Shutter speed, in simple terms, means how long the shutter on you camera stays open, and how much light is allowed to hit the sensor. The newer, and more expensive, your camera, the more control it will offer over shutter speed. But even with a basic DSLR, understanding shutter speed better is the first step towards taking better, more creative and more varied photos.
Adjusting Shutter Speed
Shutter speed can be manually adjusted in either full manual exposure mode or in shutter priority mode, the latter usually denoted by an ‘S’ or ‘Tv’ on the exposure mode dial. Shutter priority is a semi-automatic exposure mode in which the photographer sets the desired shutter speed, and the camera’s exposure system adjusts the aperture accordingly to produce the correct exposure. Use the control wheel on your camera to speed up and slow down the shutter speed once in either of these modes.
Misty Water Effect
One of the most effective uses of long shutter speed is photographing flowing water. It’s a beautiful if slightly over-used effect, but it is very easy to achieve. Any moving body of water, flowing stream or waterfall will do, as long as it has white splashing water. This scene is Meadfoot beach down on the Torquay coast in the South West of Devon.
If you just point the camera and shoot on automatic, you’ll end up with something like the top example. It looks nice enough, but it’s a bit dull. It was shot with a shutter speed of 1/200s and an aperture of f/5.6. Fixing the camera on a tripod eliminates camera shake. You now need to get the slowest shutter speed you can.
The image above was taken from the same position as the top example, but with the addition of a 10stop ND filter to give a shutter speed of 4 seconds at the same aperture of f/5.6.
Reduce Camera Shake
When shooting hand-held and wishing to avoid camera shake, as a rule of thumb you can safely use a shutter speed roughly equivalent to the reciprocal of the focal length you are using. For example if you’re using a 100mm focal length then you can take a sharp hand-held shot at a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second or faster. If you’re using a 35mm focal length then 1/35th of a second is safe, and so on.
Here’s an example shot taken hand-held at a focal length of 105mm and a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. As you can see it’s sharp and shake free.
Here’s the same hand-held shot at 1/10th of a second. At this speed it’s virtually impossible to hold the camera steady enough for a shake-free shot. As you can see, the result is blurred.
This example shot was taken with a focal length of 105mm at 1/10th of a second as before, but this time the image stabilisation (in this case a sensor-shift system) is switched on. It has detected the vibration and corrected it by moving the sensor to compensate, resulting in a much sharper shot.
Freezing the action with a fast shutter speed produces a nice sharp image, but sometimes you might want to allow a controlled amount of movement blur to show that the subject was in motion. Below is a quick guide showing how this can be accomplished quite easily.
In this first example, the camera was tracking a dog called Mabel who was running after her ball. She was running fast from left to right and a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second was enough to freeze her movement. Shutter speeds of this short duration are often used in sport and various action events to capture a very brief moment during a frenetic sequence.
This image of Cash, who was trotting towards his owner, uses deliberate motion blur. In this case, a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second was used, but the camera was also panned to match the speed and direction of travel of the dog. This allows the background to blur but keeps the dog relatively sharp.