Shutter Speed: Take Control

Shutter Speed

Fast Shutter Speed

Let’s say you’re taking pictures at your friend’s second cousin’s kid’s best friend’s baseball game (when people see you have a nice camera, things like that happen).  This would be a great time to take advantage of your ability to control the shutter speed. Setting the shutter speed determines how long the shutter is open. The longer the shutter is open the more light comes through to reach the sensor.

Time to move off the automatic setting on your camera.

Why? Why would you want to have to think for yourself?


Little Billy is up to bat. Your camera is set on automatic. You take a picture when he swings at the ball.

You look at the properly exposed image and see one of the following:

A)     The motion of Billy’s bat connecting with the ball frozen in time. Billy is sharp even though he was moving when you took the picture.

B)      Billy is a blur. The bat is a blur. The ball is a blur.

C)      Something in between.

You don’t know what the camera will choose to give you! All it knows to do is expose the image correctly.  How about you choose your own ending.

New situation with you in control:

You want a shot of the catcher as someone slides across home plate.

Choose your own ending:

A)     Choosing Tv on your dial (letting the camera choose the aperture – not worrying about that today), you set your shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second. You get a picture of a person running and a catcher waiting there – all sharp. Cool.

B)      Now you decide to see what happens when you slow it down to 1/80. The catcher is holding still so you get a great picture of him, but the runner sliding in front of him is a blur. It looks awesome! The catcher is the focus, the exposure is correct, and the blurred motion of the runner makes it look more artistic.

Either ending is good, but this time, it’s your choice!

Things to remember about shutter speed:

  • Shutter speeds are listed at fractions of a second. So 1/100 is slower than 1/400.
  • To freeze action, the higher the denominator, the better. However high you can go and still have proper exposure, go there.
  • To show motion, the lower the denominator, the better.

Time to Get Out Your Camera and Try

Set your camera to Tv mode. Take a picture of the same moving subject at each of these shutter speeds:

1/50       1/80       1/100     1/160     1/400     1/1000

Compare. You’ll see why it’s fun to control your shutter speed yourself.

Shutter Speed Chart

Children – 1/250 – 1/1000 seconds Amusement park rides: around 1 second
Sports games: 1/500 – 1/2000 seconds Waterfalls or other moving water: 4 or more seconds
Birds in flight: 1/1000 seconds and above Fireworks: 1/2 second to 4 seconds
Moving water and waterfalls: 1/1000 seconds Moving cars at night (street scene): 8-10 seconds
Moving cars: 1/1000 seconds Night photography: one or more seconds

Trouble shooting? (yes, a pun)

Honestly, usually people want to freeze action. But we can’t always use a high shutter speed and get correct exposure. If you must lower your shutter speed, because you can’t adjust your aperture and/or ISO to let in more light (for either practical or creative reasons), then you can use a tripod. This will eliminate camera shake. But if you have a moving subject in this situation, you will just need more light. Either use a flash or change to a brighter location.

Tips for portraits:

  • When taking pictures of people, try not to go under 1/100. People generally just don’t hold still that well.
  • When shooting people who are moving, like a child playing, stay at 1/160 or above.

Slow Shutter Speed

When would you use a really low shutter speed without flash?

I was shooting a wedding where there were candles and rose petals floating in the pool. It was dark. I set my camera on a tripod (to eliminate camera shake) and brought my shutter speed down to 1/40 so it was open long enough to let the candle light in. The candle light was just enough that the petals near it showed in the image too. I did it again at a lower shutter speed and it caught the motion of the light bobbing on the water. You can apply this same principle to taking pictures of city lights at night, stars, the moon, etc. 

You will find yourself loving your images a lot more when you stop letting the camera do the thinking and take control.

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