What is shutter speed? A beginner's guide

First published:
February 3, 2021
February 12, 2024

What is shutter speed? A beginner's guide

First published:
February 3, 2021
February 12, 2024

Cover image by Peter J. Griffifths

Shutter speed is one of the most important elements of every image you'll ever take. In this guide, you’ll learn how it works, why it is so important and how to manipulate it to improve your images

What is shutter speed?

Simply put, shutter speed controls the speed in which the curtain in front of your camera’s sensor opens and closes. When the shutter button is pressed, the curtain opens, and your sensor begins to record the light that passes through your lens until the moment the curtain closes again.

The longer that this curtain remains open, the more light is recorded by the camera’s sensor. So, shutter speed is the length of time that your shutter is open. Shutter speed, together with aperture and ISO, form the ‘exposure triangle’ - the blueprint of every photo taken.

Learn more about the exposure triangle with our dedicated guide here.

Sony DSLR camera with the sensor exposed
View of the sensor on a DSLR camera. The shutter speed is what controls the amount of time light will be exposed to the sensor to create the image. Photo by Valentin Valkov

How is shutter speed measured?

On the LCD screen on the back of DSLRs, and on dials on the top of mirrorless cameras and film camera bodies, there are numbers such as 1/20, 1/100, 2” etc. These relate to shutter speed settings and are measured in seconds. Where the shutter speed is faster than 1 second, this is shown as a fraction of a second.

So, for example, when the shutter speed is set at 1/4 it means a quarter of a second. If it is 1/1000 it means one-thousandth of a second. Where the shutter speed is slower than 1 second it is shown as a whole number and followed by a “ (i.e., 2”, 3”, 10” etc). Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras allow you to set a shutter speed of up to 30 seconds with the option of setting longer shutter speeds with a shutter cable release.

LCD screen of a DSLR showing the shutter speed
The LCD display on the back of a Canon DSLR camera. The shutter speed setting of 1/160s is displayed at the top left of the screen

Why is shutter speed important?

There are four main reasons why shutter speed is such an important aspect of digital photography. Here’s why:

To avoid camera shake

One of the biggest frustrations of photographers is their images lacking sharpness. Often the main reason for this is that the shutter speed is too slow. As mentioned above, shutter speed is the length of time that the camera’s shutter will remain open.

The longer this is, the more difficult it will be to avoid the camera moving or shaking during the exposure. Even the smallest of movements will result in camera shake, which means blurred photos.

Blurry photo of a street food vendor
This image was taken with a shutter speed of 1/60 sec - and as you can see from the blurred elements in the image - this was not fast enough to get a completely sharp image

With the advancement of in-camera image stabilization technology, cameras and lenses can capture images at lower shutter speeds without causing blur. There are different types of image stabilization technology. But they all help the photographer shoot with a slower shutter speed than is recommended and still end up with sharp photos. This is typically 1 or 2 stops slower (i.e rather than shooting at 1/250s, the photographer can capture a replicable image at 1/125s).

But there is still a limit to how slow you can set your shutter speed and hold the camera. This will vary between cameras and also individuals. But no one will be able to handhold a camera steady at very slow shutter speeds such as 1/30s, 1/15s, and so forth.

A street dancer with a hint of motion blur
Taken at 1/200s, this photo mixes the sharpness of the dancer’s face but there is a hint of motion blur around their legs

The best way to know your limit is to test it out. Shoot the same scene with different shutter speeds to see at what point your image will stop being sharp. You’ll then know your limit and your camera’s, and can ensure that you don’t select a slower shutter speed in the future.

See these examples below:

Blurry photo of a church
Image captured at 1/6s while holding the camera - you can see the image is significantly blurred
Blurry photo of a church
The same scene shot at 1/40s - the image is somewhat sharper, however there is still significant blurring, which is especially noticeable in the trees
Photo of a church with a slightly soft shutter speed
Captured at 1/60s - this is generally considered the lowest shutter speed that can be used without causing significant blur when holding the camera
Sharp photo of a church captured due to its fast shutter speed
Shot at 1/200s - the faster shutter speed has prevented any blurring in the scene and when viewing at full size, the image will be noticeably sharper than the 1/60s exposure captured at this speed

To capture sharp photos of moving subjects

The other aspect of capturing sharp photos is determined by the subject that you are photographing. For example, a shutter speed of 1/80s is fast enough to capture a stationary object. But if you are photographing a moving object, then your shutter speed will need to be faster in order to avoid blur.

Golden hour street scene in Havana, Cuba
A fast shutter speed of 1/500s at f4 was used to capture the scene without encounter blur from the cars. Image from Havana, Cuba, by Sven Hartmann

For creative reasons

Sometimes you might want to deliberately lengthen the shutter speed for creative reasons. For example, you may want to capture the movement of someone dancing, or light trails of a speeding car. Or you may want to smooth out the water or sky in your landscape shots.

These require slower shutter speeds and will allow you to capture movement in your shots. This technique is called ‘long exposure photography’ - see the example below.

Commuters pass under a snowy overpass on a steely grey evening
Commuters pass under a snowy overpass on a steely grey evening, image by Leigh Hickin. In order to capture the light trails left by the movement of cars, this image was taken with a slow shutter speed of 30s at f10

Further reading on how to photograph long exposures can be found in our dedicated guide here.

To get the correct exposure

Ultimately, shutter speed should be used to get the best exposure settings for each image. So, this also includes the brightness or darkness of the image. A slower shutter speed means more light being captured by the sensor which in turn means a brighter image. Faster shutter speed means less time for the sensor to be exposed to light and will mean a darker image. So, if the image is too dark and needs to be brightened, make the shutter speed longer.

Person on their head captured with a slower shutter speed to conve movement
A slower shutter speed, such as 1/60s, can be used creatively to convey a sense movement in your image
Dancer depicting the devil at the annual Buddhist Festival at Jakar Monastry, eastern Bhutan
This image was shot with a shutter speed of 1/500s at f4 to freeze-frame the action while also getting the correct exposure settings for the scene. Dancer depicting the devil at the annual Buddhist Festival at Jakar Monastry, eastern Bhutan.
Image by Peter J. Griffiths

How to select the correct shutter speed

Unfortunately, there are no fast rules or cheat sheets that will cover every scenario. Everything from subject matter to the light in the scene, as well as hand steadiness, will have an impact on the shutter speed.

For example, birds in flight may need a shutter speed of 1/1000s or even faster. But capturing a sharp photo of someone jogging can be done with 1/250s or even a little slower. A portrait can be pin-sharp at 1/80s or slower, and if using a tripod, sharp photos can be captured at 30 seconds or longer.

Image of a Kingfisher taken with a shutter speed of 1/3200s
Bird photography usually warrants very fast shutter speeds in order to capture the exact moment. This image of a Kingfisher was taken with a shutter speed of 1/3200s. Photo by Alan Grant
Two cheetahs fighting
This spectacular Cheetah shot was taken at 1/1000s which meant the action could be captured sharply. In order to get enough light for the scene the image was recorded with at ISO 1000 and f10 aperture. Photo by Julia's Images

The next step is about learning about different scenarios and practising taking photos. The more you do this the better you will become at judging how fast or slow your shutter speeds needs to be.

A kayaker on a canal in Amsterdam
A shutter speed of 1/200s was enough to capture this scene sharply.

Final tip…

Most cameras will have a semi-automatic setting which is called ‘shutter priority’ (often selected from the dial on the top of your camera). This allows a minimum shutter speed to be set. The camera will then automatically determine the relevant aperture and ISO to help achieve a correct exposure at that shutter speed.

DSLR camera on a wooden background
On Canon cameras Shutter Priority is “Tv” which can be set usually from the LCD screen or the dials on top of the camera.

This is a useful setting to select when shutter speed is of particular importance to the subject you are photographing, such as wildlife or sport, like the image below:

Dulwich Hamlets football player
Dulwich Hamlets match by Duncan Palmer. Image captured with a shutter speed of 1/1000s at f4.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of shutter speed and why it is so important in photography. My advice would be to err on the side of caution and select a slightly faster shutter speed than you think you will need to begin with.

With experience and practice, you will become better at gauging what shutter speed you will need for each shot.

Images by Kav Dadfar unless otherwise stated.

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