This piece of content is a part of the free e-book Photography for Beginners (E-book with Videos): The Easiest Way to Learn DSLR Photography From the Comfort of Your Home. To see all the contents in this e-book, click here.

7. Shutter Speed

What is Shutter Speed?

Now that we’re done with Aperture, it’s time to move on to the next setting – Shutter Speed.

Shutter speed is as important as Aperture, but it’s far easier to understand.

Let’s look at the diagram we saw earlier:

We had seen that the first barrier that the light coming through the lens has to cross is the aperture.

Depending on the f-stop number we use, the aperture hole can be wide open or closed.

So using a lower f-stop number like f3.5 allowed a lot of light whereas using a higher f-stop number like f22 allowed less amount of light to go in.

We also learned before that once this light goes through the lens, it reaches the sensor, which is responsible for creating the image.

But there is one more barrier in between the light allowed by aperture and the sensor.

And that is the Shutter.

In the diagram above, you can see that the shutter is represented in purple.

You can imagine it to be like a gate that opens and shuts.

When it opens, it allows the light that was allowed by the aperture to come in and finally reach the sensor. And then it shuts.

And when does it open and shut?

When you press the shutter button to take the shot.

 

It’s actually two curtains, one that goes up to reveal the light and another that follows it to shut everything.

But you really don’t have to worry about how the shutter actually works. Our focus is on shutter speed.

What is shutter speed?

So now you know that pressing the shutter button opens and closes the shutter. When the shutter is open, the light reaches the sensor.

But the shutter also has to close before the shot is complete.

And the time for which the shutter remains open is called as the shutter speed.

The unit of measurement for shutter speed is seconds.

For example, if the shutter speed is 1/30, then it means that when you pressed the shutter button to take a shot, the shutter will remain open for 1/30th of a second.

You already know how to change the shutter speed on the camera when it’s in the manual mode.

You have to rotate the command dial.

If you rotate it turning it rightwards, you’ll notice that the shutter speed starts to become faster and faster, like, 1/30 to 1/60 to 1/125 to 1/250 and so on. Please note that in some cameras, this figure may be denoted just by the denominator and not the whole fraction, i.e. 30, 60, 125, 250 and so on.

These are faster shutter speeds because the shutter remains open for an extremely short amount of time. For example, if the shutter speed is set to 1/250, it means when you press the shutter button, the shutter will open and close in 1/250th of a second. Can you imagine how fast that is? We’ll soon see how it impacts your shot too.

If you rotate the command dial leftwards, you’ll notice that the shutter speed starts to become slower and slower, like, 1/10, 1/5, 0.3, 1”, 2”, 3” and so on. The inverted commas mean that the shutter speed has gone into full seconds. For example, 1” means a shutter speed of 1 second.

These are slower shutter speeds because the shutter remains open for longer periods of time. For example, if the shutter speed is set to 3”, it means when you press the shutter button, the shutter will open and close in 3 seconds.

So what does shutter speed do to our photos?

Relationship Between Shutter Speed and Light

So now that we know what the shutter speed numbers mean, it’s time to see how shutter speed impacts the shots we take.

Just like in case of Aperture, shutter speed controls the amount of light coming in the camera.

At a faster shutter speed, something like, 1/250th of a second, the shutter closes down very quickly so it allows very little light to reach the sensor. So at a faster shutter speed, there is a good chance that the photo can come out underexposed.

Conversely, at a slower shutter speed, something like 1 second, the shutter closes down at a slow pace so it allows a lot of light to reach the sensor. So at a slower shutter speed, there is a good chance that the photo can come out overexposed.

But just as we saw in case of aperture, the relationship with light is of secondary importance to us at the moment.

What is more important is how shutter speed impacts a shot.

This is where the next relationship comes into play.

Relationship Between Shutter Speed and Movement

Shutter speed is responsible for freezing and blurring movement in a photograph.

A faster shutter speed freezes movement and a slower shutter speed blurs movement.

So let’s look at the shot below:

In this shot, I’ve captured a flying bird. To freeze the movement of such a fast moving subject, you have to increase the shutter speed. For instance, in this shot, I have used a shutter speed of 1/1250. This means that when I pressed the shutter button to take this shot, the shutter only allowed the light to pass through to the sensor for 1/1250th of a second.

Can you imagine how fast that is?

So you can think of it in this way – the sensor “saw’ this scene only for 1/1250th of a second and hence what it gave out was what happened for a fraction of a second.

So it results in freezing anything that was moving.

Later on we’ll be looking at more such shots.

But first let’s see what happens when the opposite is the case, i.e. when the shutter speed is slower.

Look at the shot below:

This is a shot I’ve taken at the Sky Train station in Bangkok, Thailand. For this shot, I have used a shutter speed of 2 seconds.

Now carefully see what has happened because of this shutter speed.

Just like a faster shutter speed freezes movement, a slower shutter speed blurs it.

If you see the two people in the shot, you can see that they are a bit blurred.

This is because they must have moved during the two seconds that it took the camera to complete the shot.

The same is the case with the train. You can see the blur effect on it. This is because it was moving for those 2 seconds that the shot lasted for.

But have a look at the clock on the top right corner. You can see that it’s tack sharp.

Why?

Because it wasn’t moving. So a slower shutter speed only blurs that object which is moving.

I’ll be showing you a lot of fast and slow shutter speed shots very soon.

But before that it’s time to do an exercise.

Exercises for Shutter Speed

Exercise for Fast Shutter Speed

Let’s do an exercise to understand how a fast shutter speed affects a shot.

Watch the video below to see what to do. Alternatively, you can read the description too.

Video 11: Using a Fast Shutter Speed to Freeze Movement

Nikon users, click here to watch the video

Canon users, click here to watch the video

  1. First of all, make sure you are zoomed out all the way to 18mm.
  2. Next, change your shutter speed to 1/160 since this is a fast shutter speed shot.
  3. Change the f-stop number to f3.5
  4. Change the ISO to 1600 if you’re shooting in very well-lit conditions. If you’re shooting in a slightly dim environment or at night time, then let your ISO be 6400. (If the shot you get at the end of the exercise comes out darker, you need to raise the ISO value a bit. Conversely, if it comes out very bright, you can reduce it a bit). You’ll be able to understand this in the ISO chapter later on.
  5. Hold the camera with your dominant hand and put your other hand in front of the camera, like shown in the image below:
  6. Now half press the shutter button to lock the focus on your hand.
  7. Once the focus is locked, keep the shutter button half pressed and start moving your hand in an up and down fashion, like you’re waving.
  8. Press the shutter button all the way down to take the shot.
  9. You’ll see that the resulting shot looks like this:
  10. You can see that even though you were moving your hand, it came out frozen in the shot. This is because you used a slightly faster shutter speed.
  11. If you find that your hand came out blurred, then that means your hand movement was too fast for 1/160, so try it with even a faster shutter speed, like let’s say 1/200. There is no fixed shutter speed for any scenario. The adequate shutter speed always depends on how fast the movement is. The faster the movement, the faster the shutter speed that is required to freeze the movement. Also, if your shot came a bit underexposed (dark), just increase the ambient light in the room or increase the ISO value to something higher than what you used. You’ll soon be understanding the reason behind that when we learn about the exposure meter in the future chapters.

Exercise for Slow Shutter Speed

This time, let’s do an exercise to understand how a slow shutter speed affects a shot.

Watch the video below to see what to do. Alternatively, you can read the description too.

Video 12: How to Blur Movement Using a Slow Shutter Speed

Nikon users, click here to watch the video

Canon users, click here to watch the video

  1. For this shot, everything is almost the same as the last shot, except for the shutter speed and ISO. Since this is slow shutter speed shot, I want you to change the shutter speed to 1/10. Change your ISO to 100 if you’re in a well-lit room or ISO 400 if you’re in a slightly dimly lit environment.
  2. As before, hold the camera with your dominant hand and put your other hand in front of the camera, just like we did before in the last exercise.
  3. Now half press the shutter button to lock the focus on your hand and take the shot of your moving hand.
  4. You’ll see that this time, the resulting shot looks like this:
  5. You can see that this time your hand came out blurred. This is because you used a slightly slower shutter speed.
  6. If you find that your hand did not come out blurred, then that means your hand movement was too slow for 1/10, so try it with even a slower shutter speed, like let’s say 1/5. Alternatively, try to move your hand a bit faster.

Fast Shutter Speed Examples

To start off, let’s look at some fast shutter speed shots. Go through the commentary below to get more details about the shots:

To capture this flying Hawk, I’ve used a shutter speed of 1/1000. Since birds move very swiftly, a shutter speed of 1/1000 is usually considered the minimum. Smaller birds flap their wings even faster, so may require even a higher shutter speed. In such shots, you have to move your camera along with the bird. This technique is referred to as panning and requires some amount of practice.

To capture this bursting water balloon, I’ve used the maximum shutter speed that the camera offered – 1/4000.

To capture this splash that was made by dropping an ice cube into the beverage, I’ve used a shutter speed of 1/1250.

To capture this matchstick the moment it was lit, I have used a shutter speed of 1/1000. You can see that such a high shutter speed has even frozen the little sparks on top.

To capture the flowers that are blown by the model, I’ve used a shutter speed of 1/800.

To capture the moment and the splash when the strawberry hit the surface of the milk, I’ve used an extremely high shutter speed of 1/2500.

This man was strumming his guitar. So I had to be careful about the shutter speed because even though his body isn’t moving, his right hand was making quick movements. The shutter speed here is 1/160.

 

To freeze the milk that is being poured and capture the moment the milk mixed with the tea, I’ve used a shutter speed of 1/250.

In this shot,  I dropped a slice of lemon in the drink and to capture the resulting splash, I used a shutter speed of 1/1000.

In this shot, it looks like I don’t need a fast shutter speed but because we were in a windy environment, I was forced to use a slightly fast shutter speed to freeze her moving hair and dress. I’ve used a shutter speed of 1/250 here.

Using Burst Mode with Faster Shutter Speeds

Look at the following fast shutter speed shot that we saw before:

As explained before, I have taken this shot at a shutter speed of 1/1250. That means the camera captured this moment in 1/1250th of a second. That is why it’s able to capture the splash made by the falling ice cube.

But if you’ve got your thinking hat on, you must be wondering how is it possible to take the shot at the exact moment the splash took place.

The answer lies in using burst mode.

Burst Mode

Burst mode refers to the function that allows you to take multiple shots in one go.

So you all you have to do is to press the shutter button once and your camera will keep on taking shots till you keep the shutter button fully pressed.

This is really important in most of the fast shutter speed shots as the subject is moving fast and relying on one shot can be a recipe for disaster.

To switch on the burst mode, follow the steps below:

Watch the video below to see what to do. Alternatively, you can read the description too.

Video 13: Using Burst Mode

Nikon users, click here to watch the video

Canon users, click here to watch the video

  1. Search for a button that has an icon that looks like
  2. The placement of this button may differ from camera to camera. The below images are for Nikon D5300 and Canon 700D.
  3. Once you press the button, select the burst mode option, like shown in the image below for Nikon and Canon cameras respectively:
  4. To test the burst mode, just lock focus on some object and keep your shutter button pressed after you take the shot. You’ll hear the camera taking multiple shots, which will almost make it sound like a machine gun firing.
  5. You can try the burst mode for doing the fast shutter speed exercise we performed with the moving hand (watch the video).

So burst mode really helps you in increasing your chances of getting a shot right and is really a must any time you want to take a shot where you have to freeze something that’s moving really fast.

Slow Shutter Speed

When it comes to slower shutter speeds, your first reaction may be that it’s not a good thing because it ends up blurring motion, just like we saw in the moving hand exercise before.

But you’ll be surprised that a slow shutter speed can be used so creatively that it is perhaps the most famous form of photography which is referred to as long exposure photography.

We’ll be learning about long exposure photography in detail in the future chapters, but for now, we’ll focus on understanding its basics.

As you’ve seen before, a slower shutter speed blurs movement. Normally, that can be a bad thing because it doesn’t result into sharp photos.

But sometimes blurring certain things can end up creating very beautiful photographs.

For instance, let’s take the example of water. Take a look at the following shots:

If you notice, both the shots are of the same waterfall. But the one on the right looks much better because the water looks silky and smooth.

The waterfall on the left has been shot using a shutter speed of 1/160, which is a fairly high shutter speed.

What that does is, it freezes the movement of the waterfall, resulting in a normal looking waterfall shot. That’s why in the auto mode, you will always get a shot like the one of the left because by default the camera likes to keep a higher shutter speed to avoid blurring anything.

The shot on the right uses a shutter speed of 1/3. Now this is a much slower shutter speed and the water is moving really fast. So what this does is, it blurs the moving water.

And when water is thrown into a blur, it actually ends up looking very good.

You can see that whatever was not moving, like the rocks, the branches and the trees have all come out sharp.

So in order to click such shots, all you have to do is to reduce the shutter speed. These kind of shots require the usage of a tripod, but that is something we won’t look into at this moment. It will be covered later on.

Slow Shutter Speed Examples

Slower shutter speeds can be used very creatively, just like we saw in the example before. Let’s look at a few more examples where using a slower shutter speed can do wonders to our shot. Do go through the commentary under each shot to understand the concept behind it. The exact step-by-step methodology behind taking these shots will be explained in the chapter Long Exposure Photography because by then you will have learned the usage of Tripod, something which is very essential in slow shutter speed shots. But for now, let’s look at the different types of shots in which a slower shutter speed can be used:

Shooting Waterfalls

As we just learned, waterfalls present a great opportunity to use a slower shutter speed. See the shots below:

 

Now you know how I have taken this shot. I have simply used a slower shutter speed to make the waterfall look silky. The shutter speed used here is 2 seconds.

The shutter speed here is 1 second.

It doesn’t have to be a waterfall. Once you know how shutter speed works, any water that is falling down can be made to look silky, like I’ve done here with the famous Merlion statue in Singapore.

Shooting Seascapes

Just like waterfalls, seascapes present the perfect opportunity to make the water look smooth by using a slower shutter speed. Look at the shots below:

The same concept can be applied while shooting seascapes. Here, I have used a shutter speed of 30 seconds to throw all the water into a blur. That ends up making it look really smooth.

Here I have used a shutter speed of 5 seconds to make sure the waves are blurred and look smooth when they meet the sand. If I had used a faster shutter speed like most people do, the waves would have come out sharp and the shot would have looked very ordinary.

Here the shutter speed is 6 seconds.

Here I’ve used a shutter speed of 8 seconds.

Shooting Light Trails

Light trail photography is perhaps one of the most popular type of photography where a slow shutter speed is used to create dramatic effects.

You know when the shutter speed is slow, the camera blurs movement. But when it comes to light, it does something even more dramatic.

It captures the entire movement of light for the duration for which the shutter was open.

For example, if the shutter speed is 5 seconds, and you take a torch and make a heart shape using the light, the camera will produce an image where you’ll actually see the heart shape you created. That is because it records the entire movement of any kind of light that comes into the scene. We’ll soon be doing an exercise for this too.

For now, look at the shot below:

These type of shots are very popular in DSLR photography. Here, I have used a shutter speed of 20 seconds. These 20 seconds have captured the movement of the headlights and taillights of the cars that were going on the road. The exact step-by-step methodology to take such a shot will be explained in the long exposure photography chapter.

Let’s look at a few more light trail shots:

In this shot, I’ve used a shutter speed of 30 seconds and you can see that the lights of the incoming boat have left their trails.

In this shot, I have used a shutter speed of 10 seconds to capture the light trail left by the train. (Bonus info: Super wide images like these are called panoramas. They are made by stitching two or three shots together. The software I use for this is called Microsoft ICE, the link for which is given in the Recommended Equipments and Accessories section)

You don’t always have to get the full light trails. Here I’ve used a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second to get a slightly shorter light trail, so we can partly see the car too, making it exude the feel of rapidness.

Light Painting (With Exercise)

Look at the shot below:

This type of shot is very popular and this type of photography is referred to as light painting. This is done by using a slower shutter speed and then using a flashlight to make the desired shape, like I’ve done here with circular movements of the flashlight around the card.

Light painting is a lot of fun, but the above shot can be a bit difficult for beginners to execute. So let’s perform an easier light painting shot.

We’ll do an exercise to create a heart shape with a flashlight. The shot will look like the one below:

Here’s what I want you to do.

Watch the video below to see what to do. Alternatively, you can read the description too.

Video 14: Light Painting Using a Slow Shutter Speed

Nikon users, click here to watch the video

Canon users, click here to watch the video

  1. This exercise is best done at night time when switching off the lights will result in complete darkness. But for just about satisfactory results and understanding the concept, you can do it at any time. To start off with, let the lights in the room be switched on.
  2. Use the following settings:
    1. F-stop number/Aperture: f16
    2. ISO:100
    3. Shutter speed: 10 seconds
  3. Place your camera on a table and point it towards any part of your room.
  4. Next, get a flash light.
  5. What you have to do is to switch on the flash light and then after you press the shutter button to take the shot, move the flash light to get the desired shape (in this case, a heart shape). Since the shutter speed is 10 seconds, you’ll have 10 seconds to make the shape. But it’s not that simple. Some steps are needed to be completed before we can move on.
  6. The first thing you need to is to lock focus at the point where you will be making the shape. This act of pre-focusing is needed because I’m assuming you are making the shape yourself. If you have someone else making the shape, then the process of focusing remains the same as before. To lock focus, all you have to do is to place your hand in front of the lens, lock focus on it, and then while keeping the shutter button half-pressed, change the focus mode of the lens from AF to MF. Switching to manual focus will make sure the camera keeps the focus locked in the area even after you let go of the shutter button. This is needed because after locking focus, you need to go and shut off the lights in your room. Locking focus after shutting off the lights can be a little difficult since the camera needs a certain amount of light to focus. This is also the reason why we are using a slightly higher f-stop number. Because even if you are slightly out of the exact area where you locked focus, the deep depth of field will take care of it.
  7. Once you have locked focus and switched off the lights, come back with the flash light on. Now you’re ready to take the shot.
  8. Press the shutter button and then move the flash light in the shape of the heart in the same area where you had placed your hand and pre-focused.
  9. Once the 10 seconds are up, you’ll see the shot that will look like the heart shape we saw above.

Motion Blur

Throwing the motion of a physical object into a blur is usually considered bad because it results in the shot not being sharp. So while it’s ok for things like water and light streaks as we learned, many people avoid it for other more common physical objects like people, vehicles during daytime, etc.

But when you understand how a slow shutter speed can throw any type of movement into a blur, you’ll start to see that it can be used creatively in almost any situation.

Let’s take a look at some shots like these:

If you look at this shot closely, what you’ll notice is that you are actually looking at a lot of people. Here I am standing right in the middle of this street with about a hundred people walking towards me. All I’ve done here is that I have used a shutter speed of 10 seconds. This has thrown everyone into a motion blur, making them look like ghosts.

We’ve already seen this shot before. Here I’ve used a shutter speed of 2 seconds to throw the moving train into a blur.

Now this one is slightly tricky but interesting. Before you read any further, I want you take guess what’s happening here. The exact methodology for this shot will be explained in the long exposure photography chapter. There you’ll come to know if you guessed correctly.

There are a lot of other types of shots that make sure of a slower shutter speed. We won’t go into their details right now as they can be a bit advanced. But let’s just take a look for now:

Star Trails

Because of the movement of the earth, the stars in the sky are always moving. If we use a slow shutter speed, we can achieve trails that their movement leaves, just like we saw in the light trails section. Here, I’ve taken 80 such shots with a shutter speed of 30 seconds. Each of those 80 shots consists a light trail left by the stars. Then I’ve used a photo stacking software to combine all the 80 shots into one. So all the trails end up joining together to form one big trail for each star and the result are these long lines in the sky which look pretty cool.

Fireworks

In this shot that I captured during the Diwali festival in 2015, I have used a shutter speed of 5-6 seconds for each firework and then compiled them together into one scene in Photoshop. This is a slightly advanced shot, so don’t worry about the exact methodology to accomplish this. The reason I’m showing this is because it uses the same concept of capturing light streaks. The only difference is that the streaks produced are by the fireworks and not some vehicle.

Panning

Panning is a technique where you take the shot while moving your camera along with the subject. It doesn’t require the usage of a very slow shutter speed. The shutter speed has to be moderately slow. But the concept it uses is that if you are moving along with the subject, you both are relatively still and the background is moving. Hence the slow shutter speed throws the moving background into a blur. I have used a shutter speed of 1/40 here. If I had used a very high shutter speed, like let’s say 1/500, then everything would be the same but the background would be very sharp since it would freeze the whole scene.

Here, the shutter speed is 1/50.

Low-light Photography

Till now we had been seeing how a slower shutter speed can be used effectively for shots in which there is some kind of movement.

But even when there is no movement, a slower shutter speed can help us produce some fantastic looking shots.

For example, take a look at the shot below:

Here the light is very less as I’m taking this shot at night time. I have used a shutter speed of 30 seconds here. Using a slow shutter speed enables me to get more light into the camera as the shutter remains open for a long time.

Now why is that important? It’s important because as we’ll soon see, getting enough light into the camera is one of the most important aspects of photography because it helps us in getting clean looking shots which are devoid of noise. What noise is and how it affects a photograph is what we’re going to learn in the next chapter which is ISO.

Once you understand how ISO works, you’ll start to understand a lot of things, including the science behind the shot above. We’ll be coming back to that shot again in a later chapter. But for now, let’s go on to the next chapter.

Next Chapter: ISO