Thursday Tip: Shutter Speed Basics

Friends and clients frequently tell me that they’d love to learn to use their cameras better and I want to help.

Welcome to a weekly series full of camera tips and behind the scenes tricks from a professional photographer.

Let’s take better pictures!

Shutter speed is probably the most straightforward “point” in the exposure triangle. It’s exactly what it sounds like (with one small caveat).

Boston marathon runner nearing the finish line in Back Bay
I chose a moderate shutter speed (1/200s) to freeze the relatively stable spectators, but blur the fast motion of this marathon runner.

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed is how long your lens stays open. If the lens is open for a long time, it has time to let in more light. If it’s open for a short time, it doesn’t let in as much light.

How does it work?

Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second, so a “high” or a “fast” shutter speed is usually indicated by a high number on your camera, like 4000, representing 1/4000 of a second. Even though this is a “high” number, it’s actually a fraction, so the higher the number on the camera, the shorter the amount of time the lens will stay open. (Okay, maybe it’s not so straightforward…)

A “long” or “slow” shutter speed would be something like 1/30 of a second or less.

Cyclist near Boston Marathon finish line in Back Bay
This marathon image was also shot at 1/200s, but I panned my camera at the same speed as the cyclist to freeze him, and blur the background. This is a different way to convey his speed.

What’s the trade off?

Even though a fast (or short) shutter speed doesn’t let in as much light, it freezes motion. A slow (or long) shutter speed lets in more light, but it can introduce blur or motion to your image if either you or your subject are moving. For kids, sports, and other fast paced activities, a high shutter speed is almost always called for to “freeze” the motion. However, you can use a slow shutter speed artistically to intentionally capture motion blur, like with water (remember?) or fireworks. But this generally only works if the camera stays very still.

Okay, I’m mostly following. So what’s the “one small caveat” you mentioned earlier?

Well, you’ll frequently hear photographers talking about the “speed” of a lens, but this is not referring to shutter speed, or even how quickly the lens can focus. It’s actually referring to aperture.

Why? I’m not sure… Just to be confusing? Because shutter speed and aperture inform each other? Regardless, I’ll talk a lot more about aperture in another post.

Check out the photos and captions below to think a little more about how to use shutter speed creatively and let me know what questions you have in the comments!

Fire spinner on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
Shot at 0.4s to capture the motion of the fire spinner. I balanced the camera on a small table to keep it steady.


Holding a sparkler and drinking a beer on on 4th of July, 2015
1/8s. I asked my subject to stand still while I was taking this image so that he didn’t appear blurry. (He nailed it!)


Starry night in Hawaii with a boat floating in the ocean.
30s exposure, using a tripod and a remote. With an exposure this long, even touching your shutter button can shake the camera, so a remote can help keep it extra steady.


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