Shutter Speed: Five Things Every Photographer Should Know

Being able to control your camera’s shutter speed allows you much more creative freedom than relying on automatic camera settings. In this tutorial you’ll learn the five fundamental characteristics of shutter speed, and how to use the various camera shutter speeds for full creative control.

Camera shutter speed

1. The Shutter Speed Numbers And What They Mean

The shutter speed numbers are a little confusing at first, but in this section you’ll learn all about shutter speed and what those numbers mean.

1.1 Shutter Speed Tells You How Long It Takes To Create An Image

When you take a picture with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, the shutter suddenly opens to let light into your camera, and then the shutter closes again. When the shutter opens, the picture starts forming on your camera’s digital sensor. When the shutter closes, the picture stops recording and a photo has been created.

Think of the camera shutter as a shutter on a bedroom window.

Camera shutter closed

The bedroom is dark because the window shutters are closed.

Fast shutter speed

Then the window shutters are opened up, letting sunlight into the room.

camera shutter open

The room then becomes bright.

Slow shutter speed

Then when window shutters are closed, the room becomes dark again. Think of your bright room as the time it takes for your camera to record a photograph.

Sometimes the opening and closing of your camera shutter will be very fast, and sometimes it’ll be a little slow. Back to the bedroom window shutter analogy: if you open and then close the bedroom window shutters very quickly, only a small amount of sunlight will fill the room. However, if you open and close the bedroom shutters slowly, much more light will fill the room.

A camera shutter works in a similar way as the window shutter analogy. If the camera shutter opens and closes very quickly, only a small amount of light will enter the camera to create a photograph. This will mean that your photo could turn out dark.

Fast shutter speed

If the camera shutter opens and closes slowly, a large amount of light will enter the camera to create a photograph. This will mean that your photo could turn out very bright.

Slow shutter speed

1.2 Most Shutter Speeds Are Measured In Fractions

Before you start practicing adjusting the various shutter speeds on your own camera, it’s important to know that most camera companies don’t accurately display shutter speed. Here is a list of what cameras usually display in their menu, and also what that number really means:

1 = One second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within one second)
2 = 1/2 second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within half of a second)
4 = 1/4 second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within one quarter of a second)
8 = 1/8 second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within one eighth of a second)
15 = 1/15 second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within one fifteenth of a second)
30 = 1/30 second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within one thirtieth of a second)
~
2000 = 1/2000 second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within one two-thousands of a second)
4000 = 1/4000 second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within one four-thousands of a second)
8000 = 1/8000 second exposure (the shutter opens and closes within one eight-thousands of a second).

You may have noticed that even though a one-second exposure seems very fast, it’s actually a very slow shutter speed compared to 1/4000’s of a second, or 1/8000’s of a second.

1.3 Use Different Shutter Speeds To Allow More Or Less Light Into Your Photo

Take a look at the shutter speed chart below. It explains characteristics of the slower shutter speeds, and characteristic of the faster shutter speeds.

Shutter speed exposure chart

On the left side of the scale you will see the number “1″ which means the shutter stays open for one-second. On the right side of the scale you will see 1/8000, which means that the shutter opens and closes far faster than the one-second exposure.

Below is an example of a photo taken with a one-second shutter speed. Do you notice how the tree leaves are blurry because of windy conditions? Because the leaves were shaking faster than one-second, the camera recorded a blurry picture.

Slow shutter speed

Below is a photo of the same tree, this time with a very fast shutter speed of 1/4000. The leaves are very sharp because the speed of the moving leaves were much slower than the high speed of the shutter opening and closing.

Fast shutter speed

To use different language to explain the fast shutter speed photo above, you could say that the exposure time of 1/4000 was faster than the speed of the moving leaves.

2. What Is Shutter Priority And How To Activate It

Now that you understand the shutter speed scale, its time to get your camera out and give shutter speed a try. The term “shutter priority” means that you are telling the camera what shutter speed you desire. The camera will adjust everything else automatically.

2.1 Switch To Shutter Priority

The first thing to do is to switch your camera’s mode from Auto to Shutter Priority. If you’re a Canon user, rotate the top dial to the Tv mode. While strangely named, Tv is how Canon and a few other camera companies name shutter priority.

Canon shutter priority Tv

If you’re a Nikon user, your dial will be an “S” which stands for shutter priority. Most all other camera companies follow Nikon with the “S” designation.

 

Shutter priority S mode Nikon

Most of the Fujifilm X Series cameras have the shutter speed dial on the top of the camera. By adjusting this dial, and setting your lens to the “A” mark, your camera will be in shutter priority mode.

Fujifilm Shutter priority

2.2 Learn To Adjust Your Shutter Speeds

Each camera has a different menu setup for adjusting shutter speeds, however they almost all have one thing in common: the shutter speed scale. Some cameras will start at one-second and go faster up to 1/4000’s of a second. Other cameras start at 30 seconds and go all the way to 1/8000’s of a second.

Turn on your camera’s menu and you should be able to adjust your shutter speed either faster or slower. Check your camera manual if you can’t figure out how to adjust the shutter speeds. Most newer DSLR’s including Nikon and Canon have touch-screens on the back, which make shutter speed adjustments easy.

Most of the Fujifilm X Series cameras have a physical shutter speed dial on the top of the camera. On this dial, the number “1” represents the slowest shutter speed (one-second), and the number 4000 represents the fastest shutter speed, 1/4000’s of a second.

Shutter speed dial Fujifilm

2.3 When You Should Use Shutter Priority

There are many reasons to choose either a slow or fast shutter speed. Choose a fast shutter speed such as 1/500 or 1/1000 to freeze swaying trees if they are being blown around by the wind.

Fast shutter speed

Choose a slow shutter speed of about one-second to show the blur of cars moving down a city street at night.

Fujifilm 1 second shutter speed

If you are in a city like the photo below, make sure that you use a tripod to keep the background buildings sharp.

Slow shutter speed with tripod

Choose a very slow shutter speed of about 30 seconds to get a nighttime photo that includes stars. Again, a tripod will be needed for this type of nighttime photography.

Very slow shutter speed with tripod

3. What The Bulb Setting (“B”) Means And How To Use It

The “B” setting in most DSLR and mirrorless cameras stands for Bulb. To use bulb mode, set your camera to the B setting. Each camera model has a different way to access the bulb mode, so you may need to read your camera’s manual to locate it.

If you are a Fujifilm X Series mirrorless camera owner, the bulb setting is easy to find. It’s on the shutter speed dial on the top of the camera.

Bulb setting Fujifilm

When you have found the bulb setting, press and hold the shutter release button. Don’t let go of the shutter button, but keep pressing firmly until you are ready to stop the picture.

The camera will digitally record the scene in front of you, and will let more and more light into the camera for as long as you keep the shutter release button pressed down. The B mode is very good for creating pictures before sunrise or after sunset.

Bulb shutter speed

A tripod was used in the photo above because it was quite dark on the beach. If you have a similar scene with moving water in the late evening or very early morning, put your camera on a tripod and on B mode. Press the shutter button to take the photo.

Let go of the shutter button anytime that you like. You’ll probably find that by holding the shutter button for 20 to 40 seconds will produce good results, depending on how dark it is outside. If your photo turns out to be too bright, try again but let go of the shutter button much sooner.

To summarize, B mode means that your camera will record the picture for as long as you keep the shutter release button pressed down with your finger.

4. What the Time Setting (“T”) Means And How To Use It

The “T” mode (aka Time Value) for most DSLR cameras is almost identical to the B mode, however it’s much more convenient. Instead of having to physically hold down the shutter release button, all you need to do is click the shutter release button once and then let go of the camera altogether.

When you are ready to stop the photo-taking process, press the shutter release button once more, and the camera will stop taking the picture. The T mode is ideal for a night time photo that could last for several hours. This photo of the Milky Way and electrical pole took about one minute to complete by using the T mode.

Shutter speed T mode

Sometimes photographers will use their smartphones as stop-watch timers to monitor how long it takes to create their low-light photo.

Shutter speed stopwatch

5. What “250x” Means For Flash Photography

On most DSLR and some mirrorless cameras you will see a little ‘x’ next to one of the shutter speeds. The ‘x’ refers to what’s called the flash sync speed. ‘250x’ is the most common flash sync speed.

Shutter speed 250x Fujifilm

For photographers who like to practice flash photography, the flash sync speed is very important. If you’re using shutter priority and your flash, your shutter speed must be at, or below, your camera’s flash sync speed.

Shutter speed flash Sync Scale

If you choose a shutter speed that is greater than your flash sync speed, a section of your photo may turn out black.

Shutter speed sync Blacked Out

Using different shutter speeds is both an art and a science. To summarize this tutorial, manipulating your camera’s shutter speed is good for windy conditions and dark areas.

Even though it was fairly dark when the photo below photo was taken, with a long exposure the picture turned out nice and bright. Don’t forget to use a tripod, and have fun becoming a shutter speed master!

Shutter speed scenics

  • Lois

    This is a great tutorial Emil! I always learn something or I’m reminded of something that I forgot!

    • Mark Hemmings

      Hello Lois, I’m glad you could get something out of the tutorial! I have many more to come. All the best!

  • Natascha

    Maybe there’s hope for me to finally understand my Rebel better!

    • Mark Hemmings

      Thank you Natascha for your comment, I appreciate it! Your Rebel is a very good camera and will serve you well. Keep in contact, and have a great weekend! – Mark Hemmings

  • Jay

    Fantastic info, in very understandable terms!! Thanks so much!

    • Mark Hemmings

      Thanks Jay for your kind words! I have many more tutorials coming up, plus some courses on DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. Keeping checking back to the website for more info soon. Have a great day! – Mark Hemmings

  • Elaine

    Love your blog.
    thanks for all the great articles.

    • Mark Hemmings

      Thank you for the great feedback Elaine! I appreciate it very much. More to come 🙂 – Mark Hemmings, Photography Pro

  • Jenni

    Excellent tutorials Mark. They are so clear and easy to follow. I really love how you demonstrate your point with superb photos.

    • Thank you Jenni for your very kind comment, and I’m glad my photos translate well into a solid tutorial. Many more to come in the future, thanks for checking back. Have a great day! Mark Hemmings – Photography Pro

  • Karen Darke

    brilliant, loved the shutter option to understand the shutter speed……lets hope i can do some ok work…….love all the information, thank you so much
    Karen

    • Thanks Karen for the encouragement comment! I’m glad that my window shutter analogy worked 🙂 Have a great day, and happy shooting! Mark Hemmings – Photography Pro

  • Debra Williams

    This is a great tutorial, Mark! I loved your analogy of a shutter on a bedroom window to explain shutter speed. I can’t wait to go out and take photos

    • Hi Debra, thank you so much for the kind words! Its comments like yours that encourage people like us to keep writing 🙂 All the best! Mark Hemmings – Photography Pro

  • Susan

    Excellent info .. Thank you

    • My pleasure Susan! Mark Hemmings – Photography Pro

  • Penny L Gaither

    Thanks, Mark!. Excellent teaching! Great examples given in step by step fashion. Your explanations make the concept far simpler than anyone has ever explained it.

    Please keep sharing!

    Penny

    • That is so good to hear Penny, thanks for the encouragement, and yes there will be much more to come 🙂 Mark Hemmings – Photography Pro

  • valda m hempel

    Thankyou Mark for explaining our camera settings in such understandable ways and the pics enhance what you are telling us. I feel I’ve already got a much better understanding of how to use my camera to its best advantage. Please continue with your site and hopefully we will all become somewhat masters of our cameras. sincerely…

  • Dulce

    Thanks Mark! You explained everything so well. I love the shiutter-window analogy and photo examples.

  • Kunal Rathod

    thank you mark. now i am very clear about shutter speed.thanks again.
    please make articles on apreture,iso,exposure,focus & white balance.

    • Those topics will certainly be posted in the future Kunal, thank you!

  • Jane Holt

    Excellent explanations and photos. Very clear. Thank you, Mark.

  • RandyG

    Great examples! You made this easy for me to remember and understand. Thank you!