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.
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.
The bedroom is dark because the window shutters are closed.
Then the window shutters are opened up, letting sunlight into the room.
The room then becomes bright.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Choose a slow shutter speed of about one-second to show the blur of cars moving down a city street at night.
If you are in a city like the photo below, make sure that you use a tripod to keep the background buildings sharp.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes photographers will use their smartphones as stop-watch timers to monitor how long it takes to create their low-light photo.
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.
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.
If you choose a shutter speed that is greater than your flash sync speed, a section of your photo may turn out black.
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!