Playing with shutter speed is such an amazing thing! But if you don´t know how to handle it – you could end up with a ruined photo.

Shutter speed is one of the three core pillars that makes up your photo, alongside aperture and ISO. If you haven´t read the summary about the three yet, take a second to get the overview HERE. Similar to aperture, shutter speed serves two purposes. You can control both the amount of light entering your camera, helping achieve the correct exposure you desire, as well as the possibility for a creative touch. Let´s have a look at the technical aspect first, then the creative later on. We´ll keep it easy, and understandable – don´t worry 🙂

In the middle of your camera, there is a sensor, capturing light. Once you press the shutter button, a curtain slides open, and lets light pour in. After a given time, that curtain slides down, and stops light from entering the sensor.

If the sensor is exposed to the correct amount of light, the photo turns out well and correctly exposed. And if there is too much light, or too little, hitting the sensor, the photo will turn out too bright, or too dark. Leave the shutter open for too long, and too much light will hit the sensor, and if the shutter is not open for long enough, of course, not enough light will hit the sensor. We call this using a slow, or fast, shutter speed.

The image below is exposed correctly, and it looks like it is supposed to.

Correctly exposed

This image is exposed correctly

Low lights

Imagine standing in dim lights, with your eyes closed. Then you blink as fast as you can – just keeping your eyes open for a fraction of a second. Were you able to see everything going on around you? You would probably need to keep your eyes up for a bit, to get the overview. This is because you didn´t allow for enough light to pass through the eye, hitting your “sensor”. It´s the same thing about your camera. The image below is underexposed, due to a fast shutter speed. To little light got to the sensor, before the curtain shut.

Underexposed

This image is underexposed.

Bright lights

On the other hand, in bright daylight, a fraction of a second would be more than enough. It´s because enough light passed through your eye, hitting the “sensor”. It might even be too much light, for example, at the beach on a sunny day. You might not be able to keep your eyes all the way open, due to the extreme amount of light – so you have to squint, right? In terms of shutter speed, we would fix that by using a faster shutter, allowing less light into the camera.

If the shutter is open for too long, the sensor is flooded with light, and the photo turns out all bright and overexposed. Worst case it goes completely white. Let me be very clear – this is almost impossible to fix in editing software later on. The white areas in this image are totally ruined and impossible to save later.

Overexposed

This image is overexposed.

Effects of shutter speed

Shutter speed is shown in your display, and shows how fast the curtain will open and shut. Most cameras can be manually set to a shutter speed between 30 seconds and 1/4000 or 1/8000 of a second.

Everything that happens between the opening, and the shutting of the curtain, will show up in the image. So if you let the curtain open for one second, everything that happens in front of the camera within that second will show up. That will often result in a blurry image. Also keep in mind that it is nearly impossible to handhold a camera still for such a long time. There will be loads of camera shake showing up. Have a look at this example, when i tried to handheld the camera with a shutter speed of 0″4 seconds. Looks like sh**, right?

Camera shake

Long shutter resulted in a shaky footage

If you want to use shutter speeds that long, you should get a tripod, or use a table to support the camera. I found that my limit for getting a crisp shot, handheld, is about 1/80 of a second most times. With good breathing technique and steady hands, I might get away with 1/30 of a second. Any slower, and the risk of blurry footage gets so high, I risk ruining the shot. In some situations it would be wise to adjust aperture or ISO, allowing yourself to use a fast shutter speed. For example if you shoot a wedding. It´s a lot better with some grain in the image, than a shaky image. If that ring isn´t crystal clear – it´s your ass on the line, friendo!

NOW – Let´s get creative with shutter speed

Now that you know how the shutter speed works, and what it does – we should have a look at how you can use shutter speed to get creative!

Let´s look at two scanarios. Think of a stream. The water is moving quite fast. If you wanted to freeze the moment, capturing every drop of water splashing around – you would have to use a very fast shutter to freeze the moment. Remember that everything that happens in front of the lens in the time the curtain is open will show up. So a shutter of 1/30 of a second will probably not freeze the moment due to the speed the water travels. In the example below I used a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second to capture that moving water.

Fast shutter - 1/800 of a second

Fast shutter – 1/800 of a second

In the next scenario, I wanted to capture the stream for a longer period of time, to see what it would look like. I adjusted my aperture and ISO, and took this shot using a tripod, with a shutter speed of 1,6 seconds.

Long shutter speed 1,6 seconds

Long shutter speed 1,6 seconds

As we talked about in the summary of ISO, shutter speed and aperture – you can change the shutter speed, by changing either the ISO, aperture, or both of them. That way the shot will remain correctly exposed.

Using these techniques you can get really creative, and get those amazing shots of star trials, long lined tail lights from cars and that cotton candy-look in moving water 🙂

Okay guys – so I really hope this explained what shutter speed all about, and how you can play with it to get the results you want.

If you still have any questions, please, feel free to leave them below, or send me an email. I would love to hear from you. Is there any other aspects of photography you wanna learn more about? Drop me a DM, and I´ll see what I can do 🙂

NB! I would also give a shout out to Utku Serinozu for lending me the cover photo for this aritcle! Check him out on Instagram.

See you soon guys! Happy shooting – see you out there.

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