Shutter Speed

Feb 11 2010

The shutter in your camera provides another way to control the amount of light that hits the sensor (or film). Shutter speed is usually displayed on a dial, inside the finder, or a panel. The number displayed represents the amount of time the shutter is open in fractions of a second. For example, 1000 means, the shutter is open for 1/1000 of a second. The shorter the shutter speed, the less light that hits your sensor. If you decrease the shutter speed by a factor 2, say from 500 to 1000, only half as much light is reaching your sensor. In manual mode you would have to open your aperture by one stop to achieve the same exposure. That’s the whole “secret” about aperture and shutter speed! Increasing shutter speed equals longer exposure times, which needs to be compensated by closing down the aperture, indicated by a larger f-stop. In any automatic exposure mode the camera will pick the correct combination of shutter speed and aperture, yeah! But it is still helpful to understand this fundamental relationship between shutter speed and aperture.

As with aperture there are creative and deliberate uses of shutter speed. First, in action photography most of the time you will choose a short exposure time in order to freeze the action. If the motion is too fast, the subject will move substantially while the shutter is open, resulting in motion blur. Sometimes this is a desired effect, especially if you pan the camera during the exposure. This can result in stunning effects. The subject seems frozen, but the background is blurry. Hence the subject stands out.

golf swing

In this image a shutter speed of 1/500 s was chosen, which was fast enough to freeze the player's facial expression, but slow enough to blur the club in full swing. The resulting effect creates the impression of motion in a still image, neat!

Second, for table top, still life, and landscape photography you usually will choose a long exposure time, because the objects are not moving, but more importantly, because you may want to use a large depth of focus, which requires a small aperture, which results in a slow shutter speed.

There comes a point where your breathing and your shaky hands lead to blurry images. In this case, the motion comes from the photographer, not necessarily the subject. This can only be solved in two ways:

  1. Reduce the shutter speed, or
  2. use a device (monopod, tripod, gorillapod…) to limit camera motion during the exposure.

In case you missed the write-up on aperture: Read here…

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