Shutter Speed Basics

Today we’re going to be talking a bit about shutter speed and how it effects your photography, so if you are new to an SLR camera or typically use it on automatic, this will give you a better understanding about shutter speed.

What is “Shutter Speed”?

Shutter speed refers to how long a camera is letting light hit its sensor while it takes a photo. This length of time is adjusted using the “shutter” on a camera. A shutter on a SLR camera is similar to a tiny set of blinds that open and close to let light through.

Every time a photo is taken on an SLR camera, the shutter moves out of the way to let light hit the sensor when you press down on the shutter button to take your photo, and then the shutter stays open for the amount of time you specify before closing again and finishing the photo. On a side note, that is why the main button on a SLR camera that takes the photos is called the “Shutter-Release Button”

Similar to how wider apertures allow more light through the lens when taking a photo, slower shutter speeds allow light to hit the camera’s sensor for a longer period of time.

Where do find your Shutter Speed?

When you look at the back screen on most SLR cameras, you’ll see that the shutter speed is measured in seconds indicated by the “inch” symbol. If the current shutter speed is set to be quicker than a full second, the shutter speed will be displayed as a fraction of a second.

Entry level, beginner SLR cameras tend to have one screen to show all of the relevant information on the back of the camera, but you are also able to view a very minimal version of your camera settings including the current shutter speed by looking through the viewfinder. The numbers and symbols that light up across the bottom of your viewfinder window will allow you to know these settings without the need to stop taking photos.

When you are using a mid-range or professional SLR camera, these tend to have a secondary screen on the top on the camera that shows basic settings as well without the need to wake up your main screen and save some battery life.

Motion Blur vs Freezing the action

Unless your camera is stationary, like on a tripod, your camera will have more motion blur the slower your shutter speed goes. There are lots of charts that exist out there to show at roughly what speed a shutter can freeze different types of movement, but the best way to learn these settings is to simply take photos with your camera on “Shutter Priority” mode and play around with different shutter speeds with moving subjects.

Typically shutter speeds one second or slower are reserved for long exposure photography. A slow shutter speed or “long exposure” photo is used for things such as astrophotography or making moving water appear smooth.

In these cases, photographers will use a tripod to keep the camera perfectly still while taking the photo so that only movement in the scene they are shooting will appear blurry.

A faster shutter speed is used to freeze fast moving action in like in sports photography or splash photography.

Understanding stabilization

You can get away with taking sharp photos handheld at slower shutter speeds that normal when a lens or camera has optical or digital stabilization included in it. Keep in mind however, that optical/digital stabilization only helps with a shaky camera. It does not freeze fast moving subjects like fast moving athletes or wildlife.

Around half of the camera’s and lens being produced today have some form of stabilization built into them. When a lens has optical stabilization built into it, there is usually a switch on the lens to give you the option of turning the stabilization on or off. I recommend leaving the stabilization on in most cases so that the glass elements in the lens move slightly and help you stabilize your shaky photos. The one time you should remember to turn off lens and camera stabilization off is when you are taking photos on a tripod, otherwise the stabilization can lead to softer images. The same rules apply to camera bodies that have optical stabilization built in, except for with cameras, the stabilization comes from the physical sensor in the body moving slightly to compensate for camera shake.

The general “Rule of Thumb”

A quick and easy rule of thumb for taking handheld photos is to always make sure your shutter speed is the same or quicker than the focal length you are shooting at. If you have any form of optical stabilization turned on you can use even slower shutter speeds, but this is a great starting point for reference. So if you are taking a photo with a 100mm lens, be sure to have your shutter speed set to a minimum of 1/100th of a second.

Thanks for reading and be sure to leave a comment if you found this information useful or if you have any questions!

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