.

But you will not always want your photos of stars to be pin sharp. Sometimes you will want to achieve the star trail effect. This means that the stars do not look sharp but will leave circular lines on your pictures.

To achieve this effect, you will need to choose a long enough shutter speed. The traditional way to create star trails is to take one picture with an exposure of several minutes. You could also combine several pictures with shorter shutter speeds. Then you will use software to combine the pictures and create the star trails.

Startrails long exposure
Very long exposure in order to create mysterious star trails

Which shutter speed for the moon?

This will depend on several things. Is it a full moon, is it the middle of the night in the countryside or are you in a place with lots if light pollution? As you might know, the moon is moving quite fast, and it’s the brightest object in the sky. After all, it’s lit straight by the sun.

A good starting point is to use an ISO setting of 100, an aperture of f/10 and a shutter speed of 1/125th second. From there, you can try and adjust your pictures.

It’s normal that it will take you several tries before getting a good photo. Don’t think that you should be getting results fast. The photographers showcasing their beautiful night-time pictures didn’t get it right straight away either.

Photo of the moon. Exposure: shutter speed of 1/500 seconds
A shutter speed of 1/500 seconds was necessary to not overexpose the moon


So there you have it! With these pointers, you will soon be able to take your photography to the next level (whatever that means).

I understand that the technical basics can be confusing at the beginning. You will see that they will soon become second-nature. As mentioned before, it’s like driving a car. Once you get used to it, you won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Now go out and practice!

 If you enjoyed this article, let’s get in touch. Hit the subscribe button underneath or send me an email to show me your photos!

Thomas 😄

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Simply Easy Learning