Learn to Use Shutter Speed for Better Photography

Learn to Use Shutter Speed for Better Photography

Photography is an art of endless creativity. It is so much more than just clicking a button and recording what is in front of you. Becoming a photographer means developing the skills to not only capture the scene but to interpret into a way that is meaningful to you as the artist.

It has long been said that the camera never lies. While that may or may not be true, there are many ways to manipulate an image (and I’m not talking Photoshop here) and record your own version of truth.

Shutter speed is one of the many tools available to the creative photographer. Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open during a photograph. Even though the amount of time may seem incredibly short to us, there is a big difference between 1/500 of a second, 1/50 and 1/5 of a second in the finished photographic result.

snow sledding

On older cameras each stop on the shutter speed scale was roughly double the time of the one before it. With today’s digital cameras, shutter speeds have a much wider range, offering even more creative opportunities.

A fast shutter speed will stop action and is especially useful for fast moving subjects such as sports.


A slower shutter speed will keep the shutter open longer, allowing for movement in an image.  The shutter speed you should use will depend on the effect you want to achieve.

carnival pan

A few basics about shutter speed. The slower the shutter speed, the more difficult it is to hold the camera steady and avoid ending up with blurry photos due to camera shake. While 1/60 of a second may sound short, in the photography world it is generally the maximum amount of time the average person can hand hold a camera. New stabilizing technology may extend that to 1/30, but it is still the exception rather than the rule. When using telephoto or zoom lenses, your minimum hand-held threshold will decrease. As a rule of thumb, it is not recommended that you try and hand hold your camera with a shutter speed slower than 1/the focal length (in millimeters) of your lens. For example, if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, you should not try to hand hold under 1/200 of a second.

The solution to this camera movement problem is a simple one. Using a tripod or monopod can help increase your camera’s steadiness greatly. I will readily admit to not loving to lug around a tripod, but it really does make a difference.

One of the most common subjects where I enjoy experimenting with different shutter speeds is in photographing water. As you can see in the two photographs of the river below, shutter speed can play a big difference in the finished image.

river with high shutter speed

river with show shutter speed

The first image was taken at 1/400 second with an f-stop of 7.1. The second image was photographed at 1/13 of a second with an f-stop of f/32. In order to avoid overexposure when using a longer shutter speed, you often need to compensate with a smaller f-stop. To learn more about f-stop, read this post about improving your photography with depth of field.

In addition to making water flow smoothly in a photograph, there are many other creative ways to employ different shutter speed. A slow shutter speed can evoke a feeling of movement such as in this dance photograph. Watching the couple until just the right moment when he was stationary as she did a spin allowed me to shoot with a shutter speed slow enough to catch a little of the “twirl” in her skirt.

wedding dance

Photographing carnival rides at twilight also demonstrates the difference in shutter speeds. The first picture is a standard record shot of a carnival ride. The second one, taken with a longer shutter speed, gives a feeling of the movement experienced by a rider.

carnival still carnival motion

While most sports photographs are created at high shutter speeds to catch the action and the “decisive moment”, a slow shutter speed can be useful to help give the viewer a feeling of speed experienced by the athletes.

panning a skier

One way to use a slow shutter speed to convey a feeling of movement while keeping your subject sharp is called panning. Panning is the technique used to capture the skier above. To pan a moving subject, you need to position yourself so they will cross your field of view from left to right (or right to left). If they are moving toward or away from your camera, panning does not work. Set your shutter speed fairly low (usually between 1/60 and 1/8—and yes, a tripod or monopod is recommended here). Focus on your subject as they enter your field of view and slowly press the shutter as you move the camera with the subject to keep him or her in the same place in your viewfinder all the way through your field of view.

panning a bride and groom on a carousel

As you can see, the background will blur but your subject will remain relatively sharp. This technique takes some practice to master, but can create some very fun results.

Creative use of shutter speed can enhance a photograph’s storytelling power as in this photograph of a bride and groom leaving the church in a shower of rice.

leaving the church after a wedding

Or this photograph of my kids clearly having some fun during a family outing.

jumping for joy

On your next photographic outing, take your camera off the “P” or “A” setting and try experimenting a little with your shutter speed. While you’re likely to end up with a few blurry bummers, you might also find that you can more successfully capture your vision and expand your creativity to make your photography more fun and rewarding.

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