How to Pick the Best Shutter Speed

How to Pick the Best Shutter Speed

We’ve all stood before a breathtaking landscape, excited that we actually had a camera in hand to be able to capture the moment, knowing the picture will be amazing. You bring your face close to the viewfinder, put your finger on the shutter-release button, take a photo, but then are ultimately left disappointed with the result as it doesn’t seem to match the beauty that you’re experiencing with your own eyes.

Why do our cameras often not capture the same beautiful image we see with our eyes? The answer often has to deal with lighting. Not understanding things like shutter speed and ISO can easily result in images being overexposed or underexposed, leaving you with an image that portrays almost black subjects or bleached out colors. You need to get to know some practical things about how cameras work in order to capture the image you want. You also need to realize that basic point and shoot cameras will limit the amount of manual adjustments you can make when it comes to things like shutter speed and aperture, so it really pays to research which camera models  are best suited for whatever you plan on using your camera for such as comparing the best cameras for travel for instance.

You probably noticed the extensive user’s manual that originally came with your camera but thought that since you weren’t trying to be a professional photographer you didn’t need to worry about actually reading through it. After all, camera user manuals can seem like they are written in a foreign language as they explain highly technical aspects with terms you may have never heard of before. While terms like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed can sound confusing at first, getting to know how each works is not as difficult as it seems.

Shutter speed is one of the most critical settings in photography. You will see how easy it will be to take pictures and what fantastic effects you can achieve once you get to know this seemingly complex function.In this article, we will explain to you in a clear and simple way what shutter speed is and how to properly use it to shoot better photos.

What Is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed (exposure time) is the time you allow the light from what you are photographing to reach the photosensitive matrix. In older cameras a negative or positive photosensitive material would be exposed, while in digital cameras it involves a photosensitive optoelectronic element.

You can freely manipulate shutter speeds on DSLR cameras and some point and shoot cameras that offer manual controls. Shutter speed is measured in seconds and more commonly fractions of seconds such as 1/60, 1/250, and 1/1000. Some cameras can achieve shutter speeds as fast as 1/8000th of a second as well as a very slow 30 second shutter speed. The longer the shutter speed, the more your camera’s shutter will be open and this equates to more light passing through your lens and onto the camera’s sensor.

The shutter speed you choose will determine how bright your picture is and your ability to freeze moving objects. Faster shutter speeds are used to freeze action while longer shutter speeds are useful for taking pictures of a night sky to capture star trails or the northern lights.

Knowledge of shutter speed helps us in several situations, which we are going to describe below.

When It’s Getting Dark

Taking photos of landscapes when there is no daylight isn’t easy, especially when using a flash doesn’t prove to be effective, but thanks to shutter speed and another function called ISO, you can still shoot high-quality, well-lit photos at night.

ISO is the sensor’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO value, the sharper the photo, so the ISO is usually set at lower levels like 100. Using higher ISO levels helps to provide the ability to shoot at higher shutter speeds, but the downside here is the appearance of so-called “noise” or graininess in the resulting photos taken at higher ISO levels.

In order to increase the sharpness of the photo, instead of boosting the ISO, you can use a tripod. When you have the ability to keep your camera still, you can achieve sharp photos while shooting at slower shutter speed instead of necessarily needing to increase the ISO which will result in undesirable noise. When you prolong the exposure time, more light will reach your camera’s sensor and you can achieve a properly lit image but this long exposure time can make keeping the camera still and achieving non-blurry images almost impossible without the use of a tripod.

Using Shutter Speed for Creative Photos

Thanks to shutter speed, you can choose to stop movement or create a blur effect. Extending the photo exposure time with long shutter speeds only works for static subjects like landscapes unless of course your goal is to achieve a blur effect. You won’t be able to freeze moving subjects in high detail with slow shutter speeds. Some photographers, however, aren’t trying to freeze motion and instead are purposely trying to blur a moving subject for artistic effect.

Slow shutter speed works very well in nature when photographing water, rivers, waves, and waterfalls for a nice photo depicting motion. It is also used to show the movement of stars and car light trails on night-time roadways. If you use slow shutter speeds like 10, 20, or 30 seconds, this will allow you to blur the movement, which can produce interesting light streaks at night or artistic blurs of moving objects during the day . During the day when there is more light, you may have to use specific filters to reduce some of the natural light in order to be able to use slow shutter speed or you may end up with overexposed photos. You will also want to choose the lowest ISO setting when wanting to blur moving subjects during daylight.

When shooting dynamic scenes like sporting matches or flying birds, where you want to freeze action and capture exceptional detail, you will need to shoot with fast shutter speeds which can often only be achieved during daylight or with the help of special flash units at night. To achieve an acceptable level of frozen motion, you generally need to have a shutter speed of at least 1/250 of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the less blur and more crisp details you’ll be able to capture.

 Manual Shutter Speed Setting

More sophisticated cameras have a function of manual exposure setting. It can be made by using the Bulb (B) or Time (T) button/mode. In Bulb mode, the shutter remains open as long as the shutter button is pressed. In Time mode, the shutter opens when the shutter button is pressed and released and closes at the same action.

In both cases, exposure to photosensitive material can last for many hours, but practically such a long exposure is recommended in the Time mode.

Shutter Speed and Aperture

Aperture refers to the hole in your lens that allows light and the image you are trying to photograph to pass into the camera and this hole’s size can change. The higher your aperture number, the smaller the hole gets which equates to less light reaching the camera. Alternatively, the lower your aperture value, the larger the hole gets and the more light can enter. These aperture values are known as f-stops. Expensive lenses are often those that feature f-stops that start at low numbers which can allow more light to reach the camera. This are the large lenses with big diameters that you see professional wildlife and sideline sport photographers use to get much needed light which is needed to freeze moving subjects.

When you set your camera to shutter priority this allows you to choose the shutter speed you desire and your camera will automatically choose the correct aperture to ensure you get a properly exposed photograph. If you choose to manually set both the shutter and aperture, things can get tricky as you must know how to adjust both in unison to ensure proper exposure.

Shutter speed and aperture have a reciprocal relationship. Your camera will receive the same amount of light so long as you change the shutter speed and aperture settings at equal amounts. This means using a faster shutter speed with a low value aperture (f-stop) value can provide a similar amount of light as using a slower shutter speed with a higher aperture (f-stop) value.

We recommend you stick with using either shutter priority mode or aperture priority mode until you really grasp how both work together. This allows you to focus on shutter speed when freezing or blurring subjects is more important to you(shutter priority) or to focus on depth of field when tying to blur backgrounds or keep everything in view in sharp focus is more important to you(aperture priority). Keep in mind that your choice of lens will ultimately determine what range of shutter speeds and apertures are available to you using acceptable ISO levels.


Shutter Speed is a very useful tool in photography. It would be best if you would grab your camera to discover this function in practice. After reading this article, try to shoot some photos in the evening and daylight to see how changing shutter speeds helps to get properly exposed images whether you want them to be crisp or purposely blurred. Remember that practice makes perfect and that you will start getting more professional-looking photos as time goes on. You’ll begin to learn how you can manipulate this function to get the desired outcome depending on the time of the day and on your creative vision.

Article By: Paula Sieracka

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Author: Michael Jerrard

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1 Comment

  1. Your posting on this subject really hit the spot. Your suggestions are to be commended in full. Thank you

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