Download the Free Shutter Speed Chart PDF, for reference, while reading the in-depth photography guide, below.
Shutter speed photography settings control two important factors within an image:
- Motion Blur: Example, smooth water produced by long shutter speeds or fast moving objects frozen with sharp focus, produced by short shutter speeds.
- Image Brightness: Length of time light is exposed to the camera sensor, which determines the overall exposure.
Below, you’ll learn how shutter speed works & the best shutter speed settings to produce the correct exposure for any shooting situation.
Table of Contents
This page is part of my Photography Fundamentals Tutorial Series.
Shutter Speed Chart & Exposure Time Basics
The camera sensor collects & records light information about the scene being photographed. This information is stored on a memory card as a digital picture file.
The shutter speed determines the length of time the camera sensor is exposed light from the scene, in turn affecting how much light information the sensor collects.
What is a Camera Shutter?
Think of a camera shutter as a door, inside the camera body, that covers the camera sensor.
- When the shutter (door) is closed, the sensor does not collect light information about the scene being photographed.
- When the shutter (door) is open the sensor starts collecting light information about the scene being photographed.
When you press the “shutter button” to take an image, the shutter opens and the sensor is exposed to light for the amount of time denoted by the shutter speed setting.
Technical Note: DSLR cameras have a physical shutter. Mirrorless cameras do not. Other than this fact shutter speed works in the same manner for both.
Shutter Speed Vs. Exposure Time
Shutter speed controls the exposure time. For example, a shutter speed of 2 seconds, exposes the image sensor to light for 2 seconds. This is known as a 2 second exposure time.
The photographer selects the shutter speed, which controls the exposure time, during which the sensor is exposed to light.
Once this exposure time has elapsed, the shutter closes and the sensor is no longer exposed to light, thus stops capturing information about the scene.
What is Motion Blur in Photography?
If different elements in a composition move over the exposure time, such as water, tree leaves, animals or stars, each pixel will show an average of the color and light intensity collected by that pixel.
Using different shutter speeds allows the photographer to add interesting detail showing dynamic movement in a still frame picture.
The following images are used to isolate the effects of motion blur making them easily apparent. Actual landscape images & examples provided in the next section.
|Slide Left : 1 s. Shutter Speed, Motion Blur || Slide Right: 1/1000 s. Shutter Speed, No Motion Blur|
The slide right image, photographed at 1/1000 second shutter speed, shows no motion blur. The water looks as it would to your eye.
The slide left image, photographed at 1 second shutter speed, shows slight motion blur. The water is much smoother with less detail.
Each pixel shows the average of the color and light it collects over the given shutter speed.
Motion blur is a function of shutter speed, focal length, and speed of the object moving through the composition.
Experimentation is key to learning about motion blur. In the following sections, we will discuss this topic in detail.
Exposure Stops & Shutter Speed
An exposure stop, or stop for short, provides a universal scale to measure the increase and decrease in light, exposed to the image sensor, due to changes in shutter speed & f-stop.
For ISO, exposure stops provide the increase or decrease in signal (light information) amplification, thus how much light is required to produce the optimal exposure.
Overall, stops provide an easy way for the photographer to increase or decrease image brightness or adjust specific f-stop, ISO, and shutter speed settings while balancing the exposure triangle.
To make things clear the following examples discuss stops for shutter speed, while assuming f-stop & ISO settings stay constant.
Upon understanding the concept, read the Photography Exposure Triangle Guide and learn to adjust all settings simultaneously, using stops.
Adjusting Shutter Speed Using Stops
The Stops Column shows the difference in stops between varying shutter speeds.
The Shutter Speed Column shows different standard shutter speeds in 1 stop intervals.
Specific stops don’t directly correlate to specific shutter speed values.
Stops allow you to easily compare the amount of light captured by one shutter speed setting compared to another.
This makes it easy to increase or decrease the image brightness & balance the exposure triangle without guessing.
Increasing the shutter speed, thus producing a longer exposure time, allows the image sensor to collect more light information, producing a brighter image with increased motion blur. This is known as stopping up.
Decreasing the shutter speed, thus producing a shorter exposure time, forces the image sensor to collect less light information, producing a darker image with less motion blur. This is known as stopping down.
For Shutter Speed, Exposure Stops Work as Follows:
- An increase of 1 stop doubles the amount of light exposed to the image sensor, creating a brighter exposure with more motion blur.
- A decrease of 1 stop decreases the amount of light by half, creating a darker exposure with less motion blur.
The following example images show 1 stop increases in shutter speed with no changes to ISO or f-stop.
As the images progress, stopping up in shutter speed, they become brighter with increased motion blur.
As motion blur & shutter speed increases the water becomes less and less detailed, with increased smoothness.
Settings: 1/15 second, f/11, ISO50
Settings: 1/8 second, f/11, ISO50
Settings: 1/4 second, f/11, ISO50
Settings: 1/2 second, f/11, ISO50
To maintain constant image brightness, while increasing or decreasing shutter speed, changes in ISO or f-stop must be made by the same number of stops in the opposite direction.
For example, a stop up in shutter speed would require a stop down in ISO, f-stop, or a combination of both, to maintain the same image brightness.
This is taught in the Exposure Triangle Photography Guide.
Shooting Example – Using Stops & Shutter Speed
Let’s say you took an image with a shutter speed of 4 seconds, f/8, ISO100, and noticed it was too bright.
Remember, all other settings are currently arbitrary and remain constant.
You thought to yourself, “If only this image contained half the amount of light it would be perfect.”. Reference the example image below.
- You knew that a 1 stop decrease in shutter speed would reduce the light collected by half, creating the photo you wanted.
- Instead of guessing at the best shutter speed, you referenced the chart & saw that a 1 stop decrease in shutter speed from 4 seconds was 2 seconds.
- You selected this new shutter speed in your camera and pressed the shutter button.
- Due to your knowledge of stops & shutter speeds, the new image exhibited exactly half the light as the previous image.
- There was no need to guess at the ideal shutter speed or take test images! You’re done.
|Slide Right – 2 Second Shutter Speed | Slide Left – 4 Second Shutter Speed|
Technical Note: Most cameras allow you to change your shutter speeds, ISO and f-stop values in intervals of 1/3, 1/2 or 1 stop. This is a user selected setting providing in camera. I prefer to use 1/3 stop intervals for precise control.
Example Images & Creative Control
Varying shutter speeds can be utilized to provide detail, dynamic movement, and desired image attributes in a photo.
An image attribute is a specific visual effect obtained from different camera settings such as f-stop, ISO & shutter speed.
The photographer can control image attributes by varying shutter speeds. This is where creativity, practice & foresight really come into play!
Shutter Speed Image Attributes
The following shutter speed ranges are provided to help you visualize varying exposure times & their corresponding image attributes.
Only by testing each of these with your camera setup will you actually learn and understand the concepts.
The following images are unedited RAW files showing actual outcomes of varying shutter speeds without changes due to photo editing.
Shutter Speed Range: 1/8000th – 1/1000th Second
Best for Quickly Moving Objects & High Scene Luminance
- This range of fast shutter speeds is great for photographing fast moving objects where everything needs to be in focus, without motion blur.
- Fast shutter speeds require large levels of scene luminance, low f-stop values, and/or high ISO values to produce the optimal exposure.
1/1000th Second Shutter Speed – Backpacking in the Canyonlands of Utah
Shutter Speed Range: 1/500th – 1/250th Second
Best for Moving Objects & Intermediate Scene Luminance
- This range of fast shutter speeds is used to photograph quickly moving objects, achieving sharp focus, without motion blur, with less ambient light in the scene.
- They usually work well for overcast or partly cloudy days.
1/250th Second Shutter Speed – Glacier Climbing in Iceland
Shutter Speed Range: 1/125th – 1/15th Second
Best for Sunrise & Sunset, Slightly Blurred Moving Objects, Intermediate to Low Scene Luminance
This range of shutter speeds is used to photograph landscapes, with a tripod, in low light, including sunrises and sunsets.
The image below shows the movement of crashing waves with motion blur.
Due to the shutter speed of 1/15th of a second, in the image below, water movement details are visible, producing a dynamic effect.
1/15th Second Shutter Speed – Sunset on the Pacific Coast
Shutter Speed Range: 1/8th – 10 Seconds
Best for Sunrise & Sunset, Twilight, Blurred Moving Objects, Low Scene Luminance
These long shutter speeds are used to create motion blur in landscape, street and travel photography.
They also work well for capturing light trails behind vehicles, water movement, and cloud movement.
Compared to the image above, the following two images show water movement with increased motion blur but decreased overall detail in the water.
They excel at moving the viewer’s eyes through the composition with image attributes that would not have existed at shorter shutter speeds.
This method works well for showing movement in a subtle & calm manner.
Cool colors, as shown below, and taught in the Color Theory Photography Guide, also produce calming effects on the overall mood.
1/2 Second Shutter Speed – Twilight in Kauai, Hawaii
1 Second Shutter Speed – Exploring the Waterfalls of Oregon
Shutter Speed Range: 15 Seconds – 2 Minutes
Best for Long Exposure Night Photography, Star Trails, Milky Way, Very Low Scene Luminance
They also work well for long exposure photography of moving objects producing a motion blur effect in clouds and water.
15 Second Shutter Speed – Level 8 Aurora Activity in Iceland
25 Second Shutter Speed – The Milky Way Over Crater Lake
Max Shutter Speed for Handheld Photos
As stated above, objects which move across the composition produce motion blur. The same holds true if the camera moves due to hand “shake” while shooting.
This hand movement can produce very slight motion blur which causes the image to be out of focus.
For the sharpest images, a tripod is recommended.
When a tripod can’t be used this trick helps to approximate the required shutter speed.
To approximate the maximum shutter speed required for handheld shooting, without motion blur, take 1 and divide it by the effective focal length.
This value will provide the longest shutter speed that will still produce sharp images.
Max Handheld Exposure Time = 1 / Effective Focal Length
For example, a 50mm effective focal length would require a 1/50th-second shutter speed or faster.
Anything longer than 1/50th-second shutter speed would yield a blurry image.
This is an approximation, but it works well.
Image Quality & Shutter Speed
This section contains a more advanced concept. If you’re new to photography, skip on to the next section and come back later.
As more light information is collected by the image sensor, over the allotted exposure time, more detail & data are displayed in the final image, resulting in less image noise.
There is a maximum amount of light information each pixel can collect, known as full well capacity.
When this value is exceeded, too much light is collected, and the pixel becomes “clipped”, also known as, “overexposed”, or “blown out”.
When this happens, the pixel’s color becomes pure white. All light information previously collected by this pixel is gone forever. This is a bad thing.
Keep the following key points in mind:
- As the sensor collects more light the image quality increases, provided individual pixels are not “clipped” for the Red, Green, Blue & luminosity channels.
- In nature, some things are very close to pure white, such as direct sunlight. If a few pixels become “clipped” it’s not a big deal.
- Higher quality images, which collect more light information, produce optimal color and detail.
- The goal is to maximize the amount of light collected by the sensor without clipping the brightest individual pixels.
Balancing image brightness and quality with desired visual image attributes is key to mastering photography shutter speed.
By slightly over-exposing the image below, without “clipping” the RGB or Luminosity Histogram, I was able to capture more data in the dark parts of the photo, while still controlling the brightest portions.
The technique is called Expose to the Right (ETTR).
Expose to the Right Example & Histogram
In post processing, I can take the slightly over exposed image above, and darken it to the actual levels produced by the scene.
ETTR allows the photographer to capture the most image data possible, especially in the dark tonal range, without losing any from clipping or blowing out the brightest portions of the image.
Without slightly overexposing the highlights, I would have lost data in the dark parts of the image, as shown in the following histogram.
The following image shows the RAW file above, with a 1 stop post processing decrease, matching what was actually seen in reality.
By slightly overexposing I was able to capture more dark detail, while still retaining all of the light details.
Expose to the Right RAW File Darkened in Post Processing
Test & Compare Shutter Speeds
Reading and learning new information is great. Taking your camera outside and experimenting is the only way to master the camera techniques.
To thoroughly understand shutter speed & the photography exposure triangle it’s necessary to master f-stop settings, which control aperture diameter, and ISO settings which control signal amplification.
- The key to learning any complex topic is breaking it down into the smallest isolated sub-topics & fully understanding each these sub-topics.
- Upon doing so, the main topic is inherently learned & less overall work is necessary as a whole.
- This is the bottom-up approach.
In short, don’t try to learn the exposure triangle, until you understand shutter speed, ISO, and f-stop individually.
In this case, shutter speed is a sub-topic of the exposure triangle, here is how to master it:
- Without changing any other settings, take varying shots at varying shutter speeds, for a single composition, isolating the final effects on the visual image attributes.
- Prior to taking the image, take a mental guess at the image attribute a specific shutter speed may produce for a specific shooting scenario.
- Take 10 of these images, at varying shutter speeds, for an in-depth visual study.
- Repeat steps 1-3 for varying shooting scenarios, subject speed, and lighting conditions.
- Upon doing so, load your images into Lightroom (or Camera RAW) and view each image, side by side.
- Zoom in on the pictures at 100% and notice the different visual image attributes that varying shutter speeds produce.
- Take mental and physical notes of these outcomes and how they may apply to future images.
- Ask yourself WHY, until there are no more WHYs to answer.
- Experiment, question & repeat.
The question, “What Shutter Speed Do I Use?”, leads down the path of dependence, without an actual understanding of the topic.
Instead, try asking yourself, “What Image Attribute Do I Want to Produce?” & “What Shutter Speed is Required to Produce It?”.
These questions lead down the path of independence and problem-solving. This is where true learning takes place.
Choosing the Correct Shutter Speed
All of the information above provides the foundation for selecting the best camera settings using the Photography Exposure Triangle.
Then continue on to the Photography Exposure Triangle Guide for complete details on combining all of the settings.
Read the Next Tutorial in the Series
This page is part of my Photography Fundamentals Tutorial Series.