Shutter speed is one of the three most important settings for your camera—the other two being aperture and ISO. The shutter speed you use changes how the whole image looks. Here’s how to select the right speed.
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The Reciprocal Rule and the Minimum Hand Held Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is also called exposure time. It’s a measure of how long camera’s shutter stays open to let light in. Both 1/1000th of a second and one second are shutter speeds. Most cameras can do between 1/8000th of a second and 30 seconds natively. That’s a pretty huge range.
One thing you have to be careful of, though, is that you don’t use a shutter speed that’s too slow if you’re hand holding your camera. It’s tough to hold a camera totally steady; if the shutter speed is too slow, the small amount of handshaking and body movement will show up in the image as motion blur.
In general, the guideline is that the minimum handheld shutter speed is the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. So, if you’re using a 100mm lens (and remember to account for crop factor) then the slowest shutter speed you should try and use is 1/100th of a second. For a 40mm lens, it’s 1/40th of a second. For a 16mm lens, it’s 1/16th of a second. And so on.
In the image below you can see this in action. I took the same photo with a 40mm lens at eight different shutter speeds: 1/200th, 1/100th, 1/80th, 1/40th, 1/20th, 1/10th, 1/2, and one second. You can see there’s a severe drop off in sharpness between 1/40th and 1/20th.
While there are exceptions and ways to extend it, it’s a good principle to keep in mind when you’re selecting a shutter speed. If you want to go slower, you should use a tripod.
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With that said, let’s look at what each shutter speed range is good for.
Faster Than 1/500th of a Second
There are two main ways to show motion in your images: either by freezing it or blurring it. Shutter speeds faster than around 1/500th of a second will freeze all but the fastest moving objects.
On most cameras, the fastest possible shutter speed is either 1/4000th of a second or 1/8000th of a second. At this end of the range, you’ll freeze even fast-moving race cars in place.
As you move more toward a 1/500th of a second speed, you’ll still freeze fast-moving humans, but things like cars or skiers might show a little bit of motion blur.
In general, if you’re trying to freeze a fast-moving subject in place, go with the fastest shutter speed you can.
Between 1/500th and 1/100th of a Second
Between 1/500th of a second and 1/100th of a second is where a lot of portrait, street, wedding, and other handheld photography happens. The shutter speed is fast enough to freeze slow moving or posing humans, but not so fast that you need to use a wide aperture or high ISO even in daylight.
If you’re not sure what shutter speed to use, somewhere around 1/200th of a second is usually a nice balance. You can then increase it or decrease it as needed.
Between 1/100th and 1/10th of a Second
Between 1/100th and 1/10th of a second is a somewhat odd range. The reciprocal shutter speed of your lens will generally fall somewhere here. It can be a bit too slow to take sharp photos of all but still human subjects. If you’re trying to take a group shot, for example, someone will almost certainly move and look fuzzy.
Then, once you get slower than the reciprocal shutter speed, you will also be adding your own camera shake blur.
There are photos and certain subjects—waves and posing models—that can work well with photos in this range, so they’re not useless, but you normally need to have a specific reason to work here.
Between 1/10th of a Second and Two Seconds
Between 1/10th of a second and around two seconds is what I like to call short, long exposures. The shutter speed is slow enough that you need a tripod. Anything that moves is going to get blurry, but you’re not going to get the full silky smooth long exposure effect.
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It’s a fun range to work with and can make for some stunning landscape images.
Between Two Seconds and 30 Seconds
Between two and 30 seconds is where you hit the long exposure shutter speeds. Anything moving in the image is going to blur completely. Water and clouds will turn soft, streaky, and almost dreamlike.
This is also the range of shutter speeds you’ll be working with if you want to take landscape photos at dawn or dusk or photos of the night sky.
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Longer than 30 Seconds
Any shutter speed longer than 30 seconds is a long, long exposure to my mind. Most cameras can’t do it natively so you’ll need to use a camera remote and, unless it’s night, a neutral density filter. Any moving object is going to go seriously smooth. People walking through your photo will just vanish, or at most, leave a barely visible streak.
Working with such slow shutter speeds can be fun, but you have to be careful. Mess up your focus or exposure, and you’ll be waiting a few minutes before you find out your mistake!
There is a use for every shutter speed, but knowing what each one will do and which one to select is an important step in becoming a better photographer.
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