Understanding how to use your camera shutter speed is a crucial step in elevating your photos. Shutter speed controls the amount of light aloud to pass through to your camera sensor and controls the image blur and sharpness of moving objects. Here’s how to get the most out of your shutter speed.
Why is Understanding Shutter Speed Important?
Understanding how to have full manual control of your camera is important. That’s the difference between a “photographer” or just a “photo-taker“. Photographers take control of these manual settings to create photos of places, people or things in a way that’s specific to their vision. With no understanding of shutter speed and manual camera controls, your ability to manipulate the camera and have the camera work for you, and your vision, is almost impossible.
In the outdoor space, shutter speed is really important to understand because typically the only light source you have is the sun or moon. Considering those light sources are ever changing, you need to utilize your shutter speed to get a “correct” exposure.
A correct exposure is when your light meter or exposure meter is at 0. 0 is your camera’s way of communicating to you that your image is neither under exposed, or overexposed.
Another unique aspect of outdoor photography is motion. Many subjects you might find yourself photographing outside are fast moving. Examples include wildlife, trail running, waterfalls, the list goes on.
Shutter Speed and Exposure Time
Think of your shutter as an eyelid, and the camera sensor as the pupil. When the shutter opens to take an exposure, the available light will hit the camera sensor. If the your shutter speed is set to 1/50th of a second, the available light will only be exposed to the camera sensor for that long. If you set your shutter speed to 2 seconds long, the same is true.
The available light will ultimately dictate how long you need your shutter to be open, providing sufficient light to your camera sensor for a “correct exposure”. Example, if the sun is setting and the available light is limited, 1/50 of a second might be sufficient. Where as if you’re photographing a subject midday with no cloud coverage, you might need to shoot at 1/1000th of a second to limit the abundance of available light reaching your camera sensor.
Brief Overview on ISO and Aperture and How They Affect Shutter Speed
ISO is available to you if you require more light but you don’t want to have your shutter speed be too slow. Example, if you’re photography wildlife at dusk. You will require a fast shutter speed so your subject isn’t blurry as the wildlife quickly moves through your frame.
Aperture behaves like a dilated pupil. You can control the size of the opening for the available light to pass through. The smaller the opening eg. f/22 – the less light will squeeze through to your camera sensor. The larger the opening, eg. f/2.8 – the larger the whole that the available light can pass through. The gives you some extra flexibility if you wish to have a slower shutter speed eg. 1/30 but there’s too much daylight therefore over exposing your photo. If you use your aperture to close down to say f/18, you’ll be able to achieve a correct exposure.
How to Use Fast Shutter Speeds
There are endless examples of how you might utilize fast shutter speeds in the outdoors. Motion and action is a large part of photography outside. Let’s use those as examples.
If your goal is to achieve sharp photos of a fast moving subject, you will require a fast shutter speed. The faster the subject is moving, the faster your shutter speed will have to be to quickly capture your image and freeze your subject in motion.
Variables to consider is distance and focal length. A subject running through your frame from 10 feet away at 35mm will fill your frame and require a much faster shutter speed than a small subject 100 feet away while you’re using a focal length of 16mm.
As a rule of thumb and helpful starting point, I recommend you use these shutter speeds as a minimum to achieve sharp photos (premium content):
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How to Use Slow Shutter Speeds or “Long Exposures”
Long exposures can be used creatively to create motion blur which helps communicate motion to the viewer rather than perfectly freezing a moving subject. Other ways you can utilize a slower shutter speed include night photography or long exposure photography. Long exposure photography is how you can make slow moving clouds in the sky look like they’re moving and stretching across the horizon.
You can also use a slower shutter speed to move the camera and track a moving subject to make the subject sharp while the background blurs as a result of you moving your camera at the exact speed as the subject you’re tracking. This is a creative option to make otherwise boring photos have a lot more life to them. It also insinuates speed and motion because it feels like the subject is moving fast.
Night photography is where you will begin to introduce longer exposures like 10-30 seconds long. The available light outside at night is so limited, the longer exposures are the only way to collect enough available light onto the camera sensor to get a correct exposure after dark. To achieve longer exposure like this though, you will need a sturdy tripod so there is no camera shake.
Waterfalls are also a popular subject matter to photograph with slower shutter speeds so the you can make the water smooth and blurry while the rest of the image is sharp. This technique is a lot of fun and I have an blog dedicated to mastering this here.
Best Shutter Speeds for Handheld Images
Camera shake will ruin your photos. If you are artfully and intentionally creating blurry images, that’s one thing… but undesirable camera shake or image blur is best to avoid at all costs.
Invest in a lightweight and sturdy tripod that you can put in your backpack for times where you wish to slow down your shutter speed. Depending on your camera and the lens you’re using, you might be able to shoot as slow at 1/6 of a second without camera shake. But you’ll have to be extremely intentional. As a rule of thumb, I try not to go any slower than 1/40th of a second handheld.
Practice Shutter Speeds in the Field
Now that you have a working understanding of shutter speed and how to use it to create all kinds of interesting images out, head into field and start paying attention to how shutter speed affect your images.
Try using shutter priority on your camera for a while so you can select different shutter speeds and see how the camera adjusts its’ aperture to compensate. Then try shooting different subject matter from a variation of distances while testing different shutter speeds. Waterfalls are really great for this. You can get instant feedback in your images by adjust your shutter speed which will help you fully understand the power of your camera’s shutter speed.