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Beecher's Handouts >

11 – Shutter Speed

1 – Introduction


Your camera probably has a mechanical shutter.

There are curtains or blades that open and close.

Some point-and-shoot cameras have an electronic shutter.

The sensor turns on and off.

Shutter Speed Numbers

Shutter speeds are usually fractions of a second.

On most cameras, both the numerator and denominators are shown, such as 1/250th.

On other cameras, only the numerator is shown, such as 250th.

Shutter speeds that are full seconds are denoted by a quote mark or the abbreviation sec.

For example, 2" is a two-second exposure.

Because we're familiar with fractions, the shutter speed numbers are more understandable than aperture numbers.

However, we can use the same mnemonic sentence to understand the different shutter speeds.

The bigger the number (denominator), the less light reaches the sensor.

2 – Shutter-priority Exposure Mode

You can set the shutter by using the shutter-priority exposure mode.

In this exposure mode, you change the shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture.

On Nikon cameras, and many others, this mode is called S.

On Canon cameras, the mode is called Tv.


If you're using the shutter-priority exposure mode, you'll be more aware of whether movement will be sharp or blurry.

When using program exposure mode, or the action icon (jogger figure), the camera will most often freeze any motion.

If you're photographing movement, such as sports, dance, and fountains, you may want to use shutter-priority exposure mode to blur motion.

4 – Jogger Icon

If you set the exposure-mode dial to the jogger icon, motion will be frozen.

That's because the camera will select a fast shutter speed, such as 1/1000th of a second.

Unfortunately, there's no blur-the-motion icon.

5 – Scene Modes

As mentioned, many cameras have scene modes, often designated by SCN on the exposure-mode dial.

There may be scene modes for freezing motion.

Scene modes that will blur motion may be less common.

6 – Slow Shutter Speeds

When holding your camera, if you use too slow of a shutter speed, you may get camera shake.

Your photograph may appear to be out-of-focus.

The photograph may be streaky, and objects may have doubled edges.

The slowest shutter speed you can safely use depends on the focal length of your lens and whether the lens has image stabilization.

Generally, if the shutter speed is slower than 1/60th, camera shake may occur.

Be More Stable

Do the following when using slow shutter speeds without a tripod.

• Lean against something, or rest your elbows on something.

• Press the camera against something, such as a lamp post.

• Rest the camera on a surface, and use the self-timer or a remote shutter release, to trip the shutter.

• Press the shutter release gently, or use a remote shutter release.

• Press the shutter release at the bottom of your exhale.

Your body is more stable then, and not when you're holding your breath.

Image Stabilization

Your camera or lens may have image stabilization.

This technology allows you to use slower shutter speeds.

7 – Shutter Speed Example

Here are photographs of a waterfall taken at different shutter speeds.


Shutter Speed: 1/500th of a Second

Click Photograph to Enlarge


Shutter Speed: 1/2 of a Second

Click Photograph to Enlarge

Which Photograph Is Best?

Or, which shutter speed is the best?

The answer depends on how you're using the photograph.

For example, a college promoting its natural surroundings may want to use the high-shutter-speed waterfall photograph.

The photograph would convey the natural beauty of the region, along with energy.

A meditation center may want to use the more serene slow-shutter-speed photograph.

8 – Tripods

For the above slow-shutter-speed photograph, the camera was on a tripod.

If it hadn't been on a tripod, the photograph would have shown camera shake because of the slow shutter speed.

Everything in the scene would have shown the movement of the camera, not just the water.

The rocks, water, and everything else, would have been "swirly" and may have had doubled edges.

9 – Self-timer & Remote Releases

When using a slow shutter speed, and the camera is on a tripod or on a surface, pressing the shutter release may cause camera shake.

If the moment of exposure isn't critical, you can use your camera's self-timer.

A remote release allows you to trip the shutter exactly when you want, unlike the self-timer.

10 – Frustration

You can't always use the shutter speed that you want.

Low Light

You can't use fast shutter speeds with low light.

As you change to faster shutter speeds, and there isn't much light, Lo will appear in the viewfinder.

Or, the numbers will blink.

There's too little light.

Bright Light

You can't use slow shutter speeds in bright lighting.

As you change to slower shutter speeds, and there's a lot of light, Hi will appear in the viewfinder.

Or, the numbers will blink.

There's too much light.

You can use slow shutter speeds on a sunny day if you use a variable-neutral-density filter.

11 – Two Kinds of Blur

Blur from being out-of-focus, and blur caused by a subject in motion, can be confused easily.

Blur from being out-of-focus is often soft.

Blur from movement, due to a slow shutter speed:

• May be streaky.

• May have a doubling of the edges of the subject.


Out-of-focus Blur

Click Photograph to Enlarge

In the next photograph, the tips of the grass have blur because it was windy and a slow shutter speed was used (1/25th of a second).


Blur from Movement Recorded by a Slow Shutter speed

Click Photograph to Enlarge