Tips and tutorials

A brief introduction to shutter speeds

This brief tutorial is aimed at the beginner DSLR user or those that are brushing up on their skills.
It takes information from a variety of sources but mainly from my head! I’m by no means an expert on this, so please take my advice and combine it with other study.

The large photographs in this tutorial have been kindly supplied by Charlie Watkins from Charlie likes his DSLR but is a big fan of film. If you check out his Flickrstream you’ll also see his Hassleblad and Holga images.

Before we start, what does this ‘SLR’ business mean? Well in very simple terms: what you see through the viewfinder is what the lens sees and what you get in the photo. The camera uses a mirror and something called a pentaprism so you can see this image the right way up.

DSLR = Digital single lens reflex
SLR = Single lens reflex

Recently on Twitter, I put out a call to my followers to ask me questions they had on shutter speeds. I received a few replies, but few that related to actual shutter speeds – some about ISO, exposure metering etc so there is some confusion out there as to what does what. Shutter, ISO and Aperture all play a part in exposure and the key is to know how to tie them all together.

There is much more to exposure than choosing the shutter speed. The aperture, film sensitivity (ISO), lens choice, light source, colour temperature of that light source, filters on the lens and a host of other factors play their part.

Learning exposure and how to take great photos isn’t a quick learning process. I personally doubt that reading a couple of articles will turn you into an expert – I’ve been at this since 1997. My early photos suck. The key is practice, patience and the desire to always keep learning. I’m still learning, I don’t think I’ll ever stop.

Shutter speeds, shutter speeds….

The reason there’s been such a long gap between my aperture tutorial and this one on shutter speeds is that I couldn’t work out where to start. It’s been 15 years since I first learnt the basics of SLR photography. I have a lot of information in my brain and a lot of what I do comes naturally so I really struggled with putting this together.

But I promised, and I try to make a rule of never making promises unless I can realistically keep them. So here we go.

Fast shutter speed in bright sunlight

Like aperture and film speed (ISO), shutter speed controls the amount of light entering the camera and exposing the film, or in the case of digital photography, recording an image on the camera’s sensor. The sensor receives the light as a signal then records that information onto the memory card.

Regardless of whether you’re using your camera on auto, aperture (A), Shutter (S or Tv) or in manual mode, you need to be aware that any change to one setting, will have an impact on the others.



The camera uses these three main factors to calculate your exposure and give you a picture.

  • aperture (size of the hole through which light comes through)
  • shutter speed (how long that hole is open for)
  • film speed/ISO (how sensitive the camera is to light)

Shutter speed is the same as aperture and ISO in that for every change you make to the setting on a traditional camera, it will either double or halve the amount of light. According to the Photography book by London, Stone & Upton (page 18 of edition 9), modern SLR cameras and DSLR camera sometimes have 1/3 increments and there can be a great level of inconsistency between manufacturers.

When you see a shutter speed it’s often presented as a fraction ie 1/125
This means your shutter speed is 1 x 125th of a second. It doesn’t mean that the shutter’s open for 125 seconds (even if your shutter dial just says 125).

For your reference, here are the full shutter speeds you could expect to see on a SLR camera. Note that like your aperture, each setting is roughly twice what the previous one was. It is suggested that to avoid confusion you stick to the full settings when first learning your shutter speeds and apertures.

  • Bulb – Holds the camera’s lens open indefinitely until you shut it manually
  • 1 = 1 sec
  • 2 = 1/2 sec (half a second)
  • 4 = 1/4 sec (a quarter of a second)
  • 8 = 1/8 sec (one eighth of a second)
  • 15 = 1/15 (one fifteenth of a second)
  • 30 = 1/30 sec (one thirtieth of a second)
  • 60 = 1/60 sec (one sixtieth of a second)
  • 125 = 1/125 sec
  • 250 = 1/250 sec

I’ve just told you that the shutter speed number is all about how long the shutter remains open for. So besides this, how does speed come into it?

The higher the shutter speed, the faster your subject can go and the sharper the image will be if the correct aperture and ISO is also used. Your trade off for a high shutter speed is the amount of light entering the camera (which can be altered by your choice of aperture, ISO or the introduction of flash).

kite surfing

© Charlie Watkins 2011

Some situations where you might use a fast shutter speed (say 1/400 or even higher)

  • Kids playing
  • Bright sunlight
  • Sport
  • Capturing images like liquid splashes
Point Peron Sunset

© Charlie Watkins 2011

Some situations where you might use a slow shutter speed (under 1/30)

  • Capturing flowing water
  • Situations where you want to let in maximum light
  • Indoor photography
  • Capturing star trails or streaks of car lights
  • To create ambiance such as candle glow, firelight etc

Some publications consider 1/100 a fast shutter speed. Personally I consider it a default and would think anything over 1/250 is fast and that 1/60 and under is slow. People who shoot in low light may consider 1/400 to be far too slow. There’s the technical way of looking at it and then the way that corresponds to your own photography.

high speed balloons 4266

Strobists like Nelson Herbert combine off camera flash with high shutter speeds such as 1/2000. Here he's puncturing a balloon he filled with water.

Your choice of shutter speed may be affected by your lens. Some lenses have a set or minimum aperture. If your camera setting is on S (or Tv) then that means you have control over your shutter speed but the camera is picking a suitable aperture for you. If your lens says your aperture range is only (for example) f4-f22 then you may be limited in what the camera will let you choose as a suitable corresponding shutter speed.

jetty, revisited

© Charlie Watkins 2011

How do I do that?
Have you seen a photo on Flickr and wondered whether it was a long or short shutter speed? Viewing the Exif data can give you an indication of exposure.

Shutter speeds and flash photography.

Ever taken a photo and seen a big black mark across it and only a small section of the photo? This is caused by the shutter speed not being in the flash’s sync range. Your flash sync range is unique to your camera (check the manual) but a rough idea is somewhere between 1/60 and 1/200 second.

The shutter in many SLRs  is a focal plane shutter. This is two ‘curtains’ that overlap. Your shutter is closed whilst you’re composing a picture. When you push the shutter release, the first shutter moves across and leaves an opening for whatever amount of time you’ve set the shutter at. Then the second curtain races across and closes the aperture hole again. There are also lenses that use leaf shutters built into the lens instead of into the camera body. These are generally seen on view cameras, many point and shoot cameras and some medium format cameras.

If your shutter speed is too fast for the flash syncronisation, then the shutter is trying to close before all the light illuminating the scene has reached the film or sensor. That’s why with a focal plane shutter you sometimes get a black image with an older style camera or in the case of some modern cameras, it will stop you taking the photo altogether.

Have further questions? Please leave a comment and I’ll try to assist or put you on track to someone who can.

In future tutorials we will look at ISO, exposure and putting it all together in manual mode.

For further reading I suggest:


5 thoughts on “A brief introduction to shutter speeds

  1. Pingback: A flash of improvisation (tutorial) « Blackcurrant Photography – Perth, Australia. Fine art, creative portraiture, nature photography & Australian gifts.

  2. Pingback: Intro to The Zone System & exposure « Blackcurrant Photography – Perth, Western Australia. Blog, portraiture, gifts, souvenirs and fine art photography.

  3. Hey – nice piccies 😉

    You’re right – shutter speed is one of the most powerful creative tools a photographer has. Aperture is kinda ‘obvious’ and has one one kind of effect really – blur, or sharp.

    The thing I love about about shutter speed is the total control of the light and what kind of photo that the camera actually ends up recording. When used outside the bounds of ‘normal’ operation, thats where the creativity really comes into play. Slow shutter with people walking and you get an impression, an abstract of that moment. Slow shutter and pan the camera at the same speed as moving car – like the sports photographers do it – awesome blurred backgrounds and pin sharp motion of the subject. Both are kinda un-intuitive, but both cases produce amazing results.

  4. I’ve just had a read over this tutorial and I like it just as much as the aperture one! It does help to refresh my memory. You’re right, this isn’t something you can just learn overnight – you just need to get out there and practice, practice, practice! You need to know & understand your camera and use it in a variety of lighting situations, and on different kinds of subjects – still life, action, portraiture, etc. I can’t wait to get my DSLR – I’m going to have so much fun! I have both of your tutorials bookmarked and will refer to them as needed! 🙂

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