This is the second part of a three part series looking into the basics of operating your camera in full manual mode. Aimed at complete beginners, these posts will be teaching about the three main functions. Aperture, ISO an Shutter Speed. In this post, we will be looking at Shutter Speed.

What Exactly is the Shutter Speed?

A duck jumping in to a lake. f/5.6, 1/500, ISO 400

A duck jumping in to a lake. f/5.6, 1/500, ISO 400 


The Shutter Speed (also known as exposure) is the length of time you set the shutter to remain open while a photograph is being taken.

In its simplest form, all a camera basically does is record light. One way to control how much light is being recorded is to set how long you want the shutter to remain open. You can almost think of your camera as a video recorder, except these recordings are in a single frame and last for fractions of a second. When setting your shutter speed, you will typically see it displayed as a fraction of a second. So,  1/60 means that the shutter is open for a sixtieth of a second. 1/100 means that the shutter is open  for one hundredth of a second and so on.  As you slow down the speed of the shutter, you will actually be able to hear it audibly. If you go slow enough, you will be able to hear two separate sounds. One as the shutter opens, and one as it closes.

What does a fast shutter speed do?

Beach in Salu. f/1.8, 1/4000, ISO 100

Beach in Salu, Spain. f/1.8, 1/4000, ISO 100

A fast Shutter speed does two main things. If freeze captures a moment. Also, the faster you go, the less light will be allowed into the camera.

I took this picture on a beach in Salu – Spain. I set my camera to 1/4000. (four thousandths of a second). At this speed the wave was practically frozen in time. Looking closely, you can see each individual droplet of water as the wave rose and ultimately crashed into itself. But as mentioned before, the faster you set your shutter speed, the darker the picture will be. I was only able to set my shutter speed so fast because the bright sun light allowed it. It would have been next to impossible for me to shoot at such high speeds if I were indoors without a very bright light source.

What does a slow shutter speed do?

Fire Artist doing her thing. f/18, 0.8, ISO 100.

Fire Artist doing her thing. f/18, 0.8, ISO 100.

A slow shutter speed, as you would imagine, has quite the opposite effect. It allows you to see more movement in a picture. Also, the slower the shutter speed, the more light will be allowed in.

The photo to the right was taken with a shutter speed of 0″8. (0.8 seconds) In everyday life, this is a tiny amount of time, but in the world of photography so much can happen. As you can see in the image, during the 0.8 seconds it took the shutter to open, and then close, the model had already made several movements with her fire torches, giving us the beautiful light streaming effects you see in the image.

Now, when taking this kind of photo, our aperture lesson will start to come into play. (If you haven’t already read it, I suggest you do so here)  Under normal daylight conditions it wouldn’t be possible to take a photo with a  shutter speed of 0.8 seconds without the photo being over exposed. Everything will just be way too bright. So, we have to compensate. Recalling our lesson on aperture, we know that making the aperture smaller, (Increasing the f-number) will decrease the amount of light entering the camera. It’s a bit of a balancing act, the slower you set the shutter, the smaller you have to make your aperture in order to maintain a constant level of brightness.


What shutter speed should I use?

The shutter speed you choose will completely depends on the occasion and environment. If you are at a sporting event and are trying to capture the moment your favourite sprinter crosses the line, then you I would suggest you start at around 1/500 and experiment with your settings from there. In some occasions these settings may make the photo too dark. So you would compensate by opening up the aperture a little, and or raising the ISO depending on the effect you are trying to create. On the other hand, if you are at an indoor dinner party, there would be no need to use such fast shutter speeds. Not to mention, if you shot a photo at 1/500 indoors with no flash, the photo would most certainly be too dark. At a dinner party, there is no need to consider the fast movement of the subject when taking photos. Plus, the chances are, the lighting wouldn’t be as good as you would like. Bearing both these points in mind, you can safely reduce the shutter speed to a much slower state than you would if you were trying to capture a sporting event outdoors in daylight.  As mentioned in my previous posting, the slowest shutter speed I recommend going to without a tripod is 1/60.

Long Exposure Photography

Night street in Shanghai - China., f/18, 30, ISO 100.

Night street in Shanghai – China., f/18, 30, ISO 100.

Long exposure photography is in a class on its own. I personally love employing long exposure techniques to create beautiful and vibrant photographs. I may write a completely seperate post on Long Exposure on another day but for now, here are the basics. Long exposure photography is simple to do, but you must at the very least have a steady surface to rest the camera upon while the photograph is captured. I took the photo to the left above a busy road one night in Shanghai. The shutter speed was set at 30 seconds. During this time It was imperative that the camera remained completely still as any  movement whatsoever would have spoilt the photo. Also, my aperture was set to f/18. Bearing in mind that this photo was taken at night, using f/18 under any other circumstance with a, ‘normal’ shutter speed would have given us a completely black photograph.

I hope you found this post useful. If you didn’t understand anything, or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!



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