The shutter speed setting on your camera has two purposes. The first is to help you obtain the correct exposure. The second—and this is the one of interest to creative photographers—is to determine the way that the camera records movement.
This is perhaps the most obvious example. You can use fast shutter speeds to freeze motion, just as I did at a reenactment of a mediaeval jousting tournament. A shutter speed of 1/1000 (plus setting the autofocus to its predictive mode) froze the galloping horse in mid-stride.
The precise shutter speed you need to freeze motion depends on the speed and angle at which the subject is moving plus the focal length of the lens you’re using. Digital cameras make shutter speed selection easy; you can check the image on your camera’s LCD screen to see if the selected speed was fast enough.
Moving Out of Automatic Mode
If you’re accustomed to using your camera in any of its fully automatic modes, then please stop right now. The best way to harness the power of the shutter speed setting is to decide for yourself which setting to use. Always remember that the camera is just a light-tight box with an electronic sensor that records light. It’s a machine, a tool. It has no heart or soul. These things come from you.
The best way to set the shutter speed is to use Shutter Priority mode. On my Canon EOS cameras this is depicted with the letters Tv, which stand for Time value. In Shutter Priority, you set the shutter speed and ISO, and the camera sets the aperture automatically according to the light reading from its internal light meter. It’s really easy to use and, best of all, you have complete control.
Middle of the Road
For most photos you will probably use a middle of the road shutter speed setting. By this I mean anything from around 1/50 to 1/250 second. These are typically the speeds that your camera will set in fully automatic, or that you would choose if you wanted to take a photo hand-held (ie without the support of a tripod or monopod) and prevent camera-shake (more on that in a moment).
With a bit of thought you can still use these shutter speeds creatively. I took the above photo in Antigua, Guatemala using a shutter speed of 1/60 second. Antigua has lots of beautiful, colorful colonial architecture. I was photographing the buildings in the photo when I noticed a local man approaching on a bicycle.
I realized that he would add interest to the photo, changed the shutter speed, then pressed the shutter button just as he appeared in the frame. 1/60 second was fast enough to prevent camera shake (the buildings are sharp), but slow enough to blur the motion of the man on the bike, giving a sense of movement. Can you imagine the result if I had used 1/1000 second? The man on the bike would be frozen, and I don’t think the photo would have as much impact.
Camera shake is one of the main causes of poor photos that newcomers to photography experience. Camera shake is the thief of sharpness. There is no point in buying good glass if you are not holding the camera correctly, or setting shutter speeds that are too slow. There are two steps to prevent camera shake when hand-holding a camera:
- Hold the camera correctly. Use one hand to support the camera body. The camera sits in your palm and you use your fingers to adjust the focusing or zoom rings. The other hand holds the grip. You also need to be balanced. If you are off balance then it’s harder to hold the camera steady.
- Select the correct shutter speed. If you’re using an APS-C camera, a general guide is to invert the focal length of the lens, find the nearest shutter speed, then halve it. For example, if you are taking a photo with the 55mm end of a kit lens, invert the focal length: 1/55. Find the nearest shutter speed: 1/60 second. Halve it: 1/125 second.
If you have a full-frame camera then you don’t need to to halve the shutter speed. A shutter speed of 1/60 second should be sufficient to obtain a sharp image with a 50mm lens.
Using Slow Shutter Speeds
Here’s where the shutter speed dial gets really exciting. There is just so much creative stuff that you can do here. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite:
We used a roundabout in a children’s playground to create this image. I sat on the opposite side of the roundabout to my model and asked her to spin us around. I set a shutter speed of 1/30 second which created the blurred background.
Here’s the crucial bit: I used a Speedlite flash mounted to the camera, set it to automatic and let the camera calculate the exposure. The result—the burst of flash froze my model in mid-spin.
Intentional Camera Movement
When is camera shake not camera shake? When it’s intentional camera movement. For this technique set a slow shutter speed then deliberately move the camera during the exposure. It’s a bit hit and miss until you get the hang of it, but for inspiration look at the work of Chris Friel, a photographer who has mastered the technique (you can read my interview with him here).
It works best for me in black and white, whereas Chris Friel uses it a lot in color. Use your camera’s LCD screen to look at your photos as you make them and analyze the result of your camera movement and shutter speed. You can gradually change both until you end up with a pleasing result.
A Tripod to Support the Camera
If you look at the water in this photo you will see how a slow shutter speed transforms it to an ethereal milk-white blur. I asked my model to stand still throughout the exposure so that she recorded sharply.
I took several photos as it was inevitable that she would move a little and that let me select the sharpest one. I supported the camera on a tripod and used a cable release to fire it to avoid camera shake.
Long Exposure Photography/Bulb Exposure
I took this photo at dusk. The low light levels meant that I needed a shutter speed of 48 seconds at f/8. The result is what is known as long exposure photography. The long exposure blurs the motion of the sea. The streak of light in the sky is from an airplane approaching a nearby airport.
Long exposure photos work because low light is atmospheric and they record the scene in a unique way. You don’t see the world like this with your naked eye, and you won’t see it recorded like this in a video or a painting.
Hopefully this article has opened your eyes to the creative possibilities presented by your camera’s shutter speed setting.
About the Author:
My name is Andrew S. Gibson and I’m here to help you take better photos. I’ve taken photos in over 60 countries, studied for a degree in photography and worked as Technical Editor for EOS magazine. Now I’m a freelance writer and I make a living writing and teaching people about photography. In recent years I’ve lived in the UK, China and New Zealand, which is now my home.
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