Shutter Speed Explained – Know Your Camera

I’m going to delve deeper into shutter speed, as well as when and how to let your camera do the work for you. After all, if you’re using a new camera, you might probably need shutter speed explained for you.

You  paid quite a bit for all of those “bells and whistles.” If you’re using an older model, take heart, because while you’ll have to work a little harder, your knowledge will become your strength.

shutter-speed explained -  camera dial settings

As was mentioned in two previous articles about your camera’s basic settings and aperture control, it really isn’t so difficult to master the basics of your camera, even if you are a beginner faced with what first appears to be very complex controls.

You’ve now picked up a lot of information on ISO, shutter speed and aperture, and have practiced the exercises provided. In doing so, you have become more familiar with the workings of your camera. Let’s keep moving forward and expand your understanding.

spa bubbles
Once you’ve practiced the exercises below, look for interesting or unusual subjects like these spa bubbles. f/9.0, 1/30 sec., ISO 100

Be sure to try the exercises at the end of the article. Some of them are easier or more fun than others. They’ve all been designed to teach you a skill or to help you understand a feature of your camera. Even the last exercise is specifically designed to loosen you up and to push the camera (and you) to the outer boundaries. Remember to take notes! It helps when reviewing your images later.

To recap, exposure is made when a certain amount of light hits the sensor (film for your film camera buffs). To manage the amount of light entering the camera through the lens, there are two controls: the shutter and the aperture. The shutter control is fairly straightforward.

Purpose Of The Shutter –  Shutter Speed Explained

The shutter controls the amount of light by regulating the amount of time the shutter stays open. The speed at which the shutter opens and closes determines whether you’ll freeze the action or allow the motion of the subject to show.

One of the exercises below suggests that you set up your camera on a busy street where cars are speeding by. A fast shutter speed freezes the action of those moving cars, while a slower shutter speed shows the cars blurring as they whiz by.

Mallard in flight – Stop Action
Mallard – Stop Action f/8, 1/3200 sec., ISO 1000


There are a number of reasons why shutter speed is important to the photographer. First, it’s the other part of the exposure equation. In order to make a proper exposure, you need to have light go through the aperture (“hole”) in the lens for a specific amount of time. The aperture controls the size of the “hole,” but the shutter controls how long that “hole” will remain open. Think of the shutter as being like the entry to a building.

The building has a revolving door with a large opening. That’s great, but the opening is whizzing by so fast that even if you run, you have trouble jumping in.

On the other hand, there’s another building across the street in which the revolving door has only a little tiny space for you to squeeze into, but the door moves so slowly that you have lots of time to enter. I hope this helps you understand the relationship between shutter and aperture more clearly now.

Now you know how the shutter and aperture work together to make an exposure. Speed is also important because of camera shake. If you’re hand-holding your camera (not working on a tripod), you want to keep the shutter at a speed that will prevent any slight movement you make from affecting the outcome of the image.

A common rule of thumb is to check the focal length of your lens. If you’re using a 50 mm lens, your shutter speed should be no less than 1/60th of a second. If you’re using a 300 mm lens, your shutter speed should be no less than 1/500th of a second.

Now, with build-in stabilization features within cameras and lenses, it does reduce the effect of shake, allowing you to use shutter speeds that are 2-4 steps slower.

If you’re using a tripod, your camera should be steady enough to enable you to use any shutter speed. Note: Always be sure to adjust the aperture to balance the exposure, however.

Canada Goose – Motion Blur f/8, 1/50 sec., ISO 400


Let’s assume you have a camera with lots of “bells and whistles.” On one of the dials, or in the “mode” program of most new cameras, you’ll see something like “M”, “P”, “Av” or “Tv.” (You might want to refer to the part of your camera manual that deals with these controls to see what you have to do to change from one to the other.)

What do these modes mean and when do you select one mode over the other and why? Here’s an easy guide:

“M” is for manual control. This means that you control the exposure equation. You set both the aperture and the shutter speed. The camera’s light meter will help you, but the responsibility is all yours.

Select manual when you know what you’re doing and/or when the situation demands you override every bell and whistle.

“P is for full program. This means that you let the camera control the exposure equation. The camera picks both the aperture and the shutter speed for you. You have no say and no responsibility to do it correctly.

Select full program mode when you aren’t sure what you’re doing or can’t make a decision.

“Av” is for aperture priority. This means that you can select the aperture side of the exposure equation, and the camera selects the shutter speed that will work with the aperture you’ve chosen.

Select aperture control mode the majority of the time, because it’ll help you make artistic decisions (as I discussed in the depth-of-field section in the Aperture Control article).

“Tv” is for shutter priority. This means that you can select the shutter speed side of the exposure equation, and the camera picks the aperture size that will work with that shutter speed to properly expose the film.

Select shutter control when you’re at sporting activities, photographing active wildlife or birds, or whenever there’s movement you need to stop. Most of all, learn enough so you can trust yourself. If you don’t feel you can trust your decisions, then trust that expensive, wonderful camera you purchased.

Shutter Speed Explained –  Now For Some Exercises


Now have some fun with a few exercises on creatively using your shutter speed control. If you have a tripod, use it. If you don’t, set the camera on a table or find another means of stabilizing it. What you don’t want is for your movement to affect the photograph.

Stream – Stop Action f/9, 1/50 sec., ISO 400

Exercise 1: Find a small river or stream or set a garden hose in such a way that you have a stream of water. Put your camera on “Shutter Priority” (you select the shutter speed and the camera matches the aperture for you to create a proper exposure).

Take a series of photographs using a variety of shutter speeds from 1/500th to 1/30th of a second. Try to keep something like a rock or the end of the hose in absolute sharp focus. What you want to see is what effect the shutter speed will have in stopping the action of the water.

Although the stream will make a more interesting series of photographs, the hose does have one advantage: you can regulate the flow of the water coming out of the hose – run faster in one series and slower in another series. Review your images and notice the difference.

Stream – Motion Blur f/22, 0.6 sec., ISO 200


Exercise 2: This time stabilize your camera near a city street (No standing in front of traffic allowed here!). Photograph the cars whizzing by first, while you use a fast shutter speed and then second, while you use a slow shutter speed. Take one series of the cars as you look directly across the street (stand at a 45° angle from the cars).

Now, take another series of the cars and point the camera down the street. (The cars will be coming toward you, rather than passing you). What’s the difference in the two series? What have you learned about photographing movement?

Northern Harrier - Panning f/6.3, 1/2500 sec., ISO 640
Northern Harrier – Panning f/6.3, 1/2500 sec., ISO 640

Exercise 3: Try panning. Panning is where you put the camera on shutter control and set the shutter speed fast enough to stop the object you are photographing. Then, move your body as your eye follows the action. You should be making a clean, smooth move when you press the shutter control. The result will be that the object you’re photographing will be frozen, and the background will appear as soft blurry streaks.

A great place to try this is at the races—horse, car, people or otherwise. Or you might focus on one bird as it begins to fly and follow its action. Another excellent place to find movement is at a fair or carnival. Check out the rides (but remember what you learned in Exercise 2).

Artistic Trees – Soft Focus
f/5.6, 0.5 sec., ISO 100 (made at nautical twilight)

Exercise 4: Be creative. Try different subjects and different techniques. You’ve been working hard at learning about your camera and had shutter speed explained. Now take some time to relax and have fun! Try softening the focus or have some fun.

by Noella Ballenger
© 2015 Noella Ballenger. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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