Written By:
Jeff

What Is Shutter Speed: The Ultimate Guide

Published On:
July 26, 2021
what is shutter speed
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Shutter speed is one of the most important aspects of photography and videography, but it can also be one of the more difficult concepts to grasp. Shutter speed has a wide range of applications in these two fields, so understanding how it works will help you take better photos/film.

This blog post will answer the age-old question, what is shutter speed, along with everything you need to know for both photography and videography!

By the end of this article, you'll not only know what shutter speed is, but how to use it effectively and creatively!

Let's dive in!

We Always Recommend Shooting In Manual Mode

what is shutter speed

Shooting in manual mode will allow you to:

  • Have more control over the exposure (amount of light).
  • Make sure it's set correctly to eliminate blur caused by camera shake (if shot handheld) 
  • Allows you set up better combinations of camera settings like aperture and ISO which will allow for more consistency across an entire shoot.

This is why we always recommend manual over auto. You're ultimately able to be more creative, precise, and an overall better photographer (because you'll know exactly what each setting does to your image).

what is shutter speed

This entire article is based on the idea that you either currently shoot in manual mode or you plan to in the near future.

The photography portion of this article is based entirely on natural light speeds/settings. We are in the process of fleshing out our workflow and settings for flash photography. Stay tuned in the coming months.

So, What Is Shutter Speed?

what is shutter speed

Think of your camera shutter like your eye lid - blink and you've taken a picture.  Same concept with a camera.

Now, the shutter speed is the length of time that a camera shutter remains open. Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second, with 1/1 being one full second. When you take a picture, the shutter will open and close to expose light to the sensor for the desired amount of time. Fast shutter speeds stop action while a slower one allows motion blur.

Now that you have a little better of an idea - you may be wondering what the actual shutter is.

What Is A Camera Shutter?

what is shutter speed

The shutter is a small device (usually plastic or composite of some type) that acts as a door to the camera's sensor.

On a DSLR, the shutter is coupled with a mirror that reflects off the mirror in your viewfinder; allowing you to see your frame.

On a mirrorless; the mirror is obviously not present (hence the name) - but the shutter is still there.

This 'door' opens, allowing more or less light to hit the sensor depending entirely on your shutter speed settings.

why is shutter speed important in photography

what is shutter speed

Exposure aside, shutter speed directly affects the ability to capture motion.

Generally speaking - you have two options. You can either freeze motion or introduce motion blur. The severity of each is entirely up to you and the environment/exposure you're shooting in.

Example: A shutter speed of 1/1000 will freeze most motion. You may need to take it a bit higher if you're photographing a dancer or gymnast... but, 90% of all action can be captured at that shutter speed.

what is shutter speed

On the flip side, if you were to take the same picture with a shutter speed of 1/125 you would most likely have a blurry photo (depending on how much movement there was).

Many beginners forget about how important shutter speed is when getting really sharp images. I'll get questions about why their images aren't sharp... their setting is correct... etc.

Well, let's talk about some common mistakes when it comes to slow shutter speeds in photography.

Slow Shutter Speed And Camera Shake

what is shutter speed
The image above, is a great example of both camera shake and subject movement combined.  Notice how nothing is really in focus or sharp?

Think about it - you're in a low-light situation. You have your aperture wide open. You want to keep your ISO as low as possible to reduce noise. The only thing you're able to adjust at that point is shutter speed.

You then adjust the shutter to 1/60, exposure is great and you start firing off.

Well, you're shooting handheld and you notice all of those images are blurry. You even knew that keeping a really steady hand is important.

Good on you for knowing you needed to keep a steady hand. But, even the slightest of movements at that shutter speed (or lower) will most likely cause blur. You need to keep this in mind.

Generally speaking, you want to keep your shutter speed double your focal length - IE an 85mm lens should have a shutter speed around 1/200. This is to ensure small camera movements don't result in blurry images.

In this situation, it's much better to introduce ISO values instead of having blurry photos. You can fix digital noise - it's very hard to fix motion blur.

Shutter Speed Is Too Slow For Your Subject

what is shutter speed
what is shutter speed
what is shutter speed

All images above are unedited.  These are straight out of the camera.  But, do you notice how the shutter speed was too slow for the moving child?  I took the first photo, entirely too slow to freeze.  Then, I was able to track the child going up... but notice then how the parents aren't in focus? Then as the child was coming back down, the parents were in focus again and the child wasn't.  This is a great example of not having a shutter speed fast enough for your subject and your own slight movements.

This may be a no-brainer... but, let me throw this at you.

Let's say you have your camera set to a slow shutter speed. You're looking through the viewfinder and take your shot. You then look at the back of your camera.

The screen is small (no more than ~3inches) - and everything seems great.

You then take it home to edit and notice that your subjects aren't sharp at all. Everything looks pretty good. But everything looks a little soft. Or, you notice a little trailing in hand/arm/leg movement.

This is because your shutter speed was too slow for your subject's movement. I say this because it can look great out in the field, but not-so-great once you get it back home to edit it.

If you haven't already, implement zooming into your photos on your screen into your workflow. It will eliminate this issue entirely.

An Issue With Shutter Speeds That Are Too Fast

You may not think that there are issues with having shutter speeds too fast. In fact, most won't notice or mind a shutter speed higher than 1/1000. But, if you're looking at some of your photos when editing and thinking, "hmmm, this is just missing something or just doesn't look right". It could be something as simple as shutter speed.

Let me explain.

The Scene Is 'Too Frozen' Or Too Much Detail

what is shutter speed

Notice all of the ripples in the water (this was a 3 bracketed HDR), and how sharp the grass is?  My intentions and 'vision' of the image was much different than the result (and not in a good way).  I still 'like' the image, but would have been happier with it if I had taken a long exposure vs a standard one.

I couldn't figure out, for the longest time, why I wasn't getting the shots that I was seeing. I would go to the water or take photos on a cloudy day, and nothing looked like I was seeing it with my eyes or how I was thinking.

It could have been a slew of things... framing, perspective, the lens I was using... only to name a few.

Well, believe it or not, it was my shutter speed.

I was capturing too much. I would be outside shooting landscapes, a park, or a pretty cool building while it was raining - and I was capturing raindrops throughout my images.

what is shutter speed

I was also shooting the ocean - but during the day running shutter speed as high as 1/6000 - getting super sharp ripples in the water. This was adding entirely too much texture to my images. Even leaves on trees were too sharp in the background and literally giving the background texture.

It wasn't until I lowered my shutter speed down a bit and increased my aperture (while ensuring that I could still maintain great exposure), was I able to get the images I was truly seeing. I mean think about it, when it's drizzling outside, your eyes don't see individual rain drops falling from the sky - or every little ripple in the water.

Even doing long exposure photography during the day (with an ND filter) has made the world of difference and adds another element to my work.

Keep this in mind going forward - who knows, cranking your shutter speed may not be the right thing after all.

Why Is Shutter Speed Important In Videography

what is shutter speed

Much like photography, videography relies on shutter speed for exposure (amount of light), but more importantly than that - it relies on it for natural motion blur.

The world as we see it through our eyes, naturally blurs whenever we move.

Take your hand and put it up to your face. Now move your hand back and forth at a relatively fast pace (don't hit yourself in the face though! haha). Now, notice how your hand is blurry and will increase in 'blurriness' the faster you do it.

Shutter speed mimics the same motion blur in the video.

When this motion blur isn't present in the video - something will seem off or you'll have choppy movement (don't get this confused with lag, that's something completely different). Check out the video below for real-world examples.

what is shutter speed

Achieving natural blur is pretty simple really. Keep your shutter speed twice that of your frame rate...

...for instance - if you want a cinematic-style video you'll want to be shooting at 24fps. Double that to get your correct shutter speed. That would be 1/48 (or 1/50 - most common DSLR and mirrorless cameras don't have 1/48 as a shutter speed option).

Now, if you want slow-motion video (and depending on how slow) - you could be running 60fps (for 2x slow motion) all the way up to 120fps (or 5x slow motion, or even higher). The same principle applies here. 60fps would have a shutter speed of 1/120 - 240fps would be 1/240. You get the idea, I'm sure.

Pretty simple right? Yeah, not too difficult.

Now, let's talk about a common issue you'll run into when shooting 24fps with a shutter speed of 1/50.

Exposure Issues With Slow Shutter Speeds In Video

What you'll notice when shooting a video with a shutter speed of 1/50 is that you're probably overexposed. This is assuming you're outside during the day. You'll need to get that exposure down to correct it, but how? You don't want to increase aperture, you want to have nice bokeh - this is cinematic footage for goodness sake. We can't bring ISO down either because it's already as low as it can go.

Well, the solution to that is pretty simple. This is when you would use an ND filter. A variable ND filter to be exact.

what is shutter speed
Check out my article here for a semi-deep-dive into variable ND filters and the best on the market, currently.

An ND filter acts like sunglasses on your lens. The variable part of the name only means there are multiple shades within the same filter. You spin an outer ring to adjust exposure - using more or less of the ND to get the desired exposure.

Again, if you're thinking about getting into cinematic style videos - you must purchase a Variable ND filter if you plan on filming anything remotely close to outdoor brightness.

Pretty easy fix, right?

Let's move on to 'exposure time' and how exactly shutter speed is measured.

What Is Exposure Time In Photography

In photography, exposure time is the length of time that a film or digital sensor is exposed to light. It's measured in seconds and fractions of seconds. The longer your camera's exposure time, the more light it absorbs and the brighter your photo will be. The shorter your camera exposure time is, the darker your image will be.

Very simple concept. Let's discuss how it's measured.

How is shutter speed measured

what is shutter speed in photography

Shutter speed is measured in whole seconds or fractions of a second. I'm sure you're familiar with fractions on your camera such as 1/1000 or 1/200. This is a direct representation of how long the shutter is open.

So, a shutter speed of 1/1000 would mean that the shutter (remember, the 'door' that opens), is open for 1/1000th of a second.

Yes, you read that correctly... 1/1000th. In theory, if you could... that shutter would close 1000 times in 1 second. Crazy, huh...

This brings us back to the idea that the longer your sensor is exposed, the brighter your image will be. Of course, an image shot at slower shutter speeds (IE, 1/250) is going to be much brighter than shots taken at faster shutter speeds (1/1000).

How is shutter speed measured

I thought I would include this question (I get it quite often). It only drives home what we have discussed thus far in the article - but for those with this question specifically - here ya go!

Shutter speed values determine how long the sensor is exposed to light.

The length of time that your sensor is exposed to light would be your exposure time.

Shutter speed directly affects exposure time because it's the setting that determines how long it will be exposed.

What Should My Shutter Speed Be For Photo

Now let's talk about common instances where we can assume conditions would also be common, allowing you to take what I'm saying and apply it to those real-world situations.

Let's start with portrait work

How is shutter speed measured

what is shutter speed in photography
what is shutter speed in photography
what is shutter speed in photography

All images above were taken outdoors, between 12 and 2 pm (in the shade), with an off-camera flash.  Shutter speed settings still apply here

Now, try to refrain from thinking of portraits as lifestyle photography. I know, I know... I wasn't saying you were... but, if even the idea popped in your head... think of this as only shutter speed for portraits (we will get to the lifestyle here in a minute).

For the most part, whether you're doing portraits outdoors or indoors... the settings are going to be about the same. Yeah, outdoors you may be able to push the speed a bit higher... but generally speaking, they're going to be about the same.

So, when taking portraits, you can have a slower shutter speed. The reason being, your subject isn't moving. You're posing them popping off a few shots and back to posing them in a different position - then changing angles and so forth...

what is shutter speed in photography
what is shutter speed in photography
Both images above were taken at shutter speeds between 1/60th and 1/120th

Slower shutter speeds are only achieved in this situation because the subject isn't moving nearly at all.

You may find that shooting at a slow shutter speed (outdoors), their hair may be a little blurry, or their surroundings may be too (like trees)... Don't worry about that. Embrace that. The wind is catching it a bit. This gives the shot movement. Character, if you will.

If Your Shutter Speed Is Slow Enough...

You may consider shooting on a tripod. If you do decide to - I highly recommend picking up an L bracket if you haven't already. You'll be able to flip-flop between landscape and portraits on the fly - without ever having to use a different mount or setup.

Personally, if I'm shooting handheld, I never shoot below 1/60 for portraits. If I do - I'm guaranteed to have blurry images. But, 1/60 is the lowest sweet spot for me where I eliminate 90% of motion blur and maintain tac sharp images.

I typically shoot on a 135mm. During portrait sessions, I'm usually shooting around 1/200. If I want a bit more motion blur, I'll bump it down to 1/125.

If I'm shooting at 1/125 I am in a squatting position with both of my elbows on my legs - balancing myself and cradling the camera as I breath. I have gotten pretty damn good at this over the years - I nail this shutter speed/focal length combo 95% of the time.

Fast Shutter Speed: Lifestyle Photography

what is shutter speed in photography
what is shutter speed in photography

For reference, I consider candids and children playing as lifestyle (even though it may happen during a family portrait session)

With that being said, things change quite a bit going from portraits to lifestyle (even more so going from flash family portraits to lifestyle).

Regardless, you need to be ready when the time comes (if you're planning to shoot paid work). It's such a great opportunity to give parents real photos of their children. Posed photos are great - candid and lifestyle photos are real.

So, This is all assuming we're outside.

I try and keep a fast shutter speed. We're talking 1/1000. There isn't much of a need to go higher than that. You'll freeze anything you point the camera at (for the most part).

What you'll notice is that the exposure may be a bit off (underexposed). What I do in this situation is turn on auto ISO (even though I'm in manual mode). I'm running a Sony A7iii.

This allows me to constantly change the shutter speed accordingly without having to worry about any other setting (I keep my aperture constant throughout).

Now You May Be Thinking, Auto ISO?! Are You Crazy? Well, Not Really.

You see, Sony's low light performance is amazing. They're known for their excellent low light performance (and dynamic range) for both photo and video. Also, the ISO doesn't shoot above 500 at any given time (again, for the most part).

It's incredibly easy to fix in lightroom or photoshop (a de-noise slider... too easy).

You also have the option of switching to shutter priority mode - and being about to set the shutter to whatever you need, and letting the camera do the rest.

Personally, I'm not a fan of priority modes, but that's just me. It may be the perfect seeing/profile for you!

Lifestyle shutter speed settings aren't hard at all. Just set it and watch your exposure and you'll do great!

Shutter Speed For Events (Indoors)

what is shutter speed in photography
what is shutter speed in photography
what is shutter speed in photography

All images above were taken outdoors, between 12 and 2 pm (in the shade), with an off-camera flash.  Shutter speed settings still apply here

Ahhhh... now we're getting into the good stuff.

We all know that 90% of all artificial lighting on the planet looks absolutely terrible through a camera lens.

It does nothing for anyone's appearance/complexion... there can be color-casts throughout the whole event/venue... there's never enough of that crappy light (but, light is light, right?? haha), to go around.

Indoor events can be incredibly enjoyable, tiring, and educational all at the same time.

Before I had ever done an indoor event - I had an idea of how I needed to approach it. We had already been shooting and I'm business for almost a year at that point.

For this example, we're going to talk about dance performance.

what is shutter speed in photography

Here are the settings that I use on my A7iii during 90% of our indoor sessions.

I start with putting ISO in auto and aperture wide open.

I then half my focal length number. Add your focal length + half of that value to get your shutter speed.

A tripod may be a must in these events. You may find that you're crazily underexposed. Use ISO to fill that gap (your aperture should be all the way open at this point). Be mindful of how high your ISO is going throughout the shoot. It's possible to add a ton of digital noise to an image that already has noise due to low light. The combination isn't always pretty.

Adjust shutter speed from time to time if you need to. But I recommend setting it and forget it. The only thing you'll then need to worry about is the session itself.

Slower Shutter Speeds For Long Exposure Shots

what is shutter speed in photography
what is shutter speed in photography

I love long exposure. There isn't much of anything better or creative that you can do in-camera than very slow shutter speed. That's exactly what long exposure is...

We're talking shots from 1/4 to 30 seconds+.

As you can imagine, your exposure is going to be way off if you don't have an ND filter. This acts as sunglasses for your lens.

You will, without a doubt, need some type of ND filter system/setup for very slow shutter speeds. I recommend our article here for our circular variable ND filter recommendations.

You'll also need a tripod. There is no way you'll ever handhold a 30-second long exposure shot. You'll have a terrible image. Just do yourself a favor and pick one of those up as well.

What Should My Shutter Speed Be For Video

We mentioned this earlier in the article, but, if you missed it - here it is again!

Your shutter speed should be double your frame rate for natural motion blur. Without it, your video would look a bit off and a little 'choppy' in the movement department.

So, if you want cinematic video - shoot at 24fps. Your shutter speed than would be 1/48 (or 1/50 on most cameras)

If you want slow motion, you'll have to shoot at a higher frame rate.

  • 'Dreamy' slow motion is 30fps... shoot at 1/60
  • 2.5x slo-mo is 60 fps - shutter speed should be 1/120.
  • 5x slow motion has a shutter speed of 240.

Camera movement is key here - and a gimbal is highly recommended.

You get the idea now. I'm sure of it!

How to adjust shutter speed

what is shutter speed in photography

It's very simple, believe it or not.

Every major manufacturer has a dial near the shutter release that changes your shutter speed.

Canon, Sony, and Nikon all have them around the same spot (although it may be reversed ,IE - shutter speed wheel on the front, aperture on the back).

All you do is roll that dial until you get your desired shutter speed. Too easy, right?

How To Use Shutter Speed Creatively

This is something we plan on fleshing out in the very near future.

This is where you can have shutter speed work for you.

You can create a lot of these filters that are in these phone apps, right from inside of your camera. No editing/apps involved.

I am going to list them out below and will hyperlink to them as they become available. Be sure to save this article as a bookmark so you can see the upcoming additional we link to.

  • Long exposure
  • Light Trails
  • Long exposure portraits
  • Shutter dragging
  • Light Painting

That About Wraps It Up For Now!

We wanted to thank you for reading this far in the article. If you have, give yourself a pat on the back, from us!

We really hope we answered your question of, what is shutter speed as well as given you some pointers that you can think about going forward in helping you to improve!

You can follow us on Facebook and/or Instagram to see more of our work overtime (and our special photo sessions with clients).

Until next time, be safe and keep learning!!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is shutter speed on a camera?

Shutter speed is the amount of time that your camera shutter remains open when taking a photograph. The longer the shutter speed, the more light you allow into your camera; the short the shutter, the less amount of light let in. Shutter speed can range from 30 seconds (on the long end), to ~1/8000th of a second (on the short end).

What is a shutter speed simple definition?

Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter stays open to capture an image. It's measured in fractions of a second, like 1/30 or 1/100. The longer it stays open for, the more light gets into the camera and brighter your picture will be; the opposite if it's open for a shorter time.

What is a good shutter speed?

That depends entirely on your subject and what type of "effect" you want from the setting. Test this by taking a shot and checking to see if it's a setting that will work - from there you increase shutter speed if you wan the subject sharper/more frozen. Or lower the speed if you want more blur.

How does shutter speed affect a photo?

Shutter speed affects a photo in two major ways. One is exposure. A faster shutter speed will make for a darker image, slower speed will make for a brighter image. The second is motion blur. A faster shutter speed will capture faster-moving subject, slower shutter speeds will capture the same subjects, but blurry (the severity of this depends entirely on the shutter speed setting in comparison to their movement). There are creative ways to use both effects (yes, including motion blur, believe it or not).

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