Choosing Your Shutter Speed

European Golden Eagle
A European Golden Eagle captured in flight using a shutter speed of 1/2000th sec.

In the last article, Exposure made simple, we discovered a few very important things. First off, modern cameras have a built-in method for measuring exposures that are pretty accurate. These built-in light meters (check your camera’s manual to find yours) need to have you input some information to help them work properly. You need to choose the sensitivity of your recording surface or set the ASA (ISO), you have to set the size of the hole in the lens letting the light into the camera, or set the aperture, and you need to set an amount of time to open the curtain in front of the recording surface letting it be exposed to light, or set the shutter speed. It’s the setting of the shutter speed that is the focus of this article.

The shutter speed is the amount of time the image sensor is exposed to light. This setting that is part of three settings that help us make a proper exposure is also able to allow certain effects to happen according to the shutter speed you choose.

Remembering our basic shutter speed scale from Exposure made simple: “30 sec., 15 sec., 8 sec., 4 sec., 2 sec.,1 sec. (denoted by “), 1/2 sec., 1/4 sec, 1/8 sec, 1/15 sec., 1/30 sec., 1/60 sec., 1/125 sec. 1/250 sec., 1/500 sec., 1/1000 sec., 1/2000 sec., 1/4000 sec., 1/8000 sec” let’s start breaking them down into four different categories using the standard shutter speed scale, not including third stops:

Long – any shutter speed from 1 sec. to 30 sec. and beyond.
Slow- any shutter speed 1/2 sec. to 1/30 sec.
Fast- 1/60th sec. to 1/500 sec.
High speed- From 1/1000 sec. to 1/8000 sec.

Choosing your shutter speed
A long exposure of 4 seconds was used for this photo.

A long shutter speed is into the seconds and hours timings. You will need a tripod for this. During this time, the camera is subject to all the vibrations that can happen so, you will also need a steady platform under you that is not in motion. I have heard of people trying long exposures while being on a boat that is rocking back and forth. Suffice it to say, they weren’t happy with their results. Long exposures can be used for several reasons. The example that comes to mind is fireworks photography. I am usually using a shutter speed of 1 to 30 seconds for this depending on the additional light sources in the frame. The fireworks streaking upwards will create trails of light leading to the explosion and light trails afterward.

Choosing your shutter speed
Image by Michael Kauer from Pixabay

Long exposures are also used to photograph traffic where the car lights leave a trail. Time of day is a factor in this as you need it to be somewhat darker, twilight, even night, to have success at this and have proper exposure. Sometimes, people have used shutter speeds of around 1 sec. to a couple of seconds to produce a flow of water in the stream providing an almost ethereal essence to the water. Professionals have used exposures for hours as they have been capturing star trails from the earth’s rotation. Your camera should have a BULB setting that allows these long exposures meaning that while the shutter release is depressed, the shutter is open. People generally also use a shutter release or remote cord on these types of exposures to help ensure that there is no vibration during the exposure. The pushing of the shutter with your finger can cause a vibration.

Panning photo
Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Slow shutter speeds are also used to create a sense of motion in subjects. It is also best to use a tripod and release cord for these as well as depressing the shutter release can cause a movement in the camera. Slow shutter speeds are used for showing motion in the water and some sports photographers have included using slow shutter speeds in panning (moving the camera with the subject) to exaggerate the sense of motion. Sometimes, a slow shutter speed will have to be used when you are trying to photograph something and have maximum depth of field (Aperture). This is just natural as you are cutting down on the amount of light coming through the lens so you have to compensate by allowing more time to let light reach the recording surface. You have to watch your exposure during slow shutter speed and especially more during long shutter speeds. The camera encounters something called reciprocity failure. It’s an even more technical term, suffice it to say, photographers try a few different shutter speed times if they can. For example, you may be shooting a waterfall and the shutter speed you need for proper exposure is 1/2 sec. Try another shot at 1 sec. and even 2 sec. as well as 1/4 sec. and 1/8 sec. This is called bracketing and is easily done on static subjects.

Bike race
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Fast shutter speeds encompass from 1/60 sec. to 1/500 sec. I debated whether to list 1/60th sec. here. Basically, never handhold a camera at 1/60 sec. or less. You can get motion from just depressing the shutter. Quite a few photographers also include using a tripod for 1/60th sec., others just brace themselves. Fast shutter speeds are probably your most used shutter speeds. They will cover a range of action from someone being still at 1/60 sec., a person walking at 1/125 sec. or a person walking/jogging at 1/250 sec. and a person running/skating/riding a bicycle at 1/500 sec. Basically, you can freeze the action in these photos with this type of action, which shouldn’t show any motion blur. The running, skating, riding a bicycle, subjects may include some blur, depends on the action. For the most part, you will be safe at 1/500 sec. Sometimes, when photographing bike racing, I would shoot at 1/500 sec. which would freeze the action of the upper part of the riders while still leaving a little motion blur in their legs and the wheels of the bike.

High-speed shutter speeds, from 1/1000 sec. up are used to freeze action. Such shutter speeds can be used in sports photography, fast action photography even to freeze a bullet after it was fired. Well, that’s an extremely high speed, 1/50 000 sec. Only specialized cameras can do that.

Choosing your shutter speed
Dolphins jumping at Marineland, shutter speed 1/1000th second.

But, if you’re at Marineland, watching the dolphins jump you may want a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec. to freeze the action very crisply as well as the water splashes. People have photographed hummingbirds in flight and only been able to freeze the action with 1/8000 sec. A neat trick is to photograph a helicopter in flight, using a high shutter speed and freezing the blades so it looks like it’s hanging in mid-air. When photographing a helicopter in flight, and even a prop plane, most photographers would actually choose 1/500 sec. to freeze the body of the aircraft but still show a motion blur in the blades.

So, that’s about it for shutter speeds. Your camera has a program which is called shutter priority, you choose the shutter speed and the camera chooses the appropriate aperture for the proper exposure. In manual mode, that is pretty much how I tend to operate my camera. I evaluate the subject for their motion and choose an appropriate shutter speed based on the same information above. Then, I choose the proper aperture for the proper exposure and take the picture. With practice, this takes me no thought and costs me no time in getting the picture. Generally, as I am exploring events, I will set a shutter speed of 1/250 sec. and walk around for normal everyday events where I won’t have to capture fast action, at the most a person jogging. As I encounter a subject, it’s just a quick adjustment to the aperture, then, I’m ready to shoot.

There is a rule of thumb to be aware of, never go with a shutter speed less than 1/focal length of the lens you are using when you are hand-holding. This just means that if you are using a 300mm lens, handheld, a good shutter speed to set would be 1/500 sec. but, not lower than 1/300 sec. You can get motion blur from depressing the shutter and the effect is amplified in the longer lenses. Honestly, I have used shorter lenses without worrying about this rule of thumb, but, I pay attention to it when I am using a 300mm lens.


Choosing your aperture
Setting your ISO sensitivity
Putting it all together, coming up with a proper exposure