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What is Shutter Speed in Photography? Basic Guide for Beginners

12 min read

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shutter speed explained for beginner photographers

What is shutter speed in photography? This is a great question because understanding what shutter speed is in photography is fundamental. 

Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open when you take a photograph. The shutter speed is basically the timer for light coming into the camera. The shutter speed is one part of the exposure triangle. These are the three controls on a camera that affect how light or how dark a photograph is.

Shutter speed in photography is also the setting you want to change when you want to show movement in your picture. The most basic definition of shutter speed is how long the shutter takes to open and close. A slow shutter speed means more light enters the camera than when you use a fast shutter speed. The fastest shutter speed on your camera will let in much less light than the slowest shutter speed on your camera does.

There are three main controls on your camera that affect the exposure value of each photo you take. These are the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings. Shutter speed and aperture in photography together are what determine exposure. This is because they both affect how much light is taken in while the picture is being taken.

In addition to controlling light for proper exposure, shutter speed is also used artistically. You can use a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action of a hockey game or use a slower speed to create motion blur caused by flowing water. Slower shutter speeds can also result in an unwanted blur from camera movement.

star trail.

How is Shutter Speed Measured?

Shutter speed is measured in time increments. These range from full seconds to a fraction of a second (sometimes up to 1/8000). The larger the shutter speed denominator, the faster the shutter opens and closes. It exposes less light to the camera sensor. 

When you use a slower shutter speed, the shutter is open longer. Then the image sensor is exposed to more light than when you use a faster shutter speed. How long the shutter speed helps determine the exposure time. The longer your shutter speed is, the brighter your photo will be. You can compensate for using a slow shutter speed by using a narrower aperture or a lower ISO setting.

Typically, you won’t be using a shutter speed slower than 1/60. This is because any slower and you would include motion from camera movement in your picture, making it blurry. It is challenging for most people to hold a camera steady when using slow shutter speeds of less than 1/60th of a second. Slow shutter speed photography is great fun to experiment with, but you need to use a tripod to avoid camera blur from slow shutter speed settings.

Sometimes in shutter priority mode, your camera will choose the shutter speed, which is too slow. Be in control of your shutter speed, so the camera does not pick a slow shutter speed that is too slow.

As you start exploring the different shutter speeds, you can keep in mind that if you use a shutter speed slower than 1/60, you will need something to stabilize your camera, such as a tripod.

moving cars on the street.

Mechanical Operation of a Shutter

The actual mechanical shutter in a DSLR camera consists of two curtains. We’ll call these two curtains Curtain A and Curtain B. When you press the shutter button on your camera, curtain A rises to allow light to hit the sensor. Then curtain B rises immediately after to meet curtain A and block the light. Next, the curtains reset, and the process is repeated.

On DSLR cameras, there is a mirror at a 45-degree angle in front of the shutter. When you press the shutter button, the mirror moves up and out of the way. This enables the camera to take the photo. 

When you are composing your image, light passes through the lens, reflects off the mirror, and through to the viewfinder so you can see what’s happening. 

Mirrorless cameras are the exception to this process because they do not have a reflective mirror popping up and down. This does not really affect the shutter speed. A slow shutter speed or a fast shutter speed on a DSLR or a mirrorless camera are measured and performed the same way.

photographer taking pictures.

Some smaller cameras and phone cameras have electronic shutter speeds. These are not mechanical and are measured the same way normal shutter speed is measured. Shutter speeds on any camera are standard. The shutter speed on one camera is always the same as the shutter speed on any other camera because the shutter speed is simply a measurement of time.

How to Set Your Shutter Speed?

Each camera has a range of preset shutter speeds available. Common shutter speeds you’re likely to see in most cameras are 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/ 500, 1/1000, 1/2000, etc. 

YouTube video

Shutter speed on your camera is usually displayed as whole numbers. So a display of 125 is actually 1/125th of a second. Quotation marks are used at a shutter speed of one second or more. For example, 2 seconds may be displayed as 2”0 in the viewfinder of your camera

The Bulb setting leaves the shutter open as long as you like. So long as you hold your finger on the shutter release button, the shutter remains open. Using the Bulb setting, the shutter speed is as fast or as slow as you want it to be. The longer you leave your finger on the shutter button, the slower the shutter speed results. More light enters the camera. The Bulb setting is great in low light or at night when the slowest shutter speed on your camera is not slow enough.

shutter speed dial.

Shutter speeds on your camera usually double with increment. When you have settings like 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/500, and 1/1000, you are doubling the speed as you move to increasingly fast shutter speeds. It’s just like changing your aperture – as you increase the aperture by one increment, you let in half as much light. You can learn to balance the shutter speed you use with the aperture setting you want. Changing the aperture and the shutter speed by the same amounts in opposite directions gives you the same exposure.

Determining Shutter Speeds in Photography

When determining what you want your shutter speed to be, you have to know if you want to see movement in the finished picture. Or if you want a frozen moment to take with you. Just remember, the slower your shutter speed setting, the more movement and motion you will see in your picture. 

When there is nothing moving in your composition, the shutter speed you choose does not matter so much. You can choose slow shutter speeds or fast shutter speeds, and it will not make a difference. 

The only time using slow shutter speeds can be a problem with static subjects is if you have a camera shake. Camera shake happens when you use a slow shutter speed, and the camera moves during the time the shutter is open. This results in the whole image having camera blur because it has moved, and the shutter speed was slow. You need to use a tripod to avoid camera blur from movement.

In other words, your shutter speed controls how long your shutter stays open for the exposure. Using shutter priority mode, if you have a lot of light on a subject, the shutter closes fast. If you have low light, the shutter speed is slow.

The faster the shutter speed, the sharper your images. Have you ever taken a picture of your kid wiggling and gotten a blurry arm, leg, or whole body? That is a slower shutter speed where the object was moving faster than the shutter could open and close.

people walking through a tunnel.

Camera Shutter Speed Exercise

Try setting your camera to shutter speed priority. Have a kid or a spouse or a crazy neighbor pose for you and wiggle around. Start at a slower shutter speed, maybe 1/15. Take a picture and then increase the shutter speed to a faster shutter speed that is twice as fast. Take another photo and then double the shutter speed again. Do this as many times as you can while still getting a good exposure.

Do you notice that the picture is slightly blurred, becoming increasingly sharp the faster your shutter speed? As you adjust shutter speed, the camera compensates by adjusting the aperture for you. You can see this in the EXIF data recorded with the photos you take. Here is an article explaining how to find and use the EXIF information. It will allow you to see when you have used faster shutter speeds or a longer shutter speed.

By experimenting with shutter speed in this way, you can learn what is the best shutter speed to use in different situations. Understanding camera shutter speed in this way can help you control the camera’s shutter better. Understanding shutter speed is important for the amount of light and the motion blur that can occur. You need to know what shutter speed is in digital cameras so you can set the shutter speed you know is best.

understanding shutter speed in photography.

Tips for Slow and Fast Shutter Speed in Photography

As you start exploring the different speeds, keep in mind that using a shutter speed slower than 1/60 will require stabilization.

You need to use a shutter speed that is fast enough to avoid camera shake. Faster shutter speeds mean there is less chance of blur from movement. It’s nearly impossible for most people to hold a camera perfectly still. This is why you need a quick shutter speed. 

If you’re using a shutter speed slower than 1/60, you should probably use a tripod. This is so you don’t blur your photos from movement while you’re holding the camera for a long shutter speed. If it’s difficult for you to hold the camera still for a long shutter speed, no problem. 

Using manual mode, try using a shutter speed that is one over twice the focal length of your lens. If you’re using a 50mm lens, use a shutter speed of at least 1/100. Longer shutter speeds than this may lead to motion blur.

If you absolutely must stick with a slow shutter speed of 1/50th or less, we recommend using a wireless remote. It’s not expensive and can make slow shutter photography a much more enjoyable experience. You don’t have to compromise image quality, and it provides plenty of flexibility for different styles of photography.

There are also some cameras now that have a built-in image stabilization system to help your pictures not be affected by any accidental shakes.

How does Shutter Speed Affect Your Photos?

Shutter speed can be used to freeze motion, create cool motion blur effects, and long shutter effects like taking images at night.

The video below explains the basics of shutter speed and will help you gain some inspiration on how you can use shutter speed creatively to create amazing images.

YouTube video

How do you use Shutter Speed Creatively?

Now that you know what shutter speed is and how it functions, it’s time for the fun part. Playing with shutter speed opens new creative possibilities in photography. It can transform an average photo into one that’s visually striking and full of energy.

Here are a few creative ways you can incorporate the best shutter speed into everyday photography.

Motion Blur and Panning

Ever wondered how photographers capture motion blur so well? The key is knowing the best shutter speed to use. This is a slow shutter speed, and it is usually with the camera in manual mode. 

horse racing.

It’s an excellent technique to use when you want to create a strong sense of time and movement in your photos. Many sports and street photographers use this technique to create dynamics in their shots.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when choosing the best shutter speed for capturing motion blur:

  1. Use Long Shutter Speeds. Understanding shutter speed helps you to use the right shutter speed for any moving subject, lighting situation, and other factors. Try experimenting at different speeds on your shutter speed dial, from 1/15th, 1/50th, etc. 
  2. Control your Exposure by managing your camera’s shutter speed manually. Slowing down to the minimum shutter speed means you’re at risk of overexposing your photos. You want to find the right balance between shutter speed and lighting to capture the perfect motion blur effect. 
  3. For slower shutter speeds, use a tripod. Most of the time, you don’t want the entire shot to be blurry. Therefore, you’ll want to stabilize the camera so that way a few elements (or the main subject) of your shot is in complete focus. Choose the right shutter speed values for the amount of movement you want.
birds in motion.

How to Freeze Motion with a Short Shutter Speed

Other times, you’ll want to freeze motion by using a much faster shutter speed. This depends on other camera settings you use too. But you need to use a fast shutter speed.

Maybe you want to photograph a star athlete making a goal or capture a helicopter landing. That’s where changing shutter speed to a higher shutter speed comes in very handy. A regular shutter speed may not be fast enough, and you may still get some motion blur. Fast-moving subjects need a short shutter speed. This is the same as a fast shutter speed.

You’ll usually want to set your shutter speed to at least 1/250th, depending on the speed of your subject. Fast-moving objects need the same amount of light but not the same speed. You must use a higher shutter speed and a wider aperture to freeze motion.

For example, if you’re capturing a helicopter landing, you’ll want to use a shutter speed of 1/1000th or higher. If you’re shooting an athlete jogging on a field, however, you could probably get away with 1/250th shutter speed. After experimenting with different speeds, you will be able to capture motion the way you want it to look.

Keep in mind that when you increase the shutter speed, you’ll need to correct the exposure by increasing ISO or opening your aperture so more light can enter and reach your sensor.

long exposure.

Long Exposure

Long Exposure Photography uses slower shutter speeds. This can produce dramatic and stunning images that your eyes cannot see. It is mainly used in landscape photography

Next time you see a marvelous star trail photo, or a buzzing car trail nighttime shot, that was most likely captured using the long exposure technique. Read on for helpful tips on how you can get incredible photos using the right shutter speed for long-exposure photography:

  1. Avoid Camera Shake and Any Vibration. Find a stable spot to secure your camera, and use a sturdy tripod to reduce any kind of vibration. Many photographers use a remote shutter release for the most crisp, blur-free shots. This is especially crucial when you are using a macro or telephoto lens as it magnifies the blurred motion blur.
  2. Choose the Correct Shutter Speed. Long exposure photography usually requires a shutter speed of between 1-30 seconds. This will heavily depend on what style you’re going for and the setting. Make sure your aperture is set to a smaller number, typically between f/11-f/32, for maximum sharpness throughout the image. You may also set your camera setting to “Bulb” mode, which opens the shutter for as long as you’d like.
moving bike on the road.


We hope these tips on what is shutter speed in photography to help you to gain a better understanding of how it can create movement and interest in your photos. 

Shutter speed affects both exposure and potentially also any motion blur that occurs in a photo. This can be from a subject that moves while you are taking the photo. It can also be because the camera has moved while the shutter is open, and the whole photo is blurred because of this. You need to use a fast shutter speed.

Not only can it help improve your overall photography skills, but it also opens new opportunities for developing your creativity and visual style. Be sure to comment below your thoughts on shutter speed and your experience working with different speeds.


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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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  1. There is more to shutter speed than keeping an image from blurring. Using a slow shutter speed for long exposure times can be used to good effect to add blur to a scene in order to give the sense of movement. Long exposure times are often used with the waterfall example you to show the movement of the falling water. Taking a photo of a moving object against a fixed background, or visa versa, can also give the viewer the sensation of speed in a photograph.

  2. Hi,

    I just found this site and it is great!! All the courses online cost hundreds, and this answered my basic questions in 5 minutes. Thanks so much for such a great site!!

    Cheers and happy holidays,


  3. You’ve talked about the (negative) effect a long exsposure time can have. Are there any negative effects to having a very short exsposure time, such as underlighting? (Which I assume can be corrected with aperture settings).

    Great site by the way 😀

    1. When light is plentiful it’s great to capture a still shot with a fast shutter speed. The problem is that the aperture can only open so big (especially on cheaper lenses). So it comes down to getting more lighting if you want to have good exposure and a quick shutter speed.

  4. HI
    Thank you for going to the trouble of putting this course together. It is written in plain simple English, which is so important for beginners. Keep up the good work.

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